One of my favorite film subgenres is the recent trend of psychological mystery thrillers that bear elements of the eerie and macabre, but don’t delve deeply into outright horror. Director and co-writer Joseph Sims-Dennett’s ultra-low-budget Australian film Observance (2015) is an intriguing entry into this “But is it horror?” arena, though it treads a bit more into the scare-fare department than many of its peers. It is ambiguous and uncanny, using intriguing sound design and both startlingly direct and dreamlike images to weave its bizarre web.
This disorienting tale of voyeurism and claustrophobia finds surveillance professional Parker (Lindsay Farris) taking on a seemingly simple case of observing a woman from across the street and reporting what he sees. Parker is grieving over the recent loss of his young son, estranged from his wife, and nearly broke. He may be returning to work too early but he needs the money to cover funeral and related expenses.
Tenneal (Stephanie King), the blonde woman he watches, rarely leaves her apartment but seems to be in danger from a man who visits her often, Robert (Christian Willis). Parker wants to help her but his employer (Brendan Cowell) insists that he must not interfere. Naturally, Parker goes against those wishes and finds some disturbing information from the past during his research.
The dilapidated apartment where Parker stays to observe Tenneal – it’s more like a hovel, really – is practically a character unto itself. Newspaper-lined walls that seem to harbor some kind of illness that eventually manifests itself onto Parker’s body is just one of the sinister elements at play there. As Parker’s job stay is extended, he goes deeper and deeper into psychological territories that show he is increasingly unwell.
Unlike some psychological thrillers that are calculated to feel cold and keep viewers at a distance, Observance attempts to draw viewers in and it does its best to involve them; it is, however, stingy with its concrete details, slowly leaving a trail of clues – some as brief as a single image or sentence – for them to follow and piece together. This rather abstract approach leaves much open to individual interpretation.
Sims-Dennett and co-writer Josh Zammit rely more on imagery and sound design than dialogue to tell their tale, though cryptic lines do provide their share of impact. Sims-Dennett shows talent as a director, coaxing nuanced performances out of his cast and framing shots in an often impactful manner. Cinematographer Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson does an impressive job using a wide variety of camera angles and visual styles. One minor quibble with the film’s visuals might be that some time is spent on such images as wide shots of the ocean or extreme close-ups of seemingly mundane everyday items, but Sims-Dennett is obviously keen on experimenting with imagery and has his reasons for including those shots.
The sound design by David Gaylard and David Williams is a crucial aspect of Observance. Distorted voices, disconcerting noises, and other elements keep the proceedings mysterious and intriguing. The score by Adrian Sergovich and Haydn Walker blends marvellously with the sound department’s work, feeling neither intrusive or overwrought.
The cast, which affects American accents, acquits itself well. Cowell has the largest share of screen time and does a fine job of portraying a man wrestling with losing his grip on reality. King gives an engaging turn as the woman at the heart of the film’s mystery.
Observance was reportedly made for a mere $11,000, but its presentation certainly belies that fact. If Sims-Dennett can make this film look so good for such a relatively small amount of money, I am eager to see what he could turn out with a larger budget. He shows a great deal of promise and certainly seems to be a director to watch in the future.
Some viewers will likely find Observance too abstruse and too full of unanswered questions for their liking; however, those who enjoy wrapping their heads around what they have just seen and filling in missing information with ideas that are merely implied rather than clearly stated may find this film to be a captivating ride. In other words, it’s not for everybody, but in my opinion, it’s worth a try.