Australia | 2016 | Directed by Joseph Sims-Dennett

Logline: Due to a personal and financial crisis a private investigator reluctantly takes on a mysterious job which soon begins to affect his mind, body, and soul, his entire wellbeing. 

Parker (Lindsay Farris) is struggling with inner turmoil. He has hit rock bottom, close to bankruptcy, his marriage a shambles, following the tragic death of his son. He has bottled his grief in order to plough through a potentially lucrative job. Holed up in a decrepit apartment with his laptop and high-powered lens, all he has to do is watch the woman in the adjacent terrace and photograph and make notes of her behaviour. Her phone line has been tapped, but he needs to bug the apartment at the soonest opportunity. 

Tenneal (Stephanie King), the subject of Parker’s assignment, is dealing with an abusive relationship. Bret (Tom O’Sullivan) keeps hounding Tenneal, even getting rough. Parker’s anxiety grows, but his employer (voiced by Brendan Cowell) insists he sit tight and watch and report back. A darkness begins to emerge within Parker’s newspapered cell, nothing is what it seems. 

Co-written by Sims-Dennett and Josh Zammit, both on their debut feature, Observance is a handsome-looking picture, with fine technical achievements. The tight, controlled camerawork and green-grey-tinged cinematography creates a a palpable sense of claustrophobia, and with the reoccurring imagery and symbolism of the coastal rock and oceanic swells, there is something very Lovecraftian about the movie’s atmospheric shroud. The dread drips and oozes with impressive menace. 

But just what exactly is going on? This is an elusive haunted house story that permeates the protagonist’s mind like a creeping nightmare of the soul. Parker’s fear manifests itself as sores and fatigue, while a black primordial sludge that sits in a jar beside his bed steadily fills, eventually spilling from his own mouth. We’ve seen this kind of unctuous imagery a dozen times in other horror movies, but it still works a treat in Observance

The movie’s overall mood and tone - the nightmare hollowness - reminded me of Mike Flanagan’s Absentia (2011), yet Observance tries too hard to be cryptic, arcane, even Lynchian in its horror. Roman Polanski achieved a brilliant sense of pervading paranoia and dread in his masterful nightmare thriller The Tenant (1976), which Sims-Dennett and Zammit have obviously been influenced by, but their control is too tight, too contrived, and ultimately, confusing. Just what exactly was wrong with his friend Charlie (Benedict Hardie)? Why does Parker end up doing what he does at movie’s end? It’s all frustratingly obscure. 

My biggest gripe isn’t that we’re not given any of the answers, that’s okay, even if it does smack of pretentiousness, it’s that the filmmakers have chosen to have the movie take place in an American setting, so that all the characters speak with US accents. I can only understand this to be a commercial decision, which is always disappointing. There appears to be no artistic need for this to be an “American” story, cosmic horror of this kind is universal. It didn’t help that John Jarratt couldn’t quite pull his accent off either, or that I could pick it was Sydney within the first five minutes. 

The accent quibble aside, and the frustration with the obscurity of the narrative, Observance sports a strong soundscape/score from Haydn Walker and Adrian Sergovich, excellent art direction, and a solid performance from Farris, whose rattled presence the entire movie rests on. This kind of low-budget, artful horror is commendable, but, ultimately, it’s too obscure for its own good. It's the kind of movie that I fear would be labelled as "elevated horror", or worse, maybe not even horror at all, but instead, a psychological thriller. Observance is very much a convoluted nightmare, for better or for worse.