Director – Joseph Sims-Dennet, Screenplay/Producers – Joseph Sims-Dennet & Josh Zammit, Photography – Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson, Music – Adrian Sergovich & Haydn Walker, Visual Effects Supervisor – Jasper Dunn, Makeup Effects – Nicolle Adrichem, Production Design – Mobey Zammit. Production Company – Sterling Cinema
Lindsay Farris (Parker), Stephanie King (Tenneal), Brendan Cowell (Voice of Employer), Benedict Hardie (Charlie), Tom O’Sullivan (Bret Buchanan), John Jarratt (Snitch)
Parker is hired to move into an empty apartment and conduct surveillance on the woman living opposite. Through the course of this, he begins to uncover strange things – that the woman works for a shadowy research institute and is involved with man from a well-off family with a disturbing history. As he keeps observing, they seem to be looking back at him. At the same time, Parker has become infected by something and starts coughing up black ichor and then experiencing hallucinations.
Observance is the second film for Australian director Joseph Sims-Dennet. Sims-Dennet had previously made the feature-length Bad Behaviour (2010), a tapestry of interweaving stories, some of which fall into horror, where he was listed as Joseph Stephen Sims.
Observance settles in with a set-up and atmosphere that keeps you interested. We follow Lindsay Farris as he surveills Stephanie King in the apartment opposite where there is a constant mystery created about who she is and why he is spying on her. She works for a scientific institute – when he calls to find out more, they suddenly get tight-lipped and then hang up on him after he gives her description. She may be being abused in some way and seems involved, even possibly engaged he concludes, to the scientist from the institute whose family has a disturbing history. Things start to get creepy when it appears that the scientist and maybe even the woman are looking back and noticing him there. The scientist even accosts Lindsay Farris in an alley and warns him off. Lindsay Farris’s Controller avoids answering any questions about the situation. All of this creates a more than reasonable tension – Joseph Sims-Dennet creates one especially uneasy scene where Lindsay Farris ventures into the woman’s apartment to plant bugs after she says she is going to have a shower only for her to emerge to answer the phone – as well as a number of jumps.
All of this is good and promising build-up. Added to this is an infection story where Lindsay Farris starts coughing up worrying amounts of black ichor and looking unwell. He also starts to have hallucinations about his brother being dead or opening doors to see a raging sea there. The soundbite description you could coin for Observance would be an indie film mix of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), a superb psychological drama about the effect of surveillance on the observer’s mind, and one of the recent works about the horror of infection such as Thanatomorphose (2012) or Contracted (2013). The natural question that is building in the audience’s mind at this point is to wonder what is going on.
The great frustration about Observance is that it is all build-up and no third act. It never provides any answers as to what is going on. There is no explanation about the infection or where it is coming from – in fact, this only seems there in a couple of scenes but the film never pushes it for the sense of a growing sense of decay and horror as you get in Contracted and especially Thanatomorphose. Moreover, all the questions about the purpose of the surveillance, the sinister things happening to Stephanie King, the activities of the institute and the scientist’s family’s history are lead-up and backstory that leads precisely nowhere. There have certainly been films that have made a virtue of defying an audience’s expectation of answers and endings – see the classic likes of Blow Up (1966) and The Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) – but Observance lacks any sense that it is doing unique and groundbreaking things in subverting expectation; it is just a film that exists as a frustrating line of questions without answers.