Observance is a defiantly weird, surrealist psychological horror perhaps best described as disturbing than outright terrifying, though it does have some moments that will scare your socks off. Director Joseph Sims-Dennett takes the art of the unexplained mystery to its most impenetrable of lengths – anyone who likes to have their endings nicely tied up for them should avoid this like the plague
Private Investigator Parker (Lindsay Farris) sets up shop in a decrepit apartment across the way from his new subject (Stephanie King), a typically attractive blonde about whom we never find out very much and who is seen almost exclusively through Parker’s camera lens. Beginning from this fairly basic premise, Observance rapidly takes a turn away from the predictable, with the nature of Parker’s assignment becoming increasingly fishy whilst strange elements within his apartment (a strange black substance oozing from the walls and animal corpses under the bed, for instance) prove that he should be spending more time worrying about things closer to home than across the street.
Details of Parker’s back story are revealed through drips and drabs, and it is not made clear how big of a part that plays in the narrative, and whether the weird goings on around Parker could have a psychological explanation, which makes for tantalising, suspenseful viewing. The initial horror comes from surrealist dream sequences whilst Parker sleeps, drawing on perverse and shocking imagery that gradually seeps into the waking world. Sims-Dennett takes his time, allowing the suspense to build with Parker’s mounting paranoia before descending into full-blown terror.
Observance is a film that wears its influences on its sleeves, with most obvious comparisons to be made with the work of Polanski or Francis Ford-Coppola. More subtly, cinematographer Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson seems to have been influenced by the likes of Ingmar Bergman, with his moody and austere approach to dream sequences on a rocky shore stylistically echoing scenes from The Seventh Seal. An interesting sound design maintains the growing sense of discomfort throughout, making particular use of chilling high frequencies and emphasising the grainy quality of Parker’s sound recording equipment to nail-biting effect.
Whilst those who are so inclined will be able to pick holes galore in the already patchy plot, Observance makes it perfectly clear that it doesn’t really give a damn. It’s an unpolished film that is nevertheless a bit of a gem, as sure to have viewers cringing in their seats as it is to leave them scratching their heads.
Observance does not have a UK release date yet. It is part of the Cult competition at the 59th London Film Festival.
Watch the trailer for Observance here: