Fresh from its screening at this year’s FrightFest, The Den is a home invasion movie that avoids tropes and spins a new interpretation on what it means to have your privacy invaded by a mysterious foe.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
Home invasion films have gone through many incarnations in their decade-spanning history. From perhaps the most famous instance of which, when Alex tore through a family’s home in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, to Wes Craven’s sickening, gut punching 1972 exploitation-horror The Last House on the Left, right the way through to Michael Haneke’s deconstruction of the genre and the people that watch (and enjoy) these movies in Funny Games and even last years straight-faced action-packed gore-fest You’re Next bringing things full circle. Not a stone has been left unturned in what is arguably an over-populated area of the horror genre.
At least, that’s what I thought until I watched The Den, Zachary Donohue’s feature-length directorial debut, which brings a whole new creative and modern interpretation to the home invasion sub-genre. Is it possible to have your home and your privacy invaded when there’s nobody actually physically there? Apparently, the answer is most definitely “yes”.
Using nothing but her webcam and software inspired by Chat-Roulette, our protagonist Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia) is undertaking academic research into the habits of chat-room users and records all of her social interactions with hundreds of strangers. Encountering everything from your run of the mill willy-wobbling perverts to elaborate ghoul-in-the-closet pranks, eventually she stumbles upon the only account online worse than Piers Morgan’s Twitter feed. What starts out initially as relatively ordinary trolling soon escalates far beyond that as every aspect of Elizabeth’s private life is violated by this user. Elizabeth’s relationships with her partner and friends (David Schlachtenhaufen, Adam Shapiro, Victoria Hanlin etc) are strained due to her increasingly reclusive lifestyle, with each ones safety put at risk by her project. As the anonymous assailant begins to destroy Elizabeth’s personal and professional life, the film serves less as an opinion on snuff films or the genre as a whole, and more as a social commentary on the fact that internet bullying is a serious crime which is still not treated as seriously as it should be by authorities.
One thing that home invasion films have always been able to rely on to make you squirm in your seat is subjecting you to the uncomfortable truth that this is something that could really happen to you. There’s no invisible poltergeist throwing saucepans around your kitchen. There’s no UFO’s landing in the middle of Surrey, no woman dressed all in black floating around a graveyard 600 miles away. It’s a well organised murderer (or murderers) with a motive. Transferring the setting to an online situation takes a bit of skill and guile, which Donohue apparently has in spades.
Partly how home-invasion films as a whole differentiate themselves from the typical slasher-genre is the fact that it’s just you and a nutjob with a plan to kill you; but it’s happening in your safe place. A holiday resort, a cabin in the woods, somebody else’s house where you’ve turned up to babysit. These are all foreign places and you can avoid that axe-wielding maniac by simply staying home. Easy. But in home invasion movies..? That isn’t an option. The axe-wielding maniac has checked out your property on Google Street-view and knows exactly where the best entry point is going to be to get to you and your loved ones. It’s unavoidable.
Indeed, home-invasion films are borne out of some kind of truth. It has happened to people in the past in famous cases such as the barbaric Manson Family murders. It can come out of nowhere for reasons completely unknown to you. One minute you’re eating your dinner at the table, the next your sister’s documentary-making boyfriend from New York who wears a scarf indoors has an arrow in his eye (deserved it for that scarf). By inflicting these very physical visual reminders on your viewers, it’s a sure fire way to increase the tension and fear levels.
It’s also an automatic instinctive reaction to feel fear for yourself, never mind the characters in a fictional film. But in The Den, there are very few instances of physical threats during the build – but when they do arrive, they are as intense as anything else in the genre. It’s mainly a construction with foundations built on atmosphere generated by the cynical acknowledgement that people on the internet, hidden behind their anonymity – or even knowing that there’s a lack of repercussions for their actions – will be utter dicks to strangers. In some cases, those trolls could potentially harbour more sinister intentions than just being a pain in the arse. Whilst maybe Elizabeth is ignorant of this, it’s the viewers curiosity to see more that fuels the film and keeps you interested right until the end.
With your view of proceedings taking place from behind the webcam, you in turn are as voyeuristic as the scumbag torturing poor ol’ Lizzie only safe in the knowledge that it’s not real. All that’s lacking is Arno Frisch breaking the fourth wall and asking “is this what you want?”, something acknowledged later on in the movie itself. The ending descends somewhat into a farce as slightly contrived scenarios occur, yet the intimidating atmosphere never shifts. The message remains the same and the performances are consistent and believable. In its final scenes, Donohue puts a big bold metaphorical exclamation mark at the end of the movie rather than a whimpering dot-dot-dot. It’s a strong debut piece showing intelligence, awareness, spirit and creativity in an often derided genre, with plenty of potential for the director to go on to make even better things.
As at today’s date, there are currently no further screenings listed for when The Den is showing in the UK. However, if you happen to be taking a trip to the USA in the near future, you could watch it on their version of Netflix.