ON Blu-Ray, DVD and Vimeo: 2ND AUGUST, other VOD outlets: 11TH OCTOBER
RUNNING TIME: 90 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Private investigator and surveillance expert Parker’s son has recently died and he’s estranged from his wife. He also owes lots of money in the form of his deceased son’s medical bills. He returns to work and takes a new assignment for some quick cash which requires him to move into an empty and dilapidated apartment opposite a woman named Tenneal. He has to watch her and report back to his boss, but also has to bug her place so he can listen in phone conversations. Tenneal seems to have a violent fiancée who belongs to a rich family with a past scandal, but strange things begin to happen in the apartment Parker is in. Is he going mad, or is there some kind of presence there?
Two thirds of the way through Observance, there was a knock at my door, and I jumped so high I almost reached the roof. This should tell you how well Joseph Sims-Dennet’s film [which is his second: his first being 2010’s Bad Behaviour, which appears to consist of interweaving stories, some of which are horror, though on that film he’s credited as Joseph Stephen Sims]. Horror Cult Films was partially founded because two of its writers: Ross Hughes and the departed [from the website] Matt Wavish, loved to discover recent horror releases that were seemed to exist beneath the radar but which they felt were worthy of more attention than they were getting. I was, truth be told, rather more interested in older stuff. However, I’m now going to do something similar with Observance, a film which I don’t think will get much attention when it’s released [though I hope I’m proved wrong] but which bloody well should do, and not just because it was made for $10.000 over just eleven days on what seems like an extremely chaotic set!
No, it’s chiefly because of how unsettling I found the film to be. While releases like The Conjuring 2 can still frighten with their parade of scares, films which truly chill and unsettle are getting harder to come by. Observance, much like one of its major influences The Tenant, moves at a very deliberate pace, but allow yourself to settle into its mood and I reckon it’ll really get under your skin [it’s sure got under mine]. The publicity for the film also mentions the influence of Rear Window and David Cronenberg’s body horror, though to me it more closely evoked David Lynch at his creepiest [i.e. the first half of Lost Highway] and even some J-horror greats like Ringu. What ever was going through Sims-Dennet’s mind when he was co-writing and directing this film, he has a real talent for evoking a sense of paranoia and possible madness, though I should warn you that this isn’t one of those films that spells everything out. In fact, it’s hard to tell what’s happening at times, and, now that it’s finished, I’m not much clearer on the plot than I was half way through. In fact the screenplay sets up some background details which don’t end up having much effect in terms of the general story, something which I can see really frustrating some viewers, but when you’re dealing with a descent into insanity, this kind of thing can be forgiven and even add to the experience.
The opening black and white shots of a rocky shore set to really disturbing sound effects immediately set the right mood, especially when a crunching sound becomes louder and louder until it becomes almost unbearable! The first couple of minutes actually show a young woman, who we later realise is Tenneal, coming out of an underground station and going into her house, before Parker becomes our eyes and ears, though this does eventually make a bit more sense come the final section of the film. Now something I should say right now which is a little jarring is that this is an Australian film but the cast members were asked, for some reason, to speak in Australian accents. Presumably somebody wanted the film to seem American because they thought it would travel further, but I’m not sure that the latter is really the case and it gives the impression [mistakenly or not] that the producers are ashamed of the film’s origin. Lindsay Farris, who plays Parker, gamely tries to do an American accent but can’t seem to settle on a single variant and even, in one scene, sounds Irish! In fact there a few obvious gaffes in the film like Tenneal supposedly stepping out of a shower and being totally dry, but one can let these things slide a bit more in an ultra-cheapie production like this.
In any case, the proceedings begin to work up some considerable suspense early on even if little happens at first. We don’t know why Parker has been asked to observe this woman, and it all seems rather clandestine right from the offset, but we’re behind him enough to be on the edge of our seat when he’s planting a bug in her apartment and there’s a chance she may see him. Even though we wish he would rush to Tenneal’s aide when her fiancée Bret gets rough, we’re still on his side when something happens to the sound on his set-up, though that’s partly because we want to hear the dialogue as much as he does. Most of the film takes place in the grotty apartment where Parker is, a place that looks so horrid that it’s no wonder he starts to hallucinate things like his dead son, while it almost seems normal that a disembowelled rat is under the bed, or that there’s a jar containing gloopy black liquid which seems to get fuller each time we see it. It’s not even that surprising that he develops some nasty kind of rash. The connection between what he sees [or thinks he sees] in his apartment and the background he uncovers about the drama unfolding opposite never becomes very clear, but Observance dares to be even braver and change the audience point of view towards the end. The climax may surprise, or may not, but kind of makes sense, though I reckon any attempts to fill in blanks in the story will meet with frustration. After all, it’s not knowing that seems to be affecting Parker so badly, while interpretations will vary. I’m leaning towards it being largely about guilt, but I’ll leave it at that.
Observance does have a few jolts [I can still hear a voice whispering: “stop watching” in my head], beginning where Parker looks through his telescope and sees Bret looking directly back at him, though it’s essentially a slow burner which requires some concentration but should reward those who are willing to provide it. Despite its unavoidable rough and ready aesthetic, it’s quite a stylish piece which sometimes uses disjointed editing and odd choices of shots to help create the right mood, like a dream scene which, for its first half, is entirely comprised of close-ups of hands holding fish before pulling back to show the participants and locale but cutting together the rest of the scene deliberately oddly. Visual motifs, often involving water, echo throughout, contributing to a dreamlike effect. The yellowy look of many of the passages in Parker’s apartment doesn’t make for a very attractive choice visually, but at least it shows that much attention has been paid to look, though a few moments are so dark that you can hardly see anything [dark is good, but you don’t want to be looking at a black screen]. The sound design by David Gaylard and David Williams, who have clearly looked at films like The Conversation, is also highly worthy of praise. In fact, the film probably wouldn’t be half as effective without it.
Wavering accent or not, Farris does very well as the lead, adeptly veering back and forth from sympathetic everyman who’s getting a raw deal in life to somebody who may be going a little mad and be someone whose viewpoint we ought not to totally trust. I haven’t read any other reviews of Observance, but I have the feeling that it could already be quite a divisive film. I wouldn’t be surprised if the lack of explanation for so much that occurs in it has been considered carelessness by some, and it does have the potential to annoy. If now and again though you fancy some ambiguity, if you sometimes like stuff to be left hanging, if you want to feel occasionally confused and unsettled without much closure, then Observance is definitely worth checking out, and the paranoid atmosphere it creates is the strongest I’ve seen in a movie for a while. And it’s such a good example of what can be achieved with little time and money but lots of enthusiasm and talent. I reckon that Sims-Dennet could be headed for great things.
* “Preface to Observance” [3 minutes], Artsploitation trailers