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Observance : what makes us scared?

Director Joseph Sims-Dennett channelled his own nightmares into Observance, a psychological horror that’s chilling audiences around the globe.


In January 2013, the temperature inside director Joseph Sims-Dennett’s apartment was soaring to 55 degrees as he called “action” and his lead actor vomited black ooze into a bathroom sink.

No, it wasn’t because of trauma from the heat (although Sims-Dennett did send everyone home that day).

If you’ve seen Observance, you know the scene in question – one of several hair-raising moments in the shudder-inducing psychological horror film, which had its world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival last year and will premiere at Sydney’s Randwick Ritz on April 3.

An idea born of a bad time in his life, Sims-Dennett says the shoot was equally horrifying.

It coincided with Sydney’s hottest recorded heat wave, which was only magnified inside his Rozelle apartment where Observance was shot.

“We were doing these 17-18 hour days and everyone got burnt out really quickly. We were all just swaying,” he says.

But there was a silver lining.

“That feeling that was on the set – particularly my anxiety – was somehow captured in what we were shooting.”

It was the intention of Observance, which emerged from a dark time in his life.

In November 2012, he and co-writer/producer Josh Zammit had both just lost their jobs and decided to use their spare time over the summer to make an art-house film.

Joseph Sims-Dennett

“We lived over in Rozelle and at night we would walk around Rozelle and Balmain, or wander over to Callan Park – that gigantic abandoned mental hospital – break in there and walk around talking about what made us scared,” he says.

“It was almost like therapy, like an examination of what made us frightened, and that’s what fed into the script and where it came from.”

The film follows a private investigator (played by Lindsay Farris) who is wading through his own personal grief when he lands a seemingly easy job: to watch a young woman in her home and report back. But as he trains his camera on the subject from a derelict apartment across the street, strange and increasingly disturbing occurrences begin to happen, seemingly coming from the building itself.

The feeling of unease that infuses Observance has drawn comparisons to Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Rear Window – something that’s flattering, but unintentional on Sims-Dennett’s part (he didn’t even see Repulsion until after they finished filming).

Yet however unsettling Observance might be Sims-Dennett sees it now as a kind of window into his past.

Much like music can transport us to a time or place, when the director watches Observance it takes him immediately back to that darker time.

“I’m reminded exactly of how I felt about my life at that point in time and I think that’s a really special thing – the film says an awful lot about Josh and I,” he says.

It was also something he and Zammit worked hard to capture, even altering the ending in the edit so the feeling lingered.

“Because the point in us making the film was to look at what makes us scared,” he says.

“And what makes us scared is the sense of not knowing, the lack of control against these invisible powers in our lives that are making us get up, brush our teeth and go to work every day.”

Interestingly, that fear of not having control actually led Sims-Dennett to seize the moment. And not give up.

The road to getting Observance to audiences has been a long and difficult one. Even once the film was finished, making the (expensive) leap from film festivals onto commercial cinema screens was a major hurdle. Made possible with completion funding and support from Screen Australia, Observance is now gearing up for a US, UK and Australian release.

“Finally after three and a half years the film’s completing the circuit and it’s getting out there,” Sims-Dennett says.

“It is incredibly satisfying knowing it’s coming out and is being seen by more than just film festivals and my friends.”

Observance is making its Australian premiere at Randwick Ritz on April 3, with tickets available here, followed by a limited theatrical run.