Do you ever feel like you’re about to get sick, but the actual sickness takes days or even weeks to manifest itself? Observance, a new film by Australian director Joseph Sims-Dennett, made on a microbudget and which received acclaim at Montreal’s Fantasia Festival, taps into that unsettlingly suffocating feeling of disease in a major way.
Using a telescope and with carefully-placed audio bugs feeding into his laptop, Parker (Lindsay Farris) performs surveillance on a woman in the apartment across from his over the course of several days. He records her calls and provides updates to an unnamed caller who checks in periodically. Brief but beautiful shots of waves crashing onto rocks, cave formations, and macro photography of blood seeping into carpet fibres provide clues to Parker’s backstory, including the tragic loss of his son. As the story, and Parker himself, unravels, things begin to degrade rapidly.
What Joseph Sims-Dennett has done here with an unbelievably small budget (only $11,000) and a fairly short shooting schedule (11 days), is pretty impressive. The theme of Parker’s degradation, both mental and physical, manifests itself as the film takes on a sickening greenish tinge as it wears on, and when literally vomitous tar-like substances take over the frame, you may wish you’d gone into this one with an empty stomach.
As with many films with a small, confined set, the apartment in Observance becomes a character in the film, festering with infection and disease just as Parker does. The haphazardly papered walls, taped-over windows, and well-used dinge, all interspersed with tight shots of Parker’s pained face are stifling in just the right way.
What stands out as much as, and often even more than any of the visuals, is Observance’s sound design. There’s an ebb and flow of complete silences and the roar of ocean sounds and passing trains that make the tension unbearable at times. It’s to Sims-Dennett’s credit that one of the best scares I’ve experienced in horror this year is nothing more than a computer sound file of a creepy voice saying “stop watching.”
The first 45-ish minutes of Observance could be one of the strongest openers to a horror film I’ve seen this year, but the latter portion just doesn’t quite wrap it up sufficiently. It eschews the slow-burn pace for more conventional horror beats and feels a little unsatisfying and rushed. A change in perspective from Parker to his subject, Tenneal, comes too late in the film to feel earned, providing little more than a setup for the film’s last climactic moment. It makes me wonder if a bit more money or time could have elevated Observance to the level of lo-fi horrors like Shane Carruth’s outstanding Upstream Colour or Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Resolution.
Despite a too-hasty conclusion, Observance is more compelling than films with ten times its budget. It teases out a complex and layered mystery while producing some of the most unnerving (and strangely beautiful) imagery in indie horror – maybe horror in general – this year. If this is what Sims-Dennett can do with a shoestring budget, I can’t wait to see what he does with more.