The Den is a found footage horror pseudo-slasher film written and directed by Zachary Donohue that follows graduate student Elizabeth Benton as she conducts a research project about the different types of people that frequent social media sites. Several days into her project, Elizabeth witnesses what she believes to be the brutal murder of a girl with whom she had previously chatted online. After reporting the murder to the local police, she finds herself the new target of the online stalker. The Den employs a modern spin on found footage, using recorded laptop sessions (of the protagonist visiting social media sites) as the basis for the film.
What initially is so striking about The Den is how applicable the film is to every day life. The majority of readers of this review are likely to have least one social media account, because in this day and age it’s unavoidable. While most social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook rely heavily on user posts and instant messaging, many already have or are in the process of including live video services as well, much like the one featured in The Den. Social media enables users to connect with forgotten classmates, friends who haven’t stayed in touch, and that one great aunt who forgets names but somehow manages to always remember birthdays.
While social media is a priceless mecca to anonymously mingle with people around the world and from all walks of life, The Den illustrates that with this unrestricted access comes the potential for an even greater horrific cost.
The Den opens with a recorded screen capture on a laptop computer session that is revealed to belong to protagonist Elizabeth Benton. Her mouse moves across the screen as she launches a site called “The Den,” also the film’s namesake. In the world created by this film, “The Den” is assumed to be as ubiquitous as Twitter or Facebook, as everyone has “The Den” app installed on their laptops and cellphones.
As Elizabeth browses The Den, she connects with a myriad of strangers and later with a group of professors, who we soon learn are considering awarding Elizabeth a grant to fund a research study on social media. This research project is the filming reason used by The Den to justify whey everything on Elizabeth’s laptop is recorded. At one point, she goes so far as to say “For the next few months I will be logged in to this site 24/7 and my computer will record everything that I see.”
Elizabeth has a program installed on her laptop called “Screen Copier” that records everything that displays on her laptop screen. The phrase “filming” is not used in the traditional sense in The Den, because Elizabeth is using her webcam to stream footage of herself, and the “Screen Copier” application to save digital copies of said footage. It goes without saying that she also has The Den app installed on her cellphone as well, another source of video used in this film.
While the majority of the footage in The Den is obtained from Elizabeth’s webcam (i.e. selfie’s of Elizabeth), there are numerous other video cameras used to capture the found footage presented through her laptop. Footage is captured from other user’s webcams (Elizabeth’s boyfriend Damien’s webcam in particular), handheld and surveillance video cameras used by the antagonists, and at one point a head mounted video camera. While it’s understood why Elizabeth is always recording, the question is raised as to why the antagonists are constantly filming, this question is adequately addressed during the climactic ending to the film.
The Den also includes scenes where Elizabeth uses her cellphone as a flashlight, and while it is slightly unbelievable that she would continue filming at a time like this (yes, her life is in peril), it’s plausible to assume that she simply forgot she was recording. During these particular scenes, the phone’s primary use is not as a camera but as a light source.
The Den offers a believable reason why Elizabeth’s laptop is persistently recording, but the quality of the footage she receives is almost too good for webcam quality. Anyone who has used Skype or Facetime for any appreciable time will understand the frustration of poor connection quality. Elizabeth is supposed to be connecting with users from other countries, it seems unreasonable that every single person she video chats with has a perfect connection. Not once does anyone that Elizabeth converses with have delayed image capture, a frozen screen, or even a corrupted image. It seems odd that The Den is so technologically advanced that it exceeds the bounds of credibility.
As for camera framing, it is entirely believable that Elizabeth will be well framed while on her computer, talking over video chat. Webcams are small, and it is reasonable that she would be sitting directly in front of her computer, thus in perfect view of her laptop’s camera. She does sometimes wander off screen for a few seconds, but it’s always just that – a few seconds. However, even when she is not sitting directly in front of her computer, Elizabeth somehow manages to be framed perfectly, sitting in good lighting. The Den would have been a lot more realistic if the film had adhered to the limitations of current live video streaming technology, and occasionally gave the viewer less than perfect image quality and less than perfect framing.
Found Footage Purity
The majority of The Den adheres to found footage purity standards. The combination of the earlier discussed “Screen Copier” application and Elizabeth’s webcam footage makes it possible for the video to be captured in an authentic manner. Elizabeth often plays music in the background while she video chats with people, lending character to the film’s audio track without breaking the illusion of found footage.
However, towards the end of the film, highly overt sound design is used in a manner that is wholly unsuited for a traditional found footage film. In a series of scenes towards the end of the film Elizabeth finds herself in an abandoned building and the of hum distant machinery can be heard through the video camera’s audio feed. She enters into a particularly disturbing situation, and this background noise crescendos in an unrealistic way. This trend continues as Elizabeth becomes increasingly panicked. The sound design is clearly included to build tension, but it does not fit in with The Den’s found footage motif.
It should be noted that The Den includes a short narrative shot scene at the end of the film, which is included by design, lending a satiric ending to the story. Given The Den’s creative treatment of found footage, the filmmakers could have certainly have come up with an equally creative way to deliver this final scene as found footage.
Although The Den has many characters, the majority of the film’s screen-time is devoted to Elizabeth, portrayed by actress Melanie Papalia. While it’s easy to love a horror movie for its excessive gore or terrifying jump scares, there’s nothing like a well-written character that’s easy to empathize with. Elizabeth is a great protagonist – she’s young, outgoing, and pretty to boot. Her charismatic nature makes it easy for her to converse with complete strangers, and this same charismatic nature makes it easy for viewers to form a connection with her.
Other notable characters include Elizabeth’s friends and boyfriend, all of whom performed well. There characters are not given nearly as much screen-time as Elizabeth’s to stew and develop, but they’re all believable and add value to the story.
There are horror film plots that move faster than necessary, packed with nothing but action. There are also horror film plots that crawl at a snail’s pace, creeping along in slow-burn fashion. Then there are those like The Den, that mastered the art of a moderately paced but well-balanced plot. Under the guise of her project, Elizabeth conducts all of her social interactions through the social media site, The Den. After she is awarded her research grant to study human behavior and social media, she becomes increasingly obsessed with completing her project, and ends up blowing off both friends and family in the process. Ironically, the majority of social interactions with Elizabeth’s real life relationships are disregarded in favor of fictitious interactions with complete strangers she meets on The Den – Are the filmmakers trying to convey a social commentary on our growing dependency on anonymous online relationships?
Shortly after she begins her project, Elizabeth is confronted with the darker side of The Den. She wades through the hoards of gyrating men, giggling school girls, and actual nice people who want to talk – until she finds one girl whose webcam is broken. There’s nothing particularly scary about this girl’s webcam photo, but it’s slightly off putting, coupled with the fact that the girl seems to be singling Elizabeth out for some reason, trying to connect with her in any way she can. This strangely anonymous girl refuses to turn her webcam on, but insists on conversing with Elizabeth using instant messaging. At one point the girl messages Elizabeth while Elizabeth is in a coffee shop and says “I love coffee too! Let’s be friends.” Every time Elizabeth connects with a new person over The Den, there is a sense of inescapable apprehension – will she be connected to that odd girl’s broken webcam? What will happen next?