Movie Review - The Den
Just released in theaters and on VOD, Zachary Donahue's directorial debut, The Den, is an experimental take on the extremely over-used found footage style of film making. The movie starts off extremely strong, though it falters due to a few missteps along the way. Still, I applaud the director for his inventiveness, it was an bold approach that made it interesting enough to stand out from some other recent films released in the same style. Overall I enjoyed the film a great deal. Although I viewed it at home, I would be willing to bet that this one is better experienced in a crowded theater. ***UPDATE - I ended up seeing it in the theater as well, and it was a much more intense. I recommend trying to catch it in the theater, and if you can't, try watching it on your laptop. Either way, the film may have a few flaws, but it sure was a damn good time. It's available on iTunes and VOD if you can't find it in theaters.
Elizabeth is a graduate student of social media studies. She receives a grant for her work, which essentially consists of spending all of her waking moments logged into TheDen.com (a faux chat roulette site) meeting and interviewing people from across the world. Things seem to be uneventful at first, until a series of strange encounters with a particular user escalate and Elizabeth witnesses the live feed of a bound woman murdered on camera. Unsure if the video is real, she contacts the police. When the police seem unable and unwilling to help, she takes it upon herself to investigate using the help of her friends, and in the end it ends up putting her and everyone she loves in mortal danger.
Lead actress Melanie Papalia carries most of the movie here, bringing a naivety and sincerity to the role of Elizabeth that makes the premise work. In fact, the first forty or fifty minutes of the film are pretty god damn scary. Papalia is charming and versatile, and her sustained believability only adds to the swelling sense of dread that the director creates. I also give her credit for convincingly playing both the terror and the fearlessness of the character, and not giving us another helpless victim. I think this girl has found her genre.
First time director, Zachary Donahue, has all the makings of a talented young risk-taker with a lot of promise. I commend his clever concept, and think his ability to build suspense is pretty remarkable considering he's new at this. But as is the catch with almost all found footage style films, he isn't totally able to stick the landing, per se. The first two-thirds of the film are near perfect. But in the third act, the concept began to falter for me. As we finally begin to venture outside and see Elizabeth's friends, the POV shifting begins to make the style seem forced, and loses some of it's impact. In fact, the final act of the movie feels a bit out of character with the rest of the film. So by the time motives are revealed in the end, they seem to lack the emotional punch they should deliver. Though that's not to say that it isn't fun from beginning to end.
Overall, despite a little unevenness, I did enjoy this film. I found it had a ton of jump scares and good laughs to make it a worthwhile viewing experience. Certainly not perfect, but I think that we may be seeing great things to come from both Donahue and Papalia in the future. In the meantime, if you're a fan of the genre, you might wanna give this one a shot. And if you get the chance, either see it in the theater or watch it on your laptop, it will add to the creepiness.
- Leo Francis