Monday, February 18, 2013

John Carpenter: Someone's Watching Me!

Even though John Carpenter had himself a cult hit with the wacky sci-fi spoof Dark Star, and found success in Europe with the critically loved but little seen Assault on Precinct 13 (he also wrote the script for The Eyes of Laura Mars), he still wouldn’t be a hot commodity until he made Halloween. In between Assault and Halloween Carpenter took a job on television, making a thriller for NBC. Someone’s Watching Me! (yes, there is an exclamation point in the title, and it makes me laugh every time I look at it) isn’t anything special — the film was made before Halloween but released on television a few months after Carpenter’s seminal horror films was released in theaters —as there’s no hidden gem to discover here. Sure, the film is pretty sleek in some scenes, more than serviceable as a nice homage to Hitchcock, and an early example of what the stalk-and-slash film looked like prior to Halloween’s release, but there’s nothing wholly memorable about it.

The film concerns another Carpenter heroine named Leigh (the name of Nancy Loomis’ character in Assault on Precinct 13). Here, Leigh (Lauren Hutton) takes a new job at a television station and moves into a swanky Los Angeles high rise. Within the first few days of moving in, she begins getting upsetting phone calls. She soon realizes that someone is indeed watching her and tormenting for seemingly no reason. Leigh enlists the aide of her boyfriend (David Birney) and co-worker (Adrienne Barbeau, marking the first time the future wife of Carpenter would work with him) to investigate the phone calls, taking matter into her own hands (you can never trust the police in these movies, can you?). She quickly discovers the truth about her tormenter: he lives in the apartments across from hers, has bugged her apartment, and has killed before; the last woman he was fixated on died after plunging nine stories to her death. Naturally, this unnerves Leigh who is already on edge after a move to a new city and taking a new job. Her paranoid continues to mount until the film’s final moments which include a nice tip of the hat to Hitch’s Rear Window (there are more than a few Hitch references throughout the film).

There isn’t much to say about Someone’s Watching Me! except that it does what a 1970’s television thriller should do: establishes character well, creates some decent tension, and doesn’t get in the way of itself. There’s nothing overly convoluted here; this is about as straightforward a thriller as you’re going to see, and that’s not a bad thing. There’s a great moment early on in the film when Leigh is on the phone, facing the window, and we see an intruder run past her. It’s the same technique Carpenter would use to great effect in Halloween: keeping the main character in the foreground at medium shot, and then having something terrifying (without a music sting, too!) happen out of focus in the background. It’s not as effective as it is in Halloween, but it’s still a nice little moment for what I was expecting to be nothing more than a throwaway television thriller.

The acting isn’t anything to write home about, but the characters are all consistent with Carpenter model. Much like he did with his character Leigh in Assault on Precinct 13, he makes this Leigh a pro-active character, not some passive, frightened woman who can’t do anything. At the end of the film when we get our big confrontation, Leigh goes on the attack. The characterization of Leigh is a nice continuation of what we saw in Assault but also a nice precursor to what we will see with his more popular horror film released in the same year. He takes the prototypes of the two Leigh’s and finds the perfect actress (Jamie Lee Curtis) to represent the Hawksian woman that he so lovingly casts in most of his films. But it’s not just in the stalk-and-slash moments where Leigh shows her independence. Throuhgout the film an annoying co-worker keeps asking her out, expecting that she’ll say yes because he’s a big deal at the TV station, and she’s “just a woman.” Leigh continually shoots him down in assured fashion; Carpenter and Hutton (who I kept thinking was Kathleen Turner whenever I turned away from the screen) create a character that knows what they want, and is confident in their decision. Barbeau’s character, too, must have been something of a transcending moment in television at the time. She plays Sophie, Leigh’s co-worker, a lesbian. Now, this is only important in that Carpenter doesn’t make it important. Sophie is not a caricature, and she isn’t labeled by her lesbianism. Again, it’s who she is, comes up in conversation between her and Leigh, and then that’s all we here of it. There are no eye-rolling, groan-inducing stereotypes here, and I love Carpenter for that, especially considering that this was a TV movie aired on NBC. It’s a breath of fresh air to see these kinds of female characters in horror films.

Someone’s Watching Me! is sleek and well-made; it’s no Duel (easily the best of the made-for-TV thrillers of the ‘70s), but it does what it sets out to do well. I especially liked the homage to Rear Window where Sophie goes into the Peeping Tom’s apartment while Leigh talks to her on a two-way radio, looking at her through a telescope. We know what Carpenter is up to — we know the homage — yet the scene still has a good amount of tension to it. Perhaps that says more about the lasting qualities of Hitchcock than it does Carpenter as a director, but it’s a nice scene. There’s also a really nice scene in the bowels of the apartment complex where Leigh hides under a grate as she looks up at her stalker as he walks over her. My description doesn’t do the scene justice. For horror completests (particularly slasher fans), Someone’s Watching Me! is worth seeking out. A nice comparison is the later-released Canadian slasher Visiting Hours, if that’s your sort of thing. It’s efficient and well-made (if wholly forgettable), has a few standout scenes, and has some interesting moments for the curious viewer (“Seinfeld’s” Uncle Leo has nice small part in it!). The film did get a theatrical run in Europe as High Rise, and I have a feeling now more than ever with TV being on a par (and in many ways surpassing) film these days that audiences would be more receptive to the film today (instead of thinking it “just a TV movie”). 


  1. Nice assessment of this film. Clearly, Carpenter killing time between classics but he kills it in an entertaining and engaging fashion. As you point out, stylistically, it's a bit of a warm-up for what he would do in HALLOWEEN.

    1. Yup. It was also the first of many times Carpenter would homage Hitchcock, which is a filmmaker that he gives a tip-of-the-hat to just as often as he does Hawks.