The Den (2014)

Review first published by FilmDivider

Restricting its point of view to the numerous minicams installed in an isolated house serving as a set for a reality show, Marc Evans‘ My Little Eye (2002) used an innovative narrative frame borrowed wholesale from contemporary programmes like Big Brother in order to expose the undercurrent of sadistic voyeurism inherent in then cutting-edge reality television.

The very timeliness that gave My Little Eye its power then is also what, inevitably, dates it now. Perhaps a similar fate awaits The Den, which deals with comparable themes in the similarly zeitgeist-surfing milieu of social media, and marries its form to its content in similarly inventive ways. For now, though, director and co-writer Zachary Donohue‘s assured debut feels as though it is hacking deep into a very contemporary anxiety, in our online age of relinquished privacy and cyber crime.

The Den upgrades classic ‘stranger danger’ to the anonymity of the internet, where reaching out to unknown others can also mean letting them in. It is a lesson that Elizabeth Benton (Melanie Papalia) learns the hard way, after she wins a university grant for a behavioural analysis study that will require her to engage with random users of global webchat forum ‘The Den’ and digitally record all the ensuing interactions.

Amid a drearily familiar parade of web-based pranks, penises and perversion, Elizabeth receives a video clip of what appears to be the brutal murder of a young stranger, known only by her user handle pyagrl*16, and then finds a code-savvy killer – or killers – observing her every online activity and gradually invading every aspect of her reality too.

Not unlike Nacho Vigalondo‘s Open Windows, The Den brings ‘found footage’ into the wired world of social media. For every shot seen in this film, at least until the bleak, Demonlover-esque coda, derives from the interface of a computer’s screen and webcam, interspersed with occasional CCTV or smartphone footage. Any viewers obsessed with the new narratologies afforded by ‘first-person’ footage may initially be troubled by the question of just how and by whom these disparate visual sources come to be edited together, especially after Elizabeth’s own digital record of all her online activity is seen being permanently erased before her very eyes.

Suffice it to say that Donohue comes up with a creepily satisfying answer to this apparent problem, and plays entirely fair with his own chosen format, even as he makes the medium very much a part of his message, and implicates us as viewers in the commodifiable depravity that he explores.

The results are a paranoid thrill ride into twenty-first century manipulation and exploitation, a pseudo snuff film whose very making we witness, and whose impact comes from our awareness of its chilling plausibility. While so many slashers feature young co-eds behaving moronically at every stage, Elizabeth is a model of sensible conduct, immediately and repeatedly contacting the police at the very first sign of online wrongdoing.

What really frightens here is the sense of Elizabeth’s utter helplessness before a nameless opponent who can access, and undo, her whole life with just a few clicks, for a motive, revealed late in the film, that rings awfully true. These are the anxieties of the here and now, no doubt soon to be available as VOD.

Anton Bitel