Movie Review: “Surveillance” and “Staunton Hill”

As a general rule, it makes sense to avoid movies directed by the children of other directors. No matter how good these new directors might turn out to be, after all, it wasn’t because of their talent that they were given the opportunity. If their movies turn out to be any good, it’s in spite of the relative lack of roadblocks the offspring encountered as they worked to bring their visions to the screen.

Perhaps all of this should go without saying, except that twice in the last two months I found myself tempted by progeny productions, although with contrasting results. The first was Surveillance, directed by David Lynch’s daughter Jennifer and produced by the oddly coiffed auteur himself. I’ll admit that the Lynch name was part of the draw, although it didn’t hurt that the movie starred Bill Pullman, whom I’ve enjoyed ever since Spaceballs and who did what I thought was great work for David Lynch himself in the underrated Lost Highways.

Surveillance was okay. The script has a nice twist to it, the camera work is often beautiful (if that’s not an odd thing to say about a film that is also often horrifically violent), and the actors acquit themselves well, including two scenery-chewing supporting actors playing cops who seem like the wacky staties in Super Troopers, only not played for laughs, if that makes any sense. The movie has the screwy perspective and squirmy discomfort with the surface of the normal world that first drew me, in about ninth grade, to the work of David Lynch himself, at the same time that it is no mere imitation of the senior Lynch’s work. The movie’s IMDB listing describes the movie thus: “An FBI agent tracks a serial killer with the help of three of his would-be victims – all of whom have wildly different stories to tell.” If a storyline like that has the slightest appeal to you, especially if you know it will be told with an at least somewhat David Lynchian sensibility, you will probably enjoy the way Surveillance unfolds.

I cannot, however, recommend Staunton Hill, directed by George Romero’s son, Cameron. Recently reassured by the daughter Lynch’s work in Surveillance, I was open to the possibility that a descendant of the man who made Night of the Living Dead might at least have started with good genes. I should have paid attention to the bad feeling I got when I noticed this quote from George Romero on the box: “This is as scary as it gets.”

In fact, no. While I can’t immediately recall any movies that scared me less than this one, I seem to remember once wailing with fear during a scene in a Lassie movie involving kittens needing to be rescued from a burning barn. (I was three, I think, but still.) Seemingly made by someone who had memorized The Texas Chainsaw Masscre without ever noticing what made it good, Staunton Hill only ever had me in true suspense when I was wondering if the first death/etc. scene was really going to get that extreme and bloody. (It did.)

For some reason Cameron decided to set the movie in 1969, though at some point I remember thinking that, if the numbers “1969” hadn’t appeared on the screen for a few seconds during the opening scene, there wouldn’t have been a single aspect of the movie that would have suggested to me that it took place any time but now. There is a scene of activisty confrontation between the one black hitchhiker and a racist mechanic, and-though the former does wear a hair pick-I find it hard to believe that a black man in the 1960s would feel safe talking to a potential Klansman the way this guy does. Then there is a weirdly awkward use of the verb “dig it” that might have been an outtake, so close did the actor seem to come to just going ahead and making little finger quote marks in the air.

Overall, the movie feels more like a student effort, not because of its production values, but because of the sense one gets of someone completing an assignment to make a movie in the style of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, ticking off the rubric elements on which the effort will be graded: car trouble, check; obese hillbillies, check; freakishly strong imbecile; remote rural setting, check; etc. It’s like Romero senior gave his son a homework assignment. Maybe his quote comes not from an enthusiastic assessment of the film, but from the letter he sent to studio execs, advising that they break their contract with his son: “This is as scary as it gets with my boy, so I think you can see he shouldn’t quit his day job yet.”

On the other hand, if Coen made a horror movie, I’d probably give him a good quote for the box, too.

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