'Observance': Fantasia Review

Observance Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Fantasia Film Festival

Observance Still - H 2015

A Polanski-style existential creeper.

He's watching her, but why?

Likely to prove one of the most chilling experiences at this fright-loving fest, Joseph Sims-Dennett's Observance bundles voyeurism, blind obedience and grief up in a package that is already plenty disturbing before the biological horrors slink in. Born, its director says, in a dark moment when he and collaborator Josh Zammit had been fired from their jobs, the picture draws on everyone from Cronenberg and early Polanski to Shane Carruth in the construction of its existential mystery. While in the end many viewers will find that mystery frustratingly unresolved, many will be moved enough to talk about it; buzz at fests could well lead to an arthouse deal.

Lindsay Farris plays Parker, a mourning father whose marriage appears to have dissolved in the wake of his son's death. Struggling under the debt of the boy's hospital bills, he takes a lucrative but dubious job: Install himself in a filthy abandoned building across from a woman's apartment and spy on her for a few days. Aside from a nail-biting scene in which he sneaks into her home to plant listening devices, all Parker does is watch through his telephoto lens and listen to her phone calls, reporting what he learns to a voice on the phone who represents Parker's secretive employer. Even when he sees things that make him fear for the woman's safety, his handler tells him to sit tight, do nothing, everything will be okay.

All other indications suggest everything will not be at all okay. Parker is surrounded by rot and ooze, from the weird black liquid collecting in jars to the little animal corpses he finds in the least welcome places. Unsurprisingly, he gets sick, making his fevered dreams of his dead boy all the more disturbing.

Sims-Dennett combines observation and memory in montages of close-ups and menacing sound design, leading us to ask how much of the danger Parker starts to perceive is in his own mind. It can't all be, as we glimpse things he's not even aware of — what's that shadow swimming in the milk he's drinking?! — and hear hints from other characters about a conspiracy he might unwittingly be part of.

Midway through, the film adds Asian horror to its mix of creepy influences, taking viewers by the throat even as they start to fear they aren't going to get answers to their questions. Answers or no, Observance could hardly be more effective at making us dread what we're watching.

Production company: Sterling Cinema
Cast: Lindsay Farris, Stephanie King, Brendan Cowell, Benedict Hardie, Tom O'Sullivan
Director: Joseph Sims-Dennett
Screenwriters-Producers: Joseph Sims-Dennett, Josh Zammit
Director of photography: Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson
Production designer: Mobey Zammit
Costume designers: Alice Collins, Clare Collins
Editor: Charles Ivory
Music: Adrian Sergovich, Haydn Walker

No rating, 85 minutes