Surveilled: Indie Film Friday
Dir. James Smith (2021)
A copycat serial killer is inspired by a popular series of novels.
Almost every time I do an appearance somewhere, be it on podcasts, YouTube, etc., one of the things I’m often asked is if I think horror is on the decline, and if horror as a whole is getting worse. Time and again, I deliver the same response: absolutely not. It’s not that the movies are necessarily better now, because in most cases they aren’t. But there’s two reasons why horror is better now than it’s ever been: First, when discussing the “golden age” of horror as if it was in the past, we simply are forgetting how many God awful movies there were during those “golden ages.” It’s not like every movie in the 80’s was The Thing or The Shining, or that the 70’s was chock-full of movies like The Exorcist. There were thousands and thousands of horrible movies during that time period. But the second reason why horror is better now than ever before is because of the availability of all of those movies as well as the advancing technology that makes movies easier to make than ever before. Surveilled is an example of that, with most of the movie being filmed on a Samsung S9+. A fucking cellphone, and they made a horror movie with it. And it looks good! It’s not some shitty, SOV film. It’s got pretty good production values, on par with most films shot by Hollywood studios. All things considered, that’s a fucking miracle.
Quite a bit of the film takes place on surveillance video, giving it an odd, found-footage quality, even though it is certainly not a found footage film. The main character of the film, Joe, is a criminal, spying on people through their surveillance cameras to provide information to his clients, some of whom are criminals as well. He views himself as a private investigator, but he also just spies on people in general, watching people as they go about their lives in their homes and businesses. He is also obsessed with serial killers, which isn’t a particularly new thing in this day and age where seemingly everyone fills their days with true crime podcasts and documentaries. However, there’s more to the film than just an obsessive student of murderers. It is, essentially, a critique of the constantly surveilled British public, possibly the world’s most watched populace. There are so many cameras in England that you are being watched almost everywhere you go. Joe uses this to get information about everyone around him, and it isn’t long before he has ideas about who the killer might be and where he might strike next. However, he goes past the point of regular interest, and neglects to provide information that he knows to the authorities because he finds it fascinating to study a serial killer that is active and before he is arrested and in prison. This adds another layer to the mystery, as we must be suspect of Joe’s motives as well.
The film definitely isn’t perfect, but a lot of the mistakes that are made in most indie films are cleverly avoided in this one. The writing is good, the cinematography is more than capable, and the issues raised in the film are important and intriguing. The only gripe that I would have about the entire film is that there is a bit of wooden acting at times, but the story is compelling enough to make it worth ignoring. It has a found-footage feeling without being overly reliant on it as a gimmick, which is an interesting way to film the movie and gives the shots an interesting point of view. There are some scenes that are extremely anxiety-inducing, and you’re definitely waiting to see how everything is going to turn out. It’s really more of a mystery, cat-and-mouse type film than a horror movie, but there are some great moments of serial killer goodness sprinkled throughout.
Where Surveilled really shines is in its first-person view of the killer. We hear his inner monologue several times throughout the film, letting us know how unhinged and creepy he actually is. We even see some shots from his POV, showing him stalking his victims and choosing exactly where to strike. Granted, we are given a bit of “foreshadowing” due to the conceit of the film itself, in that the killer is copying murders from a series of novels. And when I say copying, I mean copying. 30 year old woman, killed in the woods while walking her dog? By god, this killer stalks his victim while she’s walking her dog, kills her, and leaves her in the woods. And, of course, she’s 30 years old. So, when we find out what the “next kill” is, as we did early in the movie with the dog-walking woman, we know what’s coming. It becomes a matter of where and when rather than who, which is a unique look into the killer’s psyche and his modus operandi. He also wears a plague doctor mask, which is creepy as fuck and criminally underused in horror films.
Who this movie is for: Indie film lovers; British horror aficionados; Amateur sleuths who are also voyeurs
Bottom line: Worth a watch for fans of indie films, it’s much more well-produced than most indie films. While the movie is shot using a cellphone, this fact isn’t used as a gimmick and really adds to the surveillance aspect of the plot. There are some parts of the film that aren’t done as well as others and the runtime is a little longer than it perhaps should be, but it’s a well-made film that’s free to watch on Tubi, and you can’t complain about that! Some intriguing thought are explored throughout the film, and it’s important in this age of surveillance technology to answer the questions that Surveilled raises.