Saturday, March 15, 2014

Chatroom Hell: "The Den" an effectively freaky web-cam nightmare

The Den (2014)
81 min., rated R.

Finding a scary, well-made found-footage horror movie out of the imitative spate can be a little like Chatroulette. In the case of "The Den," writer-director Zach Donohue and co-writer Lauren Thompson seem to have a bit more on their mind than just turning in an exploitative little exercisefor a while at least. If we couldn't already tell, the Internet is a terrifying window into the world. Chatrooms may be less pervasive than they once were, but social media is the replacement. Tech fads aside, the web is here to stay and it doesn't feel any more private or any less fearsome. Well, "The Den," which has a little in common with 2006's Colin Hanks-starring peeping-Tom thriller "Alone with Her," is here to provoke that fear of voyeurism and cyber communication as opposed to physically face-to-face interaction.

To her professor and a table of board members, Los Angeles-based grad student Elizabeth Benton (Melanie Papalia) proposes her social media studies thesis: for the next few months, she will interact with as many strangers as possible, from all over the globe, in order to study an aspect of transparent human behavior. Once receiving the go-ahead and earning a grant for her research, Elizabeth spends all day in front of her computer and logged into The Den, a Chatroulette-esque chatroom that allows her to switch from user to user. From a N.Y.C. biker talking to her on a GoPro to prankish kids with fake monsters in the closet and/or penis puppets to scam artists to Russian Roulette players to lewd voyeurs, she meets, if only for several seconds, a range of people. Meanwhile, Elizabeth can't really make time for her marketing boyfriend Damien (David Schlachtenhaufen), who lives as close as Santa Monica, or her pregnant sister Lyn (Anna Margaret Hollyman), but her computer-savvy friend Max (Adam Shapiro) and gal pal Jenni (Katija Pevec) come over as they please. One night, Elizabeth's computer is hacked and she wakes up to the muffled screaming of "pyagrl*16," a broken-camera user whose icon is a photo of a smiling Mexican girl. The next day, she accepts a video chat from that girl in the photo, but her mouth is taped shut, and she's roughed up and then brutally murdered by a masked figure. She shows the recorded chatbox to the LAPD, who say it looks real, but they don't have the resources to look into it further. Could it just be an online prank? Then, of course, the people closest to Elizabeth begin getting stalked, manipulated, and killed. Why is she being targeted?

Opening on the desktop of a Mac computer and framed entirely as an actual chatroom, with a little leeway for iPhones and webcams, "The Den" might be perfectly freaky viewing on a computer, adding even more immersive verisimilitude. The film starts out light, with a few playful jump scares thrown in here and there, and all the while, what Elizabeth experiences, the viewer experiences. It sure helps matters that Papalia (who starred in last year's amateurish cyber-horror slasher "Smiley") is so photogenic and instantly appealing, an ingenue but a strong-enough presence to carry the proceedings. In playing Elizabeth, she only gets a little dramatic meat, but a little of something is better than forcing her into being just a pretty face who's asking for it. Before it falls into a more standard slasher pattern with a ton of camera-shaking and a scintilla of torturous bloodletting akin to a "Saw" movie, "The Den" is a pretty effective cautionary tale. The setup is generally credible, as long as a team of killers are also savvy in the computer-hacking department, and there is some truth here about the extreme ramifications of chatrooms. In the bargain, the film reaches a startlingly disturbing endgame that few regularly distributed movies would dare to go. Even before then, it works where it should.

Grade: B -

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