At some point in the next week, I am hoping to publish a bigger piece in The Vault exploring technology narratives in horror. Our lives are only becoming more intertwined with technology and for technophobes, technology offers a vast source of potential horror. Last week I posted a review of Unfriended, a film with similar themes and the same computer screen and webcam twist on found footage on horror as my film review subject today – The Den. Unfortunately, The Den received a very limited theatrical run before finding its way to Netflix.
Liz Benton is a Sociology graduate student who has just received approval to conduct an ethnographic study at the start of the film. Her study involves observing and interacting with users on a webcam-chat site, The Den, which is similar to Chatroulette. After several harmless encounters with the strangest the Internet has to offer, Liz finds Pyagrl*16, an anonymous account with a broken webcam. When Pyagrl*16’s webcam finally turns on, Liz sees a young woman have her throat cut. Despite the police dismissing it as a hoax, Liz’s life, and the lives of her friends and family, are increasingly threatened by anonymous online attackers
It’s the Internet, You Should Have Expected Something Like This
Much of The Den’s effectiveness is in trading on contemporary fears around the Internet. Over the last decade, digital and social media technology has expanded rapidly. While young adults and children have grown up with Snapchat and Instagram, there are a lot of people who are unfamiliar with and, quite frankly, afraid of the technology. Recent scandals involving Facebook and data-sharing with third-party companies have exposed some fairly insidious surveillance techniques as well as the fragility of our privacy.
The Den wastes little time exploiting these fears by establishing how much of Liz’s life is accessible online
The Den wastes little time exploiting these fears by establishing how much of Liz’s life is accessible online. Director Zachary Donahue’s use of webcams and screen-captures of Liz’s computer allows the viewer to see her emails, chats, photos, music playlists – her entire virtual existence. Before witnessing Pyagrl*16’s death, Liz’s early encounters in ‘The Den’ highlight both the anonymity and the inauthenticity of the Internet. Each encounter doubles down on the idea of just how little of what we see online is what it appears. It’s in this inauthentic virtual reality that The Den’s ‘dangerous others’ lurk waiting the unsuspecting.
Disturbing Content and Interesting Themes Elevate The Den
Released a couple of years before Unfriended, The Den features a much harder-edged take on the same premise. This is a much more violent film and while the visual impact of this violence is limited to some extent by the format, The Den still makes use of its R-rating. There a couple of good jump scares at various points, but The Den largely relies on the shock value of its subject matter. In particular, The Den is a much more cynical and disturbing take on the the dangers of the Internet. Several scenes in the film’s latter half are unsettling and the ending is likely to leave some viewers feeling uneasy long after the final credits roll.
What makes The Den stand out from other FFH films, aside from its twist on the format itself, are the interesting ideas it raises. In addition to exploring fears around Internet anonymity and online predators, The Den asks poignant questions about the voyeuristic nature of our social media culture. There are a number of scenes in The Den that put you in the place of characters, thus serving to implicate you in the violence. At the end of the film, you realize that the film was a streamed event, edited from webcam, phone footage, etc., and that you have been watching an anonymous middle-aged man watch Liz’s narrative. Donahue has made the audience this middle-aged man implicating you in his reveling in watching the violence.
…The Den asks poignant questions about the voyeuristic nature of our social media culture.
The Den Requires a Huge Suspension of Disbelief
Perhaps the biggest problem with The Den is the implausibility of its story. Simply put, The Den carries on a long and proud Hollywood tradition that extends far beyond the horror genre – the myth that the Internet can do anything. Older viewers will recall that the World Wide Web was once even able to make Sandra Bullock ‘unattractive in The Net.
As The Den’s story progresses, it goes from slightly unbelievable to wildly over-the-top. What starts as a dark, intriguing look into the dangers of online privacy and surveillance quickly shifts into a body count exercise. Liz isn’t just tormented by a lone, angry, basement-dwelling computer geek. She is targeted by an expansive network of online trolls running an organized Internet snuff emporium. They can turn her computer on remotely even when it’s shut down, access any information, and use this information to target family and friends. The Den’s antagonists become an almost omnipresent entity, not unlike the supernatural forces protecting Damien in The Omen. This approach worked in Unfriended, which had a supernatural twist to its online premise, but stretches credibility in The Den.
The Den Makes Its Concept Work No Matter How Silly It Gets
For viewers who can buy into the film’s premise and spin on the found-footage approach, The Den offers a dark descent into some of the scariest corners of the Internet. Does The Den exaggerate these dangers? Absolutely. You will have to turn your brain off, particularly as The Den hits its third and final act. Yet The Den makes extremely good use of its computer screen format, creating an increasingly riveting horror experience that stands up to multiple viewings.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B