Friday, November 13, 2015

Someone's Watching Me! (1978)

In between his 1976 exploitation classic Assault on Precinct 13 and his 1978 horror megahit Halloween, John Carpenter made a TV movie starring Lauren Hutton for NBC. Unavailable on video for many, many years, Carpenter's fans came to refer to it as his "lost" film.

Someone's Watching Me! was finally released on DVD in the mid 2000s, and it's now available to stream on various online platforms (I finally caught it on Amazon). It would be a bit much to say the fans rejoiced, but there was certainly a renewed flurry of interest in the film, at least in certain corners of the Internet geek-o-sphere.

So I watched it last night. Final verdict? Overall, pretty good!

It may seem strange to imagine Carpenter doing a movie-of-the-week, but in an odd way the medium of late 70s network TV actually suited his talents pretty well. Due to Halloween's influence on the nascent slasher genre, Carpenter is often thought of as a gorehound. I've always found this strange — really, the only bloody movie from his early days is The Thing, and he didn't go full splatter until 1998's Vampires. Carpenter was always much more of a technical craftsman than his contemporaries (Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, etc.). The only one who really rivaled him in terms of sheer filmmaking ability was George A. Romero (David Cronenberg wouldn't hit his stride until the mid-late 1980s).

What Someone's Watching Me! manages to do is take the essence of what makes those early Carpenter films so great and distills them down to the bare essentials. Someone's Watching Me! is not much more than lean and efficient thriller, but as such it (mostly) succeeds marvelously.

Now I really don't want to oversell this thing. Someone's Watching Me! is definitely a TV movie, with all the inherent flaws you'd expect. It's not terribly original (it's sort of a reverse riff on Hitchcock's Rear Window, where a woman is terrorized by a stalker watching her from another apartment building). The conclusion leaves much to be desired. And it's pretty laughably dated in parts.

But Carpenter's talent is such that he was able to take as standard a potboiler setup you can imagine and infuse it with a very palpable sense of dread. I was surprised by how genuinely scary this movie is. In fact, up until the end I actually found it more unsettling than Halloween.

Hutton plays Leigh Michaels, a young live television director relocating from New York to Los Angeles to escape a collapsed relationship (because in the 1970s, apparently women couldn't just move for better career opportunities). She rents a swanky high-rise apartment in the aptly named Arkham Towers (even in a movie as fundamentally boilerplate as this, Carpenter couldn't resist a little Lovecraft reference), where she immediately starts receiving strange phone calls. The calls are followed by a letter from a company called "Excursions Limited" purporting to offer her an expenses-paid vacation. The only catch is she has to correctly identify the destination by a series of "gifts" to be delivered to her over the next several weeks.

Of course, Excursions Limited doesn't exist and the "gifts" are not as benign as they at first seem. Leigh finds herself psychologically under siege, ignored by the police and being driven mad by a mysterious psychopath who seems to know everything about her.

Carpenter uses this pretty standard setup as a hook upon which to hang a surprisingly effective little thriller. A devotee of both Howard Hawkes and Alfred Hitchcock, one thing Carpenter has always been better at than any of the other low-budget horror practitioners of that period is classic suspense technique, and an intuitive grasp of what not to show. Specifically, at his best he is an absolute genius at how to use depth and the edges of the frame to suggest threats just outside of our field of vision (he truly mastered this with Halloween later the same year). And no one can stretch a beat right up to its breaking point like he can. For all its 70s TV goofiness, Someone's Watching Me! is startlingly cinematic. Little things,like a quick dolly move to a wrapped package or a subtle rack focus to a ringing telephone create a real sense of mounting anxiety that builds steadily throughout.

Another thing Carpenter often doesn't get enough credit for is his skill as a writer (I think it's no accident that the quality of his work diminished the less involved with the scripts he became). He's great at structuring a story and finding unique little details that set his work apart from his hackier genre competitors. This is true of Someone's Watching Me! as well; while the setup is familiar, the way the plot unfolds holds some real surprises. In particular, the "Excursions Limited" motif is a great, original, and unsettling hook. The idea of an anonymous "company" exacting a personal vendetta on someone is uniquely disturbing in our capitalist, Kafka-inflected society. Carpenter's use of the concept here reminded me a little of Bentley Little's better horror novels and Stephen King's short story "Quitters Inc." My only complaint is that he could have done more with it.

Carpenter also can be pretty great at character. Halloween — his biggest hit — is actually not a great example, but just listen to the sharp crackle of his dialogue in later films like Escape From New York and, especially, The Thing (he was always at his best when writing for Kurt Russell). Again, Someone's Watching Me! is unexpectedly sophisticated in this regard, and Hutton's performance as Leigh is really pretty engaging. She's a heroine not quite like any I've seen before: alternately tough, polished, silly, vulnerable, and charmingly awkward (she constantly chatters to herself and drops obscure jokes that no one else seems to get). Leigh could very easily have been a standard victim archetype, but Carpenter's script and Hutton's take on her infuses her with some real personality and charisma.

Carpenter's future wife Adrienne Barbeau is also fun in a supporting role as Leigh's friend and co-worker. Unfortunately the other characters don't fare quite as well. Grainger Hines shows up as a predictably lecherous co-worker (this is the 70s, where workplace sexual harassment could still be played mostly as comic relief) and David Birney is pretty underserved as the requisite, milquetoast love interest. But Hutton (and, to a lesser degree, Barbeau) bring enough to the party to make the film memorable.

As good as it is given all the limitations, Someone's Watching Me! is still really only mid-level Carpenter — better than much of his late-period work, but in the end nowhere near as exciting as early masterpieces like Escape, Halloween, The Thing, and The Fog. It probably lands somewhere right around Christine/Assault territory. I might have been willing to place it higher in the canon (I actually find the filmmaking in parts more interesting than what you see in Halloween) but for the truly godawful ending. The movie really falls apart in the last ten to fifteen minutes, when everything that had been interesting about it is tossed aside in favor of a by-the-numbers conclusion that's as lackluster as it is unmotivated. And the final reveal of who the stalker is redefines the entire concept of "lame."

So, no, it's not a masterpiece