I really thought my luck was improving again… then the second half of this movie happened. This movie was quite the rollercoaster ride… and not in a good way. I really enjoyed the first thirty minutes of this movie. It seemed like it was trying to do something… then, for the last forty-five minutes, it devolved into a by-the-books, mean-spirited Torture-porn movie. At one point I had to check the clock because I could not believe there was still twenty minutes left… this is especially shocking since the movie has a running time of seventy-six minutes.
At its core, The Den is a Found Footage Slasher movie. However, it takes a novel approach to the genre by having it set (almost) completely on digital media (mainly laptops and the occasional cell phone). The plot revolves around a young graduate student (I assume) who applies for a grant to study individuals on a social media video chat site call The Den (think Chat Roulette). After spending a short time randomly clicking through users, weird things begin to happen… mayhem ensue. I admit, not my best summary. I had two options, either go into detail about the overly complex plot or keep is simple. If the movie ended up being as promising as it started I would have happily written more… but since it turned into such a disappointment, I ddin’t have the heart to write anything more.
Let me begin by saying I connected with this movie from the jump. This probably has something to do with the fact that a large part of my dissertation revolved around the analysis of profiles on the social media website MySpace (anyone remember that). I was even willing to overlook the clear lack of understanding of academia (i.e. the misuse of the term IRB, the recording of participants without their consent, etc). In addition, it was an interesting take on the Found Footage Film genre and the filmmakers (writer/director Zachary Donohue with co-writer Lauren Thompson) took advantage of this approach. The majority of the movie takes place on a computer screen and I have to say I’m surprised with how little this distracted me. When the movie began, I thought I wouldn’t be able to get into it… but I fell in almost immediately. I’m not sure if this is due to the fact that we spend so much of our day staring at screens, or if this format is actually superior to the usual front-facing cameras used in the Found Footage genre. I’m guessing it’s a combination of the two. Let me speak to the advantages of this technique before we move on. First, it allowed the filmmakers to provide the audience with exposition in an expedient and logical way. Through the use of multiple screens on the laptop screen (which, again, isn’t as distracting as you would think… hell, I have like four screens open while I’m writing this) information could be provided through emails, chats, and video calls. I was surprised with how well this worked. Second, because the protagonist was involved in video chats we were able to see her face as well. This improved on one of the most common weaknesses of the genre: the faceless, unrelatable, and sometimes completely forgettable camera-person character. Next, and related to the first strength, the filmmakers would occasionally use one screen to distract you as something happened on another. In my opinion the filmmakers did not use this technique as much as they should have… or even in the ways they could have. I was expecting the movie to have more jump scares than it did. Finally, the filmmakers even tried to address the most dogged problem with the genre: namely, the why-the-hell-is-the-camera-still-on issue. While they made a valiant effort (through the use of computer hacking and motivations on the side of the antagonist) it still rang hollow.
As I mentioned above, the first thirty minutes of this movie had me. I was excited to see where it was going. It took its time setting up the major crux of the horror. In fact, the filmmakers took advantage of prankster nature of the internet… there are quite a few fake scares and (some hilarious and some thuddingly-stupid) jokes that distract the viewer from what is going on. It really makes me sad (and that’s not hyperbole, I really am sad about this movie) that this promise was so thoroughly squandered in the second half of the movie. Once the antagonist is revealed (and all I mean by “reveaed”l is that we’re aware that something is stocking the protagonist) the stupidity begins. We are left with a protagonist that has fairly solid proof that horrible things are happening and is surrounded by people who won’t believe her. This is fine for a bit, but after nearly twenty minutes of this it becomes unbelievably frustrating. Add to this the fact that the last twenty minutes devolves into a Saw/Hostel rip-off that strains the found-footage conceit and you’re left with a nearly unwatchable mess. I’ve spoken in previous posts about my general dislike of the Torture-porn sub-genre of horror movie (hence the use of the term “porn” (from the less common definition of pornography “the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction” (Merriam-Webster))). Of course there are exceptions to this (I’ve spoken about my appreciation for Hostel), but this movie doubles down to the point of feeling more like a snuff film. When you have your protagonist forced to watch people being murdered on a computer screen with no ability to intervene (especially when these murders are pre-recorded) it is extremely disturbing (and not in a good way (if you want to know what I mean by the phrase “good way” watch the eye scene from Hostel). This disturbing feeling continued through the end of the film and really just left me feeling like I needed to take a shower (which, I actually did). I don’t want to come off like a prude here (seriously though, I’m write a blog about horror movies and have written some pretty gruesome scenes myself (including a disembowelment scene that makes me a little scared of myself (joking (mostly (it was actually inspired by a passage from Jurassic ParkI (so, blame Michael Critchton (hey, quick fun-fact, who here new that Michael Critchon was a climate-change-denying nutbag?)))))… the ending came across as equal parts gratuitous and preachy.
Seriously, can I please get a horror movie that not trying to get a message across? Maybe next week.