A creepy face in THE DEN

IFC Midnight

You have every right and reason to be leery. The film I’m about to recommend is a horror flick composed entirely of footage captured on webcams, cell phones, GoPros, and more. Even less promising, the images are displayed as video windows on a computer screen. I know. It sounds terrible.

But here’s the thing. The Den is a fantastic slice of A/V horror that handily avoids most of the issues the “found footage” format is saddled with again and again. It’s also legitimately scary, creative, and features a heroine who grows on you like a sexy, spunky, grad school fungus.

Liz (Melanie Papalia) has received a grant to study the people and experience of The Den, a popular online video-chat service that matches up strangers for conversations, interactions, and dick pics. After being pranked a few times by bored kids she witnesses what she believes to be a real murder and calls the police. Nothing comes of it, but she’s thereafter harassed by a particular user capable of infiltrating and controlling her laptop. Soon her friends and family are targeted by the unknown assailant and Liz is forced into an online fight with real-world consequences.

We’re eased into the world of The Den through the usual mix of curious weirdos, pervs, and such, but some early tension also sees release through a couple pranks played on Liz by other denizens of the web. They set the stage well and expose this as a world where the things we see can’t always be trusted, and that becomes the central conflict for Liz as well. People don’t believe her claims, and they have little reason to.

As the action escalates and the violence and scares begin increasing at at alarming rate, the true magic of director Zachary Donohue‘s feature debut becomes clear. You don’t necessarily forget that you’re watching a computer screen, but it becomes an immersive and fluidly-crafted experience. Transitions are smoothly done, moving between email to chat to video, etc, all with simple clicks of the mouse, and soon the gimmick of it all feels nothing at all like a gimmick.

Donohue and co-writer Lauren Thompson manage some other feats too. There are a few truly chilling moments here, the first of which involves the simplistic yet terrifyingly-executed realization that someone has taken control of Liz’s open laptop remotely and powered it on in the middle of the night to watch her sleep. Some of what follows should be expected by genre fans, but the script moves in some aggressive directions that both up the tension and open up the story in unexpected by highly satisfying ways.

Papalia stands out from the usual crowd with both a performance and character filled with energy and smarts. Liz acts, for the most part, like you’d hope a heroine would act. She does everything short of simply unplugging the whole project, and when it comes to it she has the grit to fight back with visible effort.

It wouldn’t be “found footage” without a couple incidents that will have you wondering how/why exactly a certain bit was captured, but a minimal amount of issues are a welcome change of pace. Perhaps it’s due to this only minimally being a “found footage” movie, but those kinds of moments are few and far between.

The Den isn’t up to the level of format/genre classics like the first two [rec] films, but it’s easily one of the best FF-like movies to hit screens in the last five years. It’s a creepy gem that deserves more eyeballs, although let’s be honest. No one’s going to believe me anyway.

The Upside: Wonderfully creepy with more than simple jump-scares; well-acted; moves beyond the typical geography of the sub-genre; fantastic final shot

The Downside: A couple questionable POV moments (ie “how/why is this part being filmed?”)

On the Side: We had a den when I was a kid. My dad rigged a race track/electric train onto a platform that lowered down out of the ceiling, and he surprised us with it one morning. So this movie is my second den-related surprise to leave me smiling.

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