Usually, digging up an old TV movie made by an established director is usually the act of a completist fan who wishes to finish off their collection. Usually looked down upon by the public in general – they can’t all be Steven Spielberg’s Duel or Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, after all – they’re destined to become rarely seen curious or pilots that never amounted to anything. Falling much in line with this is the television work of John Carpenter, or to be more precise, Someone’s Watching Me!, the 1979 thriller that’s become known as his “lost work” due to the scarcity of its availability.
Sandwiched between Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween (although it actually screened in the wake of Carpenter’s groundbreaking classic), this Hitchcockian psycho/thriller not only plays like a dry run for Michael Myers’ first rodeo, but also is a worthy – if dated – watch in it’s own right.
Leigh Michaels is a good humoured young woman who has just moved to a state of the art (for the late 70’s, anyway) high rise building in Los Angeles known as the Arkham Towers. Scoring work almost immediately directing live television for a local station, she instantly makes friends with her co-director Sophie but has to fend off the tireless advances of fellow director and walking sexual harassment case, Steve.
Leigh settles in quickly, seemingly living the dream of a single woman in LA, but soon the dream starts turning sinister when she starts receiving unsettling phone calls from a mystery stalker who – unbeknownst to her – has gained entrance to her apartment and bugged it for his own twisted amusement.
Doubling down on the creepy shit, Leigh also starts receiving gifts from a mysterious company called “Excursions Unlimited” that includes a telescope and a swimsuit, although it isn’t enough to dull her enthusiasm when she meets potential boyfriend material, philosophy professor Paul Winkless, in a bar and sparks fly.
However, the relentless phone calls and growing stress understandably start to take their inevitable toll as the stalker’s endless attempts induce major paranoia and after a close call after she tries to follow the man who delivered the latest letter, the deliberately stalker let’s it slip that he’s operating from the opposite building. After numerous dealings with the police that prove to be as unfruitful as sewing seeds on concrete, Leigh gets Paul and Sophie in on the act as they try to pull some Rear Window crap in order to flush the stalker out – but red herrings, twists and misunderstandings all conspire to make sure Leigh has a date with a shock “suicide” with her deeply unsettling admirer.
It would be easy to write Someone’s Watching Me! off for its overly-exploitive title (did we really need the exclamation mark in the there, John?) and it’s late 70’s TV aesthetic (one of the prime suspects is Uncle Leo from Seinfeld), but upon watching it it soon becomes obvious that this “lost” movie was an important block in the building of Carpenter’s career.
Of course, if we’re talking the sheer nuts and bolts of filmmaking then it’s invaluable for giving the young Carpenter his first experience with a union crew and getting him into the Director’s Guild – but on top of that we also see the director’s first collaborations with Charles Cyphers (playing a similarly ineffectual police officer as he did in Halloween) and Adrienne Barbeau who not only showed up in The Fog and Escape From New York but was also wed to Carpenter until 1984.
As we move onto the more thriller-y aspects of the story, it plain to see that Carpenter was playing around with various visuals that he would eventually mold into what would become one of the most profitable horror movies in history and while we’re obviously missing such trademarks as a 2.35:1 aspect ratio or a kickass, synth score, Carpenter still hones his gift for composition and briefly even toys with POV – two invaluable tools when crafting the movie that broke him into the big time.
However, while it’s fun to see these skills fine tuned before your very eyes, Someone’s Watching Me! hardly sets the genre on fire when it comes to the mechanics of its actual plot, crafting an oft-told tale of creepy phone calls, hidden microphones and authorities that are about as much use as a bullet proof vest forged out of kebab meat. In fact, it’s weird how exactly detailed the script is when its director became revered for exactly the kind of lean, minimalist storytelling that makes Someone’s Watching Me! seem almost rambling in comparison. However, one thing that this under seen TV movie excels in is with the characterization of its female cast which may actually rank as some of the best writing of Carpenter’s career. Eschewing the measured, savvy sketching of Laurie Strode or the enigmatic swaggering of Snake Plissken, the script gives us the fully fleshed out Leigh Michaels, a single woman working in a high pressure field who isn’t emotionally crippled by her singleton status (in fact, she begrudgingly accepts it) and has a robust, quirky sense of humour she employs with pride. It gives actress Lauren Hutton plenty to embrace and she enfuses her character with genuinely likeable energy as she constantly cracks off-beat jokes to herself and everyone she meets. It’s something of an impressively progressive lead that also has a few things to say about the nature of sexually aggressive men. Behold the shameless actions of work colleague Steve, a horn dog who refuses to take repeated no’s as an answer and whose dating tactics aren’t a million miles removed from that of Leigh’s stalker. Elsewhere, even more steps are made in the form of Adrienne Barbeau’s extraordinarily likable Sophie, an openly gay character who’s sexuality isn’t exploited or exaggerated in any way and even though she’s played by a straight actress and who (spoiler) goes the way of all best friends in psycho/thrillers, it’s still a classily done addition.
By the time we finally make it to the somewhat overly convoluted finale that features a big reveal that isn’t that big at all, we’re still treated to a prototype of the final girl trope as Leigh, standing up to her attacker and fighting him off herself with a piece of glass, takes control of her own destiny without a last minute save by a man.
While its 70’s TV movie style admittedly limits some of its effectiveness, Someone’s Watching Me! proves to be a little more than simply a curiosity for Carpenter enthusiasts thanks to surprisingly measured characters and some timely and sadly all too relevant themes.
Someone’s Watching Me! would benefit from more people watching it…