MARCH 1, 2014
As much as I love gizmos and tech stuff, I've never found much use for webcams and the like; my laptop came with one built in and I've never used it, and my work phone has one that I turned off. It's not a privacy thing (though I AM afraid of them turning on when I'm sitting there in my underwear, or talking to my cat in a baby voice), but just a lack of interest really - and movies like The Den sure as hell don't make it any more enticing. The title refers to an online service not unlike Chat Roulette, which our heroine is doing a study on when she starts getting weird messages and people start dying. So it's sort of like Smiley, but with one key difference: it's actually pretty good.
Oddly, heroine Melanie Papalia also appeared in Smiley (as the main girl's roommate, if the memory I try to block is correct), so it makes the comparison even more fun. Part of what makes it work (and this will sound ironic coming from me) is that it takes on the guise of a POV/found footage movie, in that just about everything we see is from a web-cam or a cell phone - you'll be looking at a desktop for hefty chunks of the movie, with Papalia chatting over the video thing while also IMing or sending emails. This made the movie a delight to watch on my computer (via screener link - no one will send you a DVD anymore, sadly), as I often had trouble telling her desktop apart from my own (as I was also multitasking on occasion), which was probably part of the point. I wouldn't be surprised if a few of the random video chats she stumbles on (and quickly exits from) were legit strangers, or at least, recreated encounters with people who signed a release form. It's even how plot points get introduced - when she needs a gun, she looks up a Youtube video on how to load it, which plays in one corner of the screen while we watch her try to do it in her chat window.
If you haven't used Chat Roulette, it's kind of fun - you basically sign on and get connected to any random person also using the service. Some folks are there to chat, but most play pranks (guys love to jerk off or dance around in drag, for some reason), which feeds into the narrative of the film. Papalia's character, Liz, gets connected to a girl who mysteriously doesn't have a video but just a photo for her chat sessions, and the encounter is a bit strange. Later, the account shows her what appears to be someone's murder, but given all the pranks she's not sure whether to believe it or not. Of course, when she DOES start believing she's in danger, no one believes her for the same reasons she initially had, so you get a pretty typical paranoia-driven horror thriller, and anyone who saw Smiley will of course be dreading the fact that it IS all a sham. Luckily (inverse spoiler?) it's not - and the body count is pretty impressive by the end, driven up by a couple of effectively unnerving slasher scenes where we can see behind people, or THINK we saw a person in the corner as the camera/phone is waved around by the person holding it.
Having seen some eleven million slasher movies in my life, I'm always impressed when someone tries a way of doing them that essentially paints them into a corner. A traditional slasher sequence will have cutaways, POV from the killer, long shots... this doesn't usually have those luxuries. One in particular is from a woman who is awkwardly holding up a cell camera to her face as she walks around the house, and part of what makes it so scary is that you CAN'T SEE ANYTHING. So instead of the usual "Don't go in there!" type things you want to yell at the screen, you might find yourself shouting "Zoom the camera out!". Plus, and this was something Smiley failed miserably at, the "Den" plot device has a built in way of relieving tension - after a death, whenever Liz signs back on to her computer, there's always another prank or goofy image (a penis puppet makes several well placed "cameos") to lighten the mood a bit.
I just wish it didn't get all torture-y near the end. Even though the MO has been to kill people in their home or whatever, for some reason the villain opts to tie up Liz and another character and bring them to a dungeon. I've seen a found footage torture movie (The Butcher), and I'm not saying it can't work - but it seems out of place here, as if they didn't know quite how to end it but had blown their wad with slasher scenarios in the first hour (it's a pretty short movie, by the way). Another grip is the occasional moment that feels like a supernatural element is in play - I swear a camera just floats itself around the room at one point since the only other accounted for character is in the frame. They also should have introduced the idea of remote desktop control in a normal way, since when the villain does it it just seems like he must be in the room (if you're unfamiliar, it's possible for someone to take full control of your machine from another location - even typing out an email in real time). She has a web-savvy friend that pops up a few times - maybe if he had used the RDC for something legit (it's for IT services) it'd be a smoother transition for when the villain uses it.
Otherwise, I found it to be a pretty effective little movie. Papalia is a lovely presence and easy to sympathize with, and again the base similarities to such a bad movie made this one look all the better. I also loved the epilogue, which does away with the POV stuff entirely in favor of a pretty chilling little stinger that hammers the point home (may be a bit on the nose, but it's nowhere near as much overkill as Serbian Film's final dialogue exchange, which treads the same water). As with Smiley, I don't think Chat Roulette type things are really popular anymore, which dates the film a bit, but with so much anonymous connecting still happening via Facebook, Twitter, and everything else, the general idea is still quite relevant, and unlike say, Chain Letter, none of the tech on display is noticeably dated at the time of release. In five years, The Den might be a relic, but for now - it's a pretty inventive way to worm into the "found footage" craze while actually having something to say.
What say you?