Under Surveillance (2005)

Starring Eric Conley, Felissa Rose, Mark Love, Dave Campfield

Directed by Dave Campfield

Is it wrong that I was more terrified about the potential for a preachy Christian message in this film than I was about the actual situations the characters found themselves in? Personally I don’t think so, as nothing is more boring than movies that try and tell you how great Jesus is through the use of horror, but thankfully that fear was unfounded. Still, I was tense for the entire running time… just not the reasons the filmmakers would’ve liked.

The story of Under Surveillance, the debut film for writer, actor, and director Campfield, is about a kid named Justin (Conley) who moves back in with his detective father after 10 years of being away. Why? That’s never explained, but I guess it’s not really important; what is, is the fact that his father’s converted their house into several apartments in order to supplement his mortgage payments. Now the house Justin grew up in is full of relative strangers, including a slutty 20-something (Rose, as her usual vampy self) living with her pyromaniac younger sister, an older gentleman who prefers the company of call girls, and a struggling actor from Brooklyn married to a mousy Russian girl.

Since nothing is known about virtually any of them, Justin immediately suspects them all when a local girl is murdered near their home, and along with his friends Vincent (Calabrese) and Rick (Campfield), he sets up mini cameras all over the house in order to try and find out whodunit. Justin’s dad, on the other hand, believes that a local Satanist cult who call themselves the Black Circle are the ones behind it all and sets out to prove it using any means necessary. I hesitate to call the story Hitchcockian though the master’s work is clearly an influence to Campfield in his debut, the plot riddled with red herrings and mysterious actions, because ultimately it falls short of the man’s work.

Back to my original comment; the lead character, Justin, walks around the entire movie with a very obvious cross hanging from around his neck. It’s large, silver, and on the outside of every shirt he wears; no one’s going to doubt his beliefs. To show that he’s of a different moral fiber than the rest of the kids his age, he manages to tell Rick that selling beers to underage college kids is wrong with a straight face. That is some top-notch acting right there! So the entire film I had a fear that his Christian beliefs were going to have something to do with the film’s outcome, which thankfully they did not. I do, then, question what the point of having a blatantly Christian lead is, especially one who doesn’t exactly follow the Good Book to the letter.

The rest of the characters are fine, if not a bit stereotypical and/or over the top (Rose’s turn as the sluttiest girl… well, ever, is a bit unbelievable), but the actual acting is solid and never comes across as amateur, a blessing for any indie film. One thing that will likely serve to take you out of the movie more often than it should, or at least it did for me, is how very functional those mini cameras are.

Four are installed in each apartment in just the right places to seemingly catch every type of character action that goes on, no matter what room, save for the one scene when it’s important that we don’t see exactly what happened. I know why this was done, since the three would-be crime solvers are watching it all from the comforts of a van we have to see what they’re seeing, but there are times when it seems far too convenient that so many different angles would be covered.

It would’ve been easier to suspend the disbelief if the story were just a little more interesting; instead, we have a fairly standard plot with characters that serve only to make you wonder who might be the killer, each one doing progressively more suspicious things as the film goes on, but never really feeling that they’re real people. When the identity of the killer is revealed it’s not that much of a shock, and may actually cause an eye roll or two if you see it coming.

There are some technical issues as well, characters doing one thing in the daylight and five minutes later it’s pitch black out, but that’s to be expected from a first-time feature. You’ve only got so much footage to work with once you’re done shooting so you have to utilize what you have; I get that. All in all there’s not a lot to forgive in Under Surveillance though. It’s shot well, has some solid characters, and the mystery is handled attentively. I only wish it had been a bit more interesting so the tension I had for the entire running time wasn’t primarly generated from the fear of a speech on the wonders of Jesus.

3 out of 5

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