It’s hard not to compare surveillance films to 1974’s The Conversation. Coppola’s thriller wrote the book on cinematic paranoia, and the only thing that’s come close to besting it is the German film The Lives of Others. Observance isn’t in the same league as those two films, but it’s one of the better “Somebody is Watching Me” horror films. Furthermore, the tension in Observance is heightened by the fact that the film is intentionally strange. Not strange in the “Why is there a frozen caveman in my backyard in Encino, California?” sense, but more in the vein of “What the hell is going on?”
Co-written and directed by Joseph Sims-Dennett, Observance traces the destabilized mind of a private investigator named Parker (played by Lindsay Farris). Prior to his latest assignment, Parker’s life hit a tailspin. His wife no longer wants anything to do with him, which might have something to do with the fact that their baby boy died in 2012. The only reason Parker is out on another job is because there’s a $10,000 medical bill waiting for him.
The job is simple enough—observe and report. Parker’s unnamed and unknown employer (voiced by Brendan Cowell) reiterates to him over and over again that all he has to do is watch one woman who lives across the street (played by Stephanie King). This is where Observance shows its allegiance to another classic voyeur picture: Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Before breaking down, Parker sits in a dilapidated house covered in newspapers, takes pictures with his Nikon, and records phone conversations. By the film’s end, you still don’t know why he was hired to do any of it in the first place.
Although his subject frequently gets into arguments with her fiancé Bret (played by Tom O’Sullivan), her emotional struggles are nothing compared to the turmoil going on in Parker’s head. In between flashbacks of what seems like his son’s final days out on some dreary, rocky coast, Parker begins hearing things inside of the house. At one point he finds a dead and gutted mouse under his bed, while one night he discovers a horrid rash on his back. Things really get rough when Parker vomits black bile. Yikes.
Why Parker comes under this strain is kind of a mystery. First of all, there’s the Cathgate Research Center, which has some connection to both Bret and Tenneal (that would be Parker’s mark, mind you). One short Google search pulls up the fact that Cathgate “conducts research in aspects of human cell biology, abiotic stresses, plant pathogens, and evolutionary research.” When Parker calls the center, they are the very definition of evasive.
A second possible baddie in Observance is a murderer named Walter S. Moore (portrayed by Sims-Dennett himself). Back in the 1960s, Moore murdered the fiancée of Bret’s wealthy father. When he was dumped in prison, Moore committed suicide by slashing his wrists. Police investigators not only found that Moore had written “Gone Fishing” in his own blood inside of his cell, but that his basement apartment was covered in black ink and grotesque animal statues. After learning about this case, Parkers starts seeing Moore in his nightmares and even begins acting like the man himself. Worst of all, the spirit of Moore’s victim at first copulates with, then attacks Parker.
A final explanation for the high bizarreness of Observance is the jar of black ink that sits beside Parker’s bed. Like the green, Lovecraftian goo in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, the black ink seems alive and somehow seems responsible for Parker’s visions. Could Observance be a possession flick? I’m not sure.
With striking cinematography and a well-paced script, Observance is sure to appeal to many as a modern amalgam of technology and the supernatural. Sims-Dennett deserves a lot of credit for producing something generally frightening, while Farris’s portrayal of Parker should earn him Hollywood’s attention. The only thing I still can’t figure out (well, besides much of the film’s action) is why an Australian crew decided to film their movie in Australia (notice the cars with the steering wheels on the right-hand side) but make their actors speak like Americans from nowhere in particular. Again, weird.
The English-language 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.