Hello, all! Sorry I’ve been so lax on posting lately, but now that my school is on break, I’ll try to post at least every other day. Lately my pop culture diet has consisted of items I’ve already read, seen, or listened to. You know the deal when you’re too tired to put the emotional energy into watching a new movie or opening a new book? That’s been me for the past month. But now I’m ready to spend the next two weeks taking in every new thing I possibly can. I’m reading Middlemarch, gonna go see Macbeth on Monday, and today I watched something completely new for me: a found footage horror movie I actually…(wait for it) liked.
By liked, I don’t mean I enjoyed the film, because it wasn’t amusing to watch in the least. But while found footage horror movies are usually lazy and predictable, this one kept me riveted and might I say disturbed for a good part of the film. This highly coveted honor goes to the 2014 flick The Den, directed by Zachary Donohue. **Spoilers Ahead**
A good horror movie is not only scary, but reflective of the fears of the present. I can’t say that The Den stacks up well against the greats like Alien or Invasion of the Bodysnatchers , but for a tiny little horror movie, it does a swell job about capitalizing on the fear of the unknown, in this case by using the Internet.
How many times have we heard stories about teens being stalked through social media or police capturing pedophiles on underage porn sites? It seems that by the end of 2015, almost everyone who uses the internet knows that while it is useful, it can also be dangerous. We’ve learned to guard our passwords as carefully as our social security numbers. But what if all that precaution doesn’t matter? What if just by venturing onto the internet, we become vulnerable?
The Den exploits that fear by setting the movie entirely in the realm of the internet. All footage is shown through chats, whether it be from Facetime or Denchat.com, a fictional site which reminds me alot of Omegle. While many found footage movies have trouble providing reasons for their cast to be constantly filming, the ubiquity of Americans glued to their phones makes The Den’s footage highly probable. Not that reality is always necessary in a horror film, but damn if it ain’t refreshing.
Elizabeth Benton, better known throughout the film as her Denchat username ElizabethB, is a student researcher who has been given a grant to study Denchat users. What her study entails is never specified, but her professor assures her that the university officials are signing off on her study in an attempt to be “hipper.” I originally thought this movie had taken place in the 2005-2006 range because of the way everyone seemed so overwhelmed by the internet, but it was actually made in 2014, so I’m confused as to why universities would still consider internet studies to be “hip.”
Despite this anachronistic attitude, the study starts as you would expect. Elizabeth randomly selects people to chat with and most of them turn out to be weirdos, although she does strike up a friendship with a British woman named Brianna. While she’s initially amused, her fun turns sour when she sees what she thinks is an Indian girl being murdered. But when she calls the police and shows them the video, they tell her that despite its realistic appearance, they have no way of tracking the video and no way of stopping it. That video is the first hint of a dark, violent side to The Den. After so many harmless videos, the snuff video comes as a horrific shock. But even more horrific? The law’s apathy.
The theme of reality vs. appearance characterizes most of Elizabeth’s later interactions with the Denchat users. Another video shows what appears to be three friends playing Russian Roulette. The second friend appears to be shot, but wakes up a second later and laughs at the viewer. With videos like these, it’s impossible for Elizabeth to tell whether the first video she saw was real. It’s ironic for the viewer in this sense because even as the police officer tells Elizabeth that the murder “looks real”, we at home know that it’s a movie trick. So what separates this meta-snuff film from real life? Nothing except that we’re in on the illusion.
Despite her apprehensions, Elizabeth continues her study. Her friends beg her to leave her house, but she refuses. And that’s where everything starts to get out of hand. Elizabeth’s webcam changes from a tool of a single perspective to that of an unknown. We watch as her account is hacked, all without her knowledge, and the hacker gains control of her entire computer. He watches her while she sleeps and uses her persona to lure her friends into isolated locations. Elizabeth isn’t even aware of the intrusion until the hacker records her having sex and emails it to every person on her contact list. And she makes the cardinal mistake of internet hacking: she stays logged in. As a fellow internet user, it’s almost painful to watch her oblivion. She doesn’t change her password or buy a new computer. She clicks on unfamiliar links. Her actions on the internet are like the equivalent of a woman walking home alone at night in a shady neighborhood.
