MOVIE REVIEW: THE DEN / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR: ZACHARY DONOHUE / SCREENPLAY: ZACHARY DONOHUE, LAUREN THOMPSON / STARRING: MELANIE PAPALIA, PAT REIDY / FRIGHTFEST PREMIERE DATE: AUGUST 22ND
A Woman Witnesses A Murder Online. You Won't Believe What Happens Next. Conducting a study on internet chat programme The Den (Chat Roulette by another name), Elizabeth delves deep into the murky world of video-based social media. Predictably, she finds little at first but gyrating genitalia and self-abusing sleazeballs. It's not long before she stumbles across her first murder.
Investigating the apparent crime, Elizabeth is unaware that she is unwittingly closing in on her own confrontation with the killer. What makes the story even more compelling is the manner of its presentation: comprised almost entirely of webcam and video chat footage, complete with whatever open windows, e-mail and spam are also running on her screen at the time. Yes, it's found footage, but it uses the format so well that it's hard to begrudge the film its little lapses into cliché.
The jump scares are almost constant, from its (predictably arch) opening gambit to its more genuine, brutal shocks towards the end. Melanie Papalia is a likeable lead as Elizabeth (possessing the sort of wonderfully expressive face which works so well for found footage); a vulnerable leading lady with enough intelligence and strength to not be a complete damsel-in-distress throughout. She is mostly a damsel-in-distress, but at least she gets a good few licks in first.
Presented so matter-of-factly, with a creepy understated realism, The Den is the best thing the subgenre has produced in years. Compelling, discomforting and frequently witty, it's a lovely change of pace from the repetitive, derivative supernatural and urban legend-inspired movies that the found footage movement has been churning out for a while now. And, until we can come up with a word that describes what The Den is, found footage will have to do. Best of all though, its presentation doesn't feel like a gimmick; being well-employed by the story in a (mostly) organic manner that serves to accentuate its scares rather than distracting from them. Even better, it doesn't save all the good stuff until the last five minutes – keeping as steady a handle on its pacing as it does on everything else.
The Den isn't without its problems – logistically, it's hard to keep track of where the cameras are supposed to be and who's operating them, while the film inevitably struggles to justify the characters constantly recording their actions. Still, such problems are easily forgiven. The Den is a rarity – a found footage horror film that actually feels original.