Under Surveillance (2003) Movie Review

Dave Campfield’s independent film “Under Surveillance” is a murder-mystery, but its biggest problem is that the murder, as well as the mystery, is not entirely interesting. The film stars Eric Conley as Justin, a young man who flees his drug-addled mother to move back in with his estranged father, a cop who has remodeled his house to rent out to boarders. No sooner does Justin arrive home does he meet the mysterious and disturbed Kayla, whose guarded secrets at first attracts, but then repels Justin. One night, Kayla is murdered and found on Justin’s lawn. The police believe that a local cult called the Black Circle is responsible, but Justin thinks someone closer to him, living in the same house, is the real killer.

The title refers to Justin and college chum Scott (Fred DeReau) as they go about putting the tenants of Justin’s house under hidden camera surveillance. Helping them out is Scott’s anything-for-a-buck roommate Rick (writer/director Campfield). The trio camps out in Rick’s van and watches the tenants, hoping that one of them will turn out to be the killer. Along the way, we get a lot of David Lynch-inspired moments courtesy of the colorful tenants, Rick’s comic relief, and Scott’s neurosis. And is it me, or does Eric Conley look a bit like the lead singer of “Creed”?

Shot on digital video, “Under Surveillance” intercuts between color and black and white “surveillance” POV. Every now and then Campfield forgets that the limited hidden cameras are supposed to be stationary, thus they can’t keep cutting for dramatic close-ups of the people being watched. I suppose we can pass this off as creative license, although that doesn’t quite explain why some of the scenes continue in black and white for much too long.

The film’s big obstacle is that it doesn’t develop its murder victim nearly enough to warrant not only Justin’s interest in solving her murder, but our investment in watching him investigate. Consider the recent “Sin City”, where the brutish Marv seeks bloody vengeances on the men responsible for killing Goldie, the beautiful woman who gave him his one and only glorious night in the sack. There’s nothing approaching that kind of motivation in “Under Surveillance”, and it seems that Justin’s quest for justice is simply part of his personality as a righteous individual. All fine and well, but the audience has no such morale compunction, and actually needs a reason to care.

“Under Surveillance” does have some things going for it, including some surprisingly good performances from the unknown cast. I’m always pleasantly surprised that low-budget films manage to procure these types of credible actors, having seen so many that just couldn’t find people talented enough to walk and talk at the same time. While lead Eric Conley lets his hair do most of the acting for him, co-star David H. Rigg, as Justin’s hardnosed cop father, has the perfect dead-on delivery. While Rigg’s monotone delivery style seems ill-fitting at first, one comes to appreciate the dryness of it as the movie progresses.

The best role in the entire film is Rick, who Campfield smartly keeps for himself. Campfield has a ball playing the smart-alecky entrepreneur who sells beers to minors and seems to have one too many hidden cameras for someone still in college. I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that Campfield patterned the character after the kid that started those “Girls Gone Wild” videos. College chum Scott, on the other hand, feels like a third wheel for much of the film. I’m not entirely sure why the character even exists at all.

The film does make the mistake of falling back on an obvious deus ex machina ending, where everything comes together in a perfect little bundle. Who knew bad guys still kept evidence of their crimes lying? Not only that, but apparently the evidence is cued up to go directly to the incriminating parts! Campfield’s script does get points for originality, as we come to learn that the reason for Kayla’s murder was nowhere near as complex as the cover-up.

“Under Surveillance” is a good first feature for Campfield, even if it is a little weak in the beginning, and the tone is sometimes off. As a serious murder-mystery, the film probably shouldn’t have so many funny moments, as they seem to clash with the movie’s more mature themes. Every now and then, you get the feeling Campfield would be better off writing “Animal House” type comedies instead. Something to consider, perhaps?

Dave Campfield (director) / Dave Campfield (screenplay)
CAST: David H. Rigg …. Kurt Besler
Eric Conley …. Justin Besler
Felissa Rose …. Heidi Broonen
Mark Love …. Vincent
Dave Campfield …. Rick Varlin