From his vantage point in a dilapidated apartment, private investigator Parker is watching the beautiful woman across the street. Every day he observes her, listens in on every phone call, and provides his employer with daily reports. It’s supposed to be a cushy gig that pays well, but soon Parker realizes the assignment isn’t what it seems. Shortly after, what’s happening across the street seems tame compared to the bizarre things going on inside the abandoned apartment where Parker spends his days and nights. It’s worse at night.
Writer-director Joseph Sims-Dennet’s new film Observance had its world premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival. It’s his follow-up to his award-winning 2010 film Bad Behaviour and this time around, he’s toned down the wild waves of blood displayed in his first film for a subtler, more insidious approach to horror. Devoid of any big flashes of violence, Observance is pure psychological horror. It traces Parker’s descent into madness brought upon by the grief of his dead son and other, more nefarious forces lurking within the walls of the apartment. The festival program compares it to Polanski’s Repulsion and I’d say that’s a fair assessment. Polanski was fond of putting people in apartments and driving them insane (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant) and Sims-Dennet’s film fits well into that niche.
Lindsay Farris (who also starred in Bad Behaviour) is in every scene and does a bang up job carrying the film. Parker’s past is painted in patches of grey and Farris does well portraying that shadiness. We learn that his son recently passed away and the hospital bills are crippling, which is why he took on such a sketchy but lucrative gig. The grief he carries begins to manifest itself within the apartment in progressively more terrifying ways. Rather than straight up shock the audience, Sims-Dennet allows the paranoid terror to get under our skin and fester.
For example, there’s a jar of black fluid inside the apartment. How it got there and what exactly it is go unexplained, but I cringed every time it made an appearance. I hate that jar.
Aside from a few scenes, Observance takes place entirely in the apartment. The moments staged outside its walls feel jarring and take us out of the film to a degree. They suit their purpose well (particularly a fishing scene) but after spending so much time cooped up with Parker, watching his psyche dissolve, these scenes slacken the tension a bit. These outdoor scenes are slim, thankfully, and the film nevertheless successfully heaps on tension until its powerful final moments.
The theme of grief and the idea of someone watching the watcher make for a primo combination to explore in a psychological horror film. Observance pulls it off extraordinarily well. Its layers of terror and paranoia build up throughout and from the first frame there’s a creepiness to it all that consumes the audience. It’s certainly one to seek out and was easily one of the best and most unique works of horror coming out of Fantasia this year.