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‘The Den’ takes a creepy view of online chat

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The Den

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The new horror movie “The Den” has been popping up on VOD in various markets across the country for the past weeks, and it’s an effective little thriller, perfect for watching on your TV or computer screen. It’s about a young woman who’s studying social media online through a video chat platform called “The Den”. And it isn’t long before she’s witnessed a murder online. It’s a “Rear Window” for the modern age, a cautionary tale about voyeurism and invasion of privacy.

Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia) is a grad student who’s just been given a grant for her thesis project involving the study of social interactions online. And each time she goes into ‘the Den’ she becomes exposed to all sorts of video feed shenanigans from the weirdo’s she encounters. There are horny teen boys asking to see her boobs, costumed freaks looking to shock innocents, and other assorted creeps you don’t want to meet online or in a dark alley. It’s a fascinating microcosm of the human condition, and Elizabeth becomes obsessed with discovering more and more of it.

One day she witnesses the horrible torturing of a young woman who’s bound and gagged. Elizabeth starts to panic, wanting to help but unable to do so. All she can do is watch helplessly as a masked abductor cuts the woman’s throat. Elizabeth is horrified and calls the police. And even though she can replay the ‘snuff’ tape, the cops think it could very well be just a viral prank.

It’s a clever set-up, asking if anything that Elizabeth encounters is the genuine article? After all, haven’t we all fallen victim to online pranks, be they fake ghosts or Jimmy Kimmel’s twerking fire starter (http://usat.ly/1iMCMTN)? “The Den” is savvy about its subject, and director Zachary Donohue has a great flair for all the technical details to make it seem like we’re watching this online as well.

He’s helped greatly by Papalia’s terrific lead performance. She keeps her character likable even when she blows off friends she’s ignoring to concentrate on her work. Papalia has open, earnest eyes that are great conduits for our eyes. And they register all the sights she sees, from the sublime to the ridiculous to the chilling. It’s sharp work, with her face having to do almost all the acting for her.

Then Elizabeth’s study takes a turn for the worse when her computer is hacked. Of course it’s the girl’s killer. And he’s now set his sights on her. He films our heroine without her knowing. He sends a video of her lovemaking with her boyfriend out across the Internet. And he even starts targeting her friends with online pranks and dangerous ‘house calls’.

The script by Donohue and Lauren Thompson keeps most of this ‘found footage’ film from becoming too unbelievable and they manage to find very clever ways for her to keep filming. I wish the same could have been said for most found footage horror (http://uproxx.it/1fWMsLp). The breadth of her experiments ensures she films even when she goes out, though it’s done through her camera phone. And Donohue’s cinematographer Bernard Hunt shoots all the action, inside and out, with realism and a nail-biting sense of tension.

On occasion the storytelling blunders into some unfortunate plot holes and illogic. Would Elizabeth’s best friend really walk into a potentially dangerous and darkened apartment alone and unarmed? Would a policeman be so blithely unaware of his surroundings as to be ambushed, even though Elizabeth is warning him that someone’s creeping up behind him? Would Elizabeth stay in her apartment for one second after intruders have compromised it?

These errors in filmmaking judgment don’t ruin the film, but they do keep it from being a truly top-drawer horror entry. Still, “The Den” does so much right that it’s definitely worth your while. And it’s got a surprising and satisfying ending that is sure to give you the heebie jeebies and ensure sequels as well. It also comes close to setting a record for brevity, clocking in at just 81 minutes. And that’s with its end credits. Heck, you’ve wasted more time than that surfing online, haven’t you?

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