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July 12, 2014

The Den

by Franz Patrick


Den, The (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia) is a graduate student who has recently received a grant for proposing to study human behavior on the internet. What better way to capture behavior online than through a Chatroulette-like website called The Den, where people are randomly paired up to video chat with others across the globe. Although the first few days of the study are painfully ordinary, a person with a username of pyagrl*6, location unknown, begins to harass Elizabeth and those she cares about.

I lament when movies with an alluring premise like this comes around and it turns out to be an egregious—almost unbearable—exercise in mediocrity. One gets the impression that the writers, Zachary Donohue and Lauren Thompson, were inspired to create good work about five pages in and then gave up so they resulted to employing premises from sequels of so-called torture porn movies. I found the picture to be a waste of time, energy, and attention.

It does not mean that the movie does not start off well. There are a few silly and amusing moments during the shuffling of strangers on the web. Now, I have never been on Chatroulette or any similar website, but the movie gives the impression that it might be a fun thing to do when one is really bored and has nothing better to accomplish. I do not mean for that to come across as a backhanded compliment but those scenes amused me somewhat.

As far as being a horror picture goes, it does not offer any real scare. I was startled once or twice by a masked figure standing in the shadows but once the shock is delivered, one learns quickly that it is not powerful enough to linger. And then it is onto the next scene where Elizabeth is once again given a chance to look terrified and experience some sort of mental anguish. I grew bored by the pattern. It is rarely broken and when it does, it is either too late in the film or it reverts to formula once a point is made. Clearly the screenplay has run out of ideas.

The writers treat their main character like a piece of meat to be battered. I was surprised by this because half of the duo is a woman. Because Elizabeth is never given a real chance to extricate herself out of trouble or dangerous situations, I began to feel bad about what I was watching. And I do not mean just in terms of violence. When she reports her concerns, not one character is written to believe her. Everyone treats her like she is crazy. The picture is Horror 101 on how not to treat one’s protagonist.

There is a difference between having love for the character despite putting her in danger and a repugnant experience where she—metaphorically—is continuously beaten even when she is down. John Carpenter’s “Halloween” is an excellent example of the former. There are moments when the tables are turned so there are genuine suspense and thrills. Although the odds may not look good for Laurie, we are never blind to the possibility that she can live. Here, we just wait for her to die. How is that a good experience?

The conceit of just about everything being seen through a computer is not all that special and has its own flaws. For instance, when Elizabeth learns that her computer has been hacked, she still continues to use it. When she learns that she is being recorded through her own laptop while away from the computer, she never bothers to shut the lid of the computer. These are not difficult questions. These questions are practical and relevant because the filmmakers wish to make a “realistic” horror picture.

Directed by Zachary Donohue, “The Den” becomes even more unforgivable during the last three to five minutes. Never mind the incompetent screenplay. The fact that it has the gall to hammer us over the head with everything that have transpired being some kind of social commentary is ridiculous. What I dislike more than a bad horror movie is a bad horror movie that thinks it is offering something special when, really, it is trash.

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