‘Under Surveillance’ is a mixed bag of indie filmmaking

‘Under Surveillance’

Today we’re launching a new section on Tail Slate, this one dedicated to the independent film. And I’m not just talking about the small, personal projects starring famous folks looking for street cred. I’m talking about the real small-timers. The guys and gals picking up digital cameras and making flicks.

The first in this series will be from a local boy — well, local enough. Shot on location in Long Island, NY, Under Surveillance was done on the cheap and shot with miniDV. And, no, it isn’t the greatest film in the world. It suffers from the basic issues that so many of these kinds of films do — weak performances, questionable camera work, bad dialogue. What it does have is a clever idea, one that had a lot of potential.

Under Surveillance is a hodge-podge of bad scenes and good scenes. Some of its best moments come closer to the end. The story isn’t very well developed, perhaps intentionally, as a means of making it more mysterious than it really was. Sure, you’ll likely have it figured in the first five minutes, but you can pick out the good ideas here and that makes it worth watching. For me, anyway.

Its tale has 20-something Justin Besler (Eric Conley) moving in with his father (David Rigg), after having lived with his sickly mother for several years. However, his father has made many changes to their old family house, renovating it into several different apartments. After a woman (Alexandra Eitel) with whom Besler may or may not have had some kind of relationship with is found dead, he recruits his best friend, Scott (Fred DeReau), and Scott’s morally challenged roommate, Rick (Dave Campfield), into helping him solve the mystery. They set about planting cameras and spying on all the residents in his father’s house to find out which one is a killer, and possibly part of a deadly cult.

I could rail about the film’s many problems, but let me just take a moment to give the film’s writer/director David Campfield his due. He made a full-length feature film, and it was his first attempt. That in and of itself deserves recognition. It wasn’t going to be perfect, so you have to acknowledge that right from the beginning. More so than the Hollywood fare, these kinds of low-budget flicks need to be given some breathing room. You have to accept a certain amount of problems and mistakes. Perhaps it means that watching these films takes a little more effort, but they can be worth it.

At the same time, I can’t help but look at the film and examine it. It has problems. First is the script, which I think really wasn’t developed enough. The story could have been focused better. The film’s opening scenes are hard to get into, and the storyline is a bit jumbled. Was this film about the characters spying on people or a cult? While there are some red herrings throughout, it never seemed like anything gelled. Random pieces of a puzzle, with parts jammed together instead of actually fitting correctly.

Visually, the film violates its very concept, which was something that really bothered me. I liked the idea of these characters looking into the lives of the different residents through hidden cameras. However, while these sections are in black and white, they are filmed like any other scene. The angles don’t look like surveillance cameras at all, except for one shot near the end. I know, this is nitpicking, but Under Surveillance took its most clever concept and threw it out, and that disappointed me.

At the same time, the surveillance scenes are some of the film’s strongest. The performances are good, with the film’s best being Chris Cooke, who plays a dying man living out his final days with hookers and drugs. Mark Love, Brenda Abbandandolo and Felissa Rose are also good. Part of me wished the film had gotten to these characters sooner. Ironically, I actually met Love briefly several years ago on a film set in Bayside, Queens called, Dungeon Dogs. That film was written/directed by a fellow named Don Calabrese (Love’s character in Under Surveillance is named Vincent Calabrese, but I’m sure this is merely coincidence). Simultaneously, the scenes with Justin, Scott and Rich as they watched the monitors were also some of the film’s best. They were often funny, and the interaction between these characters were at their most natural.

Those moments helped make Under Surveillance a good first effort.

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