The internet is a vile, abhorrent, perverse beast. Need proof besides the countless websites of illegal pornography, shared videos of actual human deaths, and constant accreditation of the “Brony” culture? Please, look no further than a brilliant idea turned into a cesspool for perverts – Chatroulette. Don’t lie, we’ve all gotten hammered one night (many nights) in college and scoured this video chat service looking for some debaucherous internet lulz, only to stumble upon an endless parade of naked men beating their meat for the world to see. Give a man the technology to communicate with any inch of the globe on command, promoting cultural knowledge and uninterrupted encounters with countless interesting people, and all he’ll end up with is a sticky keyboard apparently. Right, and you’re going to argue that society isn’t screwed?
Enter Zachary Donohue, a first time writer/director who noticed the inherent evils that come with a program like Chatroulette, creating his own horrifying story of internet invasions called The Den. Our title also doubles for the Chatroulette-type program Donohue invents, and the devilish playground that our main character Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia) chooses to study. After applying for a graduate grant and ultimately winning the opportunity, Elizabeth readies herself for a sociological experiment where she’ll study the habits of webcam users day in and day out while surfing The Den. Talking to as many users as possible, Elizabeth hopes to reveal behavioral bits that only the internet can expose – but one night changes everything when she witnesses what could be an actual murder on camera. Becoming entangled in this video chatting nightmare, Elizabeth believes the death she saw was real, and the murderer could now be targeting her – but the police can only do so much with little evidence. Is Elizabeth going insane, or did she stumble upon a section of the internet no one should ever discover?
The horrors of The Den start with male vulgarity but quickly turn into a chilling scenario of cyber hacking, voyeuristic spying, and real-life endangerment. We watch the horror unfold from Elizabeth’s laptop mostly, as she’s either chatting with random users or being hacked by her stalker, signifying a terrifying lack of control and utter helplessness.
While one might wonder how a movie can create genuine horror through simple Skyping, Donohue navigates his way around Elizabeth’s screen while playing off true fears of vulnerability. You’re naked while video chatting. Back turned, lights off – anything can happen behind you and reaction time alone wouldn’t be enough to save your life. Same goes for chatting with someone and witnessing the unthinkable – a home invasion while distracted by technology. It’s not the first time video chatting has seen horror fame (V/H/S or Paranormal Activity 4), but it’s easily the best. The Den balances situational, factual comedy with true, invading scares, capitalizing on our tech obsessed nation.
Melanie Papalia (especially) and company put on a gripping, convincing performance as the subjects of Donohue’s bigger game, and it’s our director who creates some pretty gruesome horror gore that our chatters are forced to witness. The Den establishes danger early and often as Donohue delivers some disgusting (yay!) kills, opening doors to a much more sinister plan. We find out that Elizabeth’s discovery is not simply one single killer, but multiple masked assailants, and their spider-web like reach spins out of control into a much broader, superbly uncovered ending. Donohue starts simple and builds into a unique horror game of sorts, blending suspense, chills, and “torture porn” horror that’s not simply just for squeamish exclamations, but edge-of-your-seat tension.
The Den exploits “big brother” paranoia in ways we couldn’t believe, creating a true urban legend scenario that blows other hopeful technology-based horror films like Smiley clear into cyberspace. Software like Chatroulette and The Den allows people to explore the unknown from the safety of their homes, highlighting the lifestyle of a modern internet troll, but what if that safety was removed? What if the crazy bastard on your computer screen was triangulating your position, scrolling through your own personal information, and accessing your personal web camera during your most intimate moments?
Zachary Donohue scores big with The Den, executing on a strong gimmick at a speedy, flowing pace. The scares are real, the obsession warranted, and the horror unsettling – yet undoubtedly true. Click around the bowels of internet Hell one day, I dare you. There are monumentally dark places on the internet society just shouldn’t uncover, and The Den is one of them – but you’re going to watch it anyway, and I can’t blame you. Safe chatting, everyone!
The Den is a pulse-pounding bit of techno horror that somehow makes the internet even more horrifying than it already is.