Someone’s Watching Me!
(SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit (Halloween) and reasonably successful writing job (The Eyes of Laura Mars) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis. Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.
Originally titled the JG Ballard-evoking High Rise, Carpenter recounted that the plot was based on an event in Chicago, albeit he embroidered the stalker’s reveal as a maintenance manager. He wrote it as a feature for Warner Bros in 1977, but it was “a little soft for them, so they turned it over to the TV department”. However, since “my agents had gotten me an agreement when I wrote it to be considered as director” it proved no great tribulation to get the gig. While Carpenter had made Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, both cult items, neither were hits, so he was doubtless invested in getting as much work and experience as he could on an entirely practical, nuts-and-bolts level. He admitted he was “green”, having “never worked on a union show”.
As such, the experience proved an enlightening one, both in terms of the “assembly line” production of TV (“these guys were fast”) and how to solve bread-and-butter problems – “how to take care of myself during a shoot, how to pace myself, how to accomplish the work for the day – to get in on budget and on time” – that would stand him in good stead in years to come. And immediately: two weeks after wrapping, he began the Halloween shoot. Of which, he claimed “a lot of the style and flow… can be directly related to Someone’s Watching Me!”
Carpenter also suggested this was the year he worked his hardest – for someone who has latterly spent his days loafing around playing video games, he would doubtless know. Besides Someone is Watching Me! and Halloween, he also shot Elvis. He admitted Someone’s Watching Me! “has its limitations in the fact that it is a TV movie” and having very little time to get it done, but “I’m really proud of it. I really like it. It all turned out great”.
Well, it turned out fine. It’s curious that Carpenter’s script should have a TV director as its protagonist, since he was now turning his hand to that very area. Lauren Hutton is a little “budget Dunaway” as Leigh Michaels, but she’s given an idiosyncratic character, at least until she succumbs to the stresses of being stalked by a sinister man across the street – one who has bugged her apartment and is constantly phoning her – get to her. Leigh has an oddball sense of humour, likes to talk to herself – “I won’t tell jokes to the neighbours” she promises premises manager James Murtaugh, later of The Howling – and has a curious/annoying/”Aren’t I a character?” pick up line (she says hello to a random stranger in a bar, moves away, then returns announcing “Haven’t we met before?”) She also offers off-colour gags about “being raped by dwarves” amid fielding the unwelcome attentions of the likes of co-worker Steve (Grainger Hines).
The early stages find Carpenter engineering slow-building frustration, as we know this is going nowhere good. Leigh, increasingly disquieted, nevertheless does nothing about the incessant calls and presents (including a telescope). Carpenter may be right when he said this is old hat now, that “everybody’s a voyeur. Even you” (albeit, Carpenter’s first short, nine years earlier, was called Captain Voyeur, and the key sequence in which Leigh’s co-worker Sophie, played by future Carpenter wife Adrienne Barbeau, is attacked in her apartment while Leigh observes from the stalker’s residence, is evidently an inverted flip of Rear Window). But when Leigh finally goes to the police and is told there’s nothing they can do – “I can’t arrest a man for sending presents in the mail and dialling wrong numbers” – it’s an effective bind: “Well, if he kills me, you’ll be the first to know” she assures the officer on the phone.
The pace is leisurely at first, enabling Leigh to get to know Sophie (identified as a lesbian) and beau Paul (David Birney, who as a very 70s TV face, possibly that of a talk-show pianist). But the sense of intrusion and violation –we can see someone is in her apartment while she is oblivious; the delayed realisation that he’s not only calling her but watching her too – results in some effective red herrings. It looks as if Len Lesser – “Uncle Leo!” from Seinfeld – is the culprit, until it turns out he’s been wrongly accused (and lost his job and pension and moved to another state as a result. Still, that’s cancel culture for you). A suspenseful sequence finds Leigh hiding under a floor grating as a potential murderer smokes a cigarette above. And the finale, in which she stabs the true culprit (Stiles, played by George Skaff) with a window shard – she earlier smashed the glass with a chair – milks the tension for all its worth.
Someone’s Watching Me! was lensed by TV veteran Robert Hauser (who also worked on a run of cinema features in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and on recently-viewed classic The Brotherhood of the Bell). Carpenter suggest that, for the time, it was “elegantly lit” (for inelegantly lit, see everything Gary Kibbe did with the director). As is evident from Halloween looming on the horizon, he wasn’t involved with the editing, but he nevertheless thought what they did with it was “great” (again). Serviceable, let’s not get carried away. Nevertheless, while Someone’s Watching Me! can’t escape a certain vanilla vibe, it’s infinitely preferable to the director’s later return(s) to the TV realm.