With the 1936 film Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin introduced a witty, scathing take on the effects of mass technology, and, indeed, the type of life we forge with it has become a central preoccupation to our modern world. Film remains at the forefront of this conversation, not only for the speed and power of its own innovations, but also for its ability to provoke us to think. Plenty of films explore tech, but especially since the digital revolution, the theme of media enhanced surveillance often crops up. We decided to take a look a few recent films with their own distinctive take on tech and what it means these days to be watching and interacting with each other.
Horror is preoccupied with voyeurism in so many ways – the killers watch, the victims watch, we watch. So, as social media innovators continue to push for more connectivity, the genre will toss up films exploiting the sinister side of the net. Zach Donohue’s 2014 debut The Den is among the most recent offerings of tech-all-wrong horror films that include David Cronenberg’s masterpiece Videodrome (1983), Marc Evans’ nasty art-house My Little Eye (2002) and the J-Horror Kairo (2006). Like all good horror, The Den doesn’t allow high-brow concerns over taste to stop it from heading where it needs to: into the old school myth of snuff films.
The Den is about a graduate student Elizabeth Benton (Vancouver’s Melanie Papalia) who wins a grant to conduct a study on users in a chatroom called The Den. Horror usually contains a moral message, and I daresay, The Den questions the ethics of “legitimate” web research. Not only does Elizabeth pose as a chatter without revealing her research agenda, but she also digitally records every second of her activity in The Den. Violence is the separating line between Elizabeth and the nasty bits of work she eventually encounters through the net.
Elizabeth’s gateway into the Wonderland of hell is chat member pyagrl*16 who remains off camera, but engages Elizabeth in an ominous conversation. Finally pyagrl*16’s webcam comes on to reveal a young woman bound and gagged whose throat is slit by an invisible attacker. By this point any good horror viewer knows that an evil plan against Elizabeth has been set in motion. It isn’t long before sociopathic hackers ruin her life.
The Den’s script could use a trim in places and the film contains a few awkward scenarios necessary to maintain its presentation style. It unravels like The Blair Witch Project, rather than a slasher, where the resilient final girl comes out on top. But make no mistake, it ends as torture porn, so if bloody mayhem is not to your taste, you probably won’t like it.
Nonetheless, The Den’s stomach churning gore is not as intense as some torture porn out there. Donohue restrains himself around a pregnant woman, and we watch a knife tap that round pumpkin instead of carving it up (which is good, very good; I am a mother). Rather, his film’s ingenious twist is the visual omnipresence of the dark net, with its hidden sicko services that very well could be on offer for people who use cloaking browsers like Tor.
Let’s face it, no one is afraid of the bogeyman anymore. With just a few clicks of the mouse anyone can find hideous real-life stuff on the web. There is a whole new breed of monster emerging from our interconnected world and we know it. Surveillance and invasion, human slavery, mass pedophilia, internet bullying, viral videos of public executions, mass slaughter and the proliferation of new forms of shadow crime cells are the watchwords of terror in the here and now.
Donohue transforms these fears into a gimmick where almost the entire film unfolds on the screen of Elizabeth’s laptop, via its video feed from webcams, Smartphones, or surveillance cameras, dropped strategically by whoever is watching her. Sounds boring doesn’t it? It’s not. It’s claustrophobic and only rarely draws attention to itself. Plus, if you watch movies on your laptop, late at night like me, usually when I’m working on a paper, the mesh between what’s taking place in the film and on your own computer screen makes for some eerie viewing.