An unnerving pan showing waves crashing on a peculiar black-and-white beach where meaning is inexplicable. And so begins Observance, one creepy psychological thriller exploring voyeurism, grief, and the sickness of the human condition.
Premiering in WA as a part of Revelation Film Fest’s ‘May Revelations’ last month, Australian director Joseph Sims-Dennett’s low-budget yet ambitious film follows Parker (Lindsay Farris), a private investigator who is paid to spy on a beautiful woman (Stephanie King) across the street in his derelict apartment. He reports her actions daily to his mysterious boss for a hefty fee, and for a reason that remains unknown.
Observance will confuse. It is not a resolution-building experience, but rather an existential delve into the mind of Parker as he copes with the recent death of his young son, his marriage breakdown, and near bankruptcy – all the while observing this mysterious woman’s every move from the apartment.
Housebound and lonely, Parker begins to delve into paranoia, sickness and at times madness. Creepiness undeniably ensues. All is not well, as the overwhelming feeling that a dark presence wants him to stop observing this woman grows. The jar on the table filling with a black tar-like substance, the ‘sacrificial’ animal corpses collecting under his bed, and the oozing sores on his back that continuously expand. As Parker’s fever gets worse, so do the disturbing nightmares of his dead son.
Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson’s cinematography mirrors the psychological and physical disease that infects Parker, and frankly the film as well. Dull colour schemes with a green-blue tinge evoke notions of sickness, whilst black-and-white montages of rocky beaches instil a sense of coldness throughout.
It is the avid search for unresolved meaning that keeps this thriller psychological at its core. It is simultaneously alluring, and utterly dread-inducing. To the acclamation of sound editors, David Gaylard and David Williams, the film rarely offers overt ‘jump scares’ but rather maintains an even more unappealing atmosphere of consistent unease.
Observance clearly draws on the directorial royalty of cult thrillers gone by. The voyeurism theme of a lone-man spying on his neighbour from an adjacent window undeniably mirrors Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The housebound and paranoid protagonist is reminiscent of several of Roman Polanski’s works, especially the ‘Apartment Trilogy.’ Whilst the mind-bending dream sequences that blur reality inevitably take their hat off to David Lynch’s brilliance.
Despite inspiration from the classics, Observance remains new. Amid the dissemination of Hollywood horror blockbusters that follow a near uniform, jump-scare-centric paranormal theme, Observance is a welcome change. It sits with the likes of another Australian great of recent times, Jennifer Kent’s Babadook, which similarly infuses human notions of grief and madness within a broader horror theme.
You may not leave this film with answers to Sims-Dennett’s disturbing, cinematic riddle, and inevitably some viewers may find the lack of resolution frustrating. Yet, its mix of a man facing personal loss amid mysterious circumstances blurs reality with memory and offers a more existential and undeniably human portrait amongst the horror genre.
Observance will keep you on edge, draw you into Parker’s psyche, and seep into your mind. The unease and confusion that remains long after this film’s viewing is undeniably the mark of an effective psychological thriller.
To rent or buy Observance on Vimeo on demand: https://vimeo.com/store/ondemand/buy/70280