Joseph Sims-Dennett’s third film, Observance follows Parker (Lindsay Farris) a grieving, cash-strapped private detective who’s been hired to spy on a woman named Tenneal (Stephanie King). He sets up camp across the street, and much of the movie is shot through the lens of his camera and relayed through the audio of his tape recorder. The film showcases his descent into either madness or some form of demonic possession.
Sims-Dennett does a great job showing the audience what Parker is thinking while sidestepping the typical clunky voice over narration. This succeeds in part because of Sims-Dennett’s use of flashbacks and incredible graphic matches, and in part because of Farris’s performance. The movie leans on his expressions, the camera frequently staying with him and letting the audience intuit what he’s thinking. This style asks more of the audience than a voice-over narrator, which in turn leads to greater viewer engagement. It’s hard to be bored while trying to fill in those deliberate, well-chosen gaps. There’s a fair amount that the audience is allowed to know but there is still much that is withheld. What’s really wonderful, though, is in the end, the movie only ever reveals what the characters themselves know. Letting the audience leave without the definite answers that the characters had been seeking and failed to find is a great move for a psychological horror movie. It opens the possibility for repeat viewings and leaves a great deal up to interpretation.
The movie also does a great job with working in traditional horror imagery. What he uses isn’t particularly original, but a lot of the horror comes from working with familiar imagery. (How many times have you seen a woman with slit wrists in a bathrobe charging the camera yelling, “Look what you made me do?,” or seen a killer with a knife stalking a young woman?) When Observance dips into that well, what it borrows is brutish, and works well because it takes the time to build suspense up to those moments, and unlike a lot of the horror film coming out recently, it lingers in those moments. The camera stays in uncomfortable scenes, amplifying the power of the imagery and the audience’s disgust.
Where the movie stops working as well is when the point of view shifts. Near the end of the movie, the cameras abandon Parker in favor of Tenneal, which is a bit off-putting. Because the movie has been so stringently following Parker—traveling through his memories, his dreams, his viewfinder, his audio playbacks, his phone calls, and his meetings—it’s off-putting to switch into following another charter. The movie never laid the groundwork for us to be with her, and as a result it doesn’t work as well as it needs to.
The only other problems with this film are technical in nature. There are moments where Parker is reading scraps of paper but the camera cuts away too quickly for the viewer to read them, moments where it is a bit too dark to tell what’s happening on the screen, and sequences where characters are eavesdropping on one another and it’s difficult to dechipher what’s actually being said. While they do occur, those moments are infrequent.
Generally, Observance is well-executed psychological horror film. It’s greatest strengths are the cinematography, coupled with beautiful and original graphic matches and Lindsay Farris’s gripping performance. The movie was made with a shoe string budget and came out well, all things considered. Hopefully audiences will be treated to seeing what Joseph Sims-Dennett and co can do when they have more to work with in the future.
Wicked Rating: 6.5/10 [usr=6.5]
Director: Joseph Sims-Dennett
Writers: Joseph Sims-Dennett and Josh Zammit
Stars: Lindsay Farris, Stephanie King
Release: DVD, Blu-Ray, and Vimeo August 2, 2016
Studio/ Production Co: Sterling Cinema, Artsploitation Films, Umbrella Entertainment
Length: 90 minutes
Sub-Genre: Psychological Thriller