The Den is a horror film inspired by the rise of Chat Roulette and similar random video chatting sites on the internet. Elizabeth receives a grant from her university to study the impact of relative anonymity on conversations in The Den, the film’s cipher for Chat Roulette. She stumbles into a world of unimaginable horror after witnessing a young woman’s murder.
Writer/director Zachary Donahue and writer Lauren Thompson grapple with interesting concepts in their debut feature film. The Den is at its best when it’s dealing with the slow response to new technology by people in positions of authority.
It starts with Elizabeth facing a room (through video chat, of course, to help sell the divide) of older professor types and her younger, more with it, adviser explaining how The Den works. The older academics don’t get it at all. It’s a room of unfriendly, blank faces thinking a young student is trying to take advantage of their grant program for a novelty. It takes hours for the adviser to convince the school to support the project and that support is contingent on constant textual updates.
After witnessing the murder, Elizabeth tries to get justice for the young victim by going to the police; they don’t understand. The most connected officer (also the oldest for grandest effect) immediately dismisses the murder as a hoax and promises the tech division might look at it eventually.
Elizabeth is unsatisfied by this, but should not be surprised. She herself already witnessed all sorts of hoaxes and gimmicks on The Den. From staged jump scares with monsters in closets to an impressive use of squibs to recreate a game of Russian roulette, Elizabeth gets to see all the greatest hits of Chat Roulette-styled viral gags. The notorious nature of this kind of site even leads her friends to dismiss the murder and everything else that goes wrong as a viral prank.
The Den could have been a fascinating indictment of the lack of understanding of new technology by the establishment. The tension in the film comes from Elizabeth’s immediate understanding of the severity of The Den’s worst users targeting her and the lack of compassion and understanding from the university and the police when she tries to get help. These moments cross the line to absurdity at times (apparently someone who understands video chat has never heard of e-mail accounts being hacked), but it mostly works.
The rest of the story is nowhere near as successful. The only novel element of The Den is this old world/new technological conflict and it’s not the focus at all. Instead, we get a by the numbers slasher/home invasion film where Elizabeth is targeted by a masked menace. First her boyfriend, then her friends, then her family are targeted until she’s the only possible victim left. It’s dull and all too predictable.
It’s made even worse by the use of webcams. The quality of the footage is fine. Some of the scares achieved with laptops and cameras turning on by themselves work well enough. Too much of the film is rendered unwatchable by auto zoom/auto color features on the cameras. Any action sequence is reduced to a blur. The finale could be interesting, but you can’t see anything. Further, many of the scenes captured by Elizabeth’s “must stay online” policy just don’t add up. There are too many angles on scenes featuring, at most, two cameras. It’s visual and narrative nonsense.
The Den tries to do something original with its premise, but falls into too many of the pitfalls of debut features. It’s just too unfocused and reminiscent of better films. Focusing on just the tech divide with the cyber-stalking/slasher elements as a background would have been a breath of fresh air in the “Internet is dangerous” sub-genre.