OBSERVANCE: Agonisingly Close To Greatness

When I sat down to watch Observance, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It opened with a rather artsy tone, as waves crashed against rocky cliffs, all in black and white. After a minute or so of this, the film cuts to Tenneal (Stephanie King) walking through the streets on her way home.

I hastily assumed that Tenneal would be our main character throughout the film, but was somewhat shocked when the focus switched to Parker (Lindsay Farris), a debt-ridden, private investigator who recently lost his young son and who is tasked with spying on Tenneal for an anonymous client. The film deals with Parker as he slowly slips away into insanity and is constantly plagued with the grief of his son’s death.

What initially appears to be a generic film of the voyeur-thriller genre quickly spirals into insanity, paralleling the protagonist’s fragile mental state and becomes a thoroughly chilling horror which is a few steps short of greatness.

A Film of Two Halves

Observance is very much a film of two halves. The first half is a slow-burning thriller where the audience gets an idea that something eerie and mysterious is going on. We learn that all is not as it seems over in the residence of Tenneal, who seems to be constantly ill; the cynic in me screaming that this is just lazy writing to keep her in her apartment, rather than anything to do with the plot. She is frequently seen arguing with her boyfriend Bret (Tom O’Sullivan).

However, we are given subtle indications that the dirty, derelict apartment that Parker is set up in holds a much darker secret. A jar of black goo is slowly filling up and I can only interpret this as a symbol of Parker’s grief and insanity as he slowly becomes consumed by his past.

The first forty minutes of Observance certainly feel more like Rear Window than any horror I have ever seen but stands its ground as an intense, edge-of-your seat thriller. We learn more about Parker and are introduced to his enthusiastic brother-in-law Charlie (Benedict Hardie) but it’s safe to say the focus is all on our protagonist.

OBSERVANCE: Agonisingly Close To Greatness
source: Artsploitation Films

Whereas, in the second half, the film shifts from thriller to psychological horror as Parker descends into madness. The film takes on a Paranormal Activity ‘things that go bump in the night’ horror style and despite initially refraining from the cheap jump scares, inevitably succumbs to the tasteless yet easy way to frighten audiences.

I was disappointed to see that after I had written down the note that the film was “not reliant on jump scares”, they soon became frequent and rushed. The real horror came from the suspense and thriller elements of the film but it delved down the generic rabbit hole and lost its touch.

Trying Too Hard

My main criticism of Observance was that director Joseph Sims-Dennett tried a little too hard to be ambitious with the symbolism within the film. The opening shot of waves crashing against a cliff felt unneeded and pointless, and the presence of the jar of black goo, a dissected mouse and a decapitated wolves head served nothing but to confuse the audience and hyperbolically ruin the tense atmosphere.

At some points, I was left thinking that if only Sims-Dennett had cut back on the metaphorical a bit, the film really would have been one of the greatest horror films of recent years.

OBSERVANCE: Agonisingly Close To Greatness
source: Artsploitation Films

Another problem I had with this Australian-made film was its insistence on having the nearly entire Australian cast all put on American accents. Lindsay Farris‘ accent began to falter at times and drifted from American to Australian and even around to Irish/Scottish at one point.

Again, this is another indicator that the film was trying too hard to be something it wasn’t, and would have been much better off sticking to the tone that was so prominent within the first forty minutes.

What was so agonising about my viewing of Observance is that I knew that it had so much potential and was so close to being a truly excellent film but it fell short at the critical moment. Left with a vague ending and a rushed climax, Observance was a slow burner which should have been allowed to burn just a little longer.

There were moments when I genuinely felt frightened or tense but it couldn’t maintain these feelings throughout its entirety and that was disappointing.

Technical Excellence

What I can say about Observance is that it is a very technically well-made piece of film. Cinematographer Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson (who worked as a cameraman on Television Show Farscape) did a sterling job and the almost-green tint on the film made it appear very sickly, dirty and perfectly encapsulated the grimey mood of Parker’s apartment.

OBSERVANCE: Agonisingly Close To Greatness
source: Artsploitation Films

Sound Editors David Gaylard and David Williams did a great job and as did the rest of the crew. Additionally, director Joseph Sims-Dennett did well for what was only his second feature film.

Conclusion

To conclude, Observance is agonisingly close to greatness and if the director had focused on the story itself and current events, rather than the ominously heavy-handed and symbolic flashbacks, this could have been one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

However, despite overdoing the metaphors and the bizarre decision to give all the characters American accents, Sims-Dennett creates a very solid film. Truly deserving of a place amongst other great films in the recent Horror-Renaissance (such as The Babadook or It Follows), Observance was just one small step away from being a masterpiece but is definitely something to be proud of from a small $11,000 budget.

What has been your favourite horror film of the last few years?

Observance will be released on DVD and Blu-ray (and exclusive streaming on Vimeo) August 2, 2016, and on most major VOD outlets beginning October 11th.

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