“Papalia is center stage through much of the picture and exudes a natural, believable charisma that provides us with a protagonist in which we can invest.”

by Rob Rector

Chatroulette and Omegle may have lost their initial luster of curiosity and descended into wretched den of scum and perversity, but that their darker corners echo on in the new thriller The Den.

Someone should phone Gregory Plotkin (the director of the upcoming fifth installment of the unending Paranormal Activity films) and tell him to break out the steno pad and jot down some notes. This is how you do online horror.

First-time writer-director Zachary Donohue tosses us down the rabbit hole of online video chat, in which dancing penis puppets and bearded freaks and bikinis are likely the most “normal” things we may experience. Graduate student Elizabeth (played by Melanie Papalia) thinks a similar video-chat website, The Den, would be an awesome social sandbox for her thesis. So upon receiving a grant, off she goes to spend her life monitoring the minions of maladroit inhabitants within.

The Den
Directed by
Zachary Donohue
Cast
Melanie Papalia, David Schlachtenhaufen, Matt Riedy
Release Date
14 March 2014
Rob’s Grade: A-


She intend to shed light on behaviors of those who use the site as a second home, requiring her to spend the majority of her waking time randomly connecting with strangers, but also tries to keep her footing within her real-life social network by texting, Skyping, Face Timing and chatting with her true friends while doing so.

The experiment takes an abrupt turn when she thinks she witnesses a murder online with one of her fellow participants. She soon finds herself deeper within The Den’s bowels than she ever planned to be and it just may jeopardize her own life and the life of her close friends.
It’s essentially an update of the classic noir Sorry, Wrong Number but situated within an increasing more voyeuristic age. Since the film is seemingly “compiled” of all Elizabeth’s research time spent online, Papalia is center stage through much of the picture and exudes a natural, believable charisma that provides us with a protagonist in which we can invest. The rest of the cast is equally grounded in their brief roles (which is often an immediate death knell for such set-ups, as they often appear to be reading scripts on an on-screen Word document directly in front of them).

There are also a number of clever little red herrings that immediately call into question, the authenticity of everything Elizabeth is witnessing — a scrutiny that is familiar to anyone who has ever posted a pic on Reddit can attest (“Fake!!!” Nice Photoshop, bro!”). If culminates in a conclusion that feels as real as it does bleak and satisfying.

The Den marks a bold debut that works great on the small screen, or better yet, streamed on your laptop with the lights down. It will certainly make you give pause when that next “friend request” pops up on your screen.