Zachary Donohue’s The Den comes at audiences with a harrowingly grungy and single-minded sense of purpose that situates it as a kind of fetish object. As such, it’s ideally enjoyed late at night—and through a computer hooked up to a big-screen television. Anything to enhance the degree to which its horrors have been mediated by technology, and to prismatic degrees. The film’s capper is flippantly moralistic, and the idea of a university giving a grant to a grad student to slouch around in her PJs all day and video-chat strangers is at best improbable and at worst a transparently convenient pretend at seriousness. All the justification one needs to want to watch Elizabeth (Melanie Papali) fall into the rabbit hole that takes her in and out of the lives of complete strangers on the titular chat site is her compulsive and whim-driven browsing habits, which are gripping in their absolute familiarity. Perhaps taking a cue from “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily,” Joe Swanberg’s contribution to V/H/S, Donohue frames the film through the pane of a computer screen, and in lieu of cuts there are clicks away from one video-chat window to another, some only made accessible to Elizabeth, or sometimes the audience alone, after a mystery person hacks into her laptop. The Den thrives on conjuring horrors rooted in our susceptibility to 419 scams and the ease with which ingenuity informed by evil can break down the hardly secure walls that separate you from, say, a Russian hacker. And in the way it refracts those horrors through the cascading windows of programs on operating systems we’ve come to understand more intimately than our own selves, it becomes dizzying in its creepiness.
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