But at the same time, you feel sympathy. You all know how difficult it can be to go without the internet; it’s become like oxygen. So even when Elizabeth might have been saved by shutting down, you understand why she doesn’t.
Elizabeth isn’t a wimpy character. As her friends start to disappear, she tries every way she knows how to find them, but it’s no use. She knows only how to use the internet as a tool and no idea of how to use it as a weapon. The dangers steadily worsen as the movie progresses. First Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Damien, disappears mid-chat session (in a car garage no less), then her best friend (from Yours, Mine and Ours!!!) stops answering her calls, and her she watches online as her sister is almost murdered by masked attackers. Luckily, the police reach the home in time, but things start to get steadily weirder. Since Elizabeth is no longer filming on her webcam, we need a new perspective. But where it’s coming from is not clearly explained. In fact, it appears to be coming from one of the cops at the scene, which means that all of Elizabeth’s attempts at finding help are being thwarted from the inside. Not only are they attacking her internet reality, but her real-world reality as well.
The most disturbing part of the film is the last act. After being escorted to her home by a police officer (presumably not the one filming her), Elizabeth packs a bag to leave. Everything seems fine and dandy, but anyone who watches horror movies knows that contrary to popular belief, being watched by a police officer means you are more likely to die. Elizabeth realizes that someone is taping her from an outside camera and finds it in the vent. Then, the lights go black. “Uh oh,” I’m thinking. “You gonna die now.” Thankfully, Elizabeth ain’t no scrub and grabs a steak knife to defend herself. She manages to fight off a few masked men before being knocked unconscious and taken to a mysterious underground facility. Wondering what happened to the police officer? Yeah, he was stabbed to death and chained to her door. Shoot first ask questions later didn’t work this time.
Even in the underground prison, Elizabeth can’t escape the webcam. Damien contacts her and tells her that their every act is being recorded. She’s then sent a video of the murder of her friend Max. They try to communicate further, but Damien is attacked by masked men and the camera goes black. At this point I was seriously worried. It’s not a good sign when the “final girl” of a horror movie is so helpless. But Elizabeth proves herself to be a worthy final girl. She strangles a masked man with her chains and unlocks herself, then takes his knife and fights her way to the outside, which appears to be some trailer park way out in the canyons. I had so much hope. “Maybe she will escape,” thought silly me. Just as she’s driving away, another car plows into her side and the camera goes black.
The movie takes a clever last turn here as we enter yet another perspective. Who’d a thunk that a found footage movie could have not one, not two, but three (THREE!) perspectives? We are now in Brianna’s webcam, the British girl who Elizabeth met briefly online. She gets a call from Elizabeth and watches as Elizabeth, surprisingly not the final girl, is murdered. Does that mean Brianna is the final girl? No, it doesn’t, because just when you think we couldn’t have any more perspectives we get another one and it’s NOT FOUND FOOTAGE. It’s a man on an online snuff-film website. The website tells him that if he wants to see Brianna’s murder, he’ll have to subscribe. That’s the perfection of it all. Not only has Elizabeth been dead this whole time, but so has Brianna, so has everyone, and we’re complicit. We’re the buyers.
I started writing this at noon and now it’s midnight so I’ll be honest and tell you that I forgot where I was going with this. Anyways, all I can say is that this movie disturbed me. My heart jumped when I heard the doorbell ring (luckily it was just some kids from the crew team. Or was it?) because this stuff is too real. Unlike ghosts and vampires and zombies, the internet might actually hurt you. For all you readers know, I’m actually being hacked this very minute.
So anyways, I’ll end with a word of caution. If you go on a seedy internet chat sight, expect to end up dead in a snuff film. No, I’m not exaggerating. Stay safe, fellow internauts. God, I’m never going on Skype again.
If you’re looking for some good chill-out music, here you go! It’s very calming, yet still emotionally stirring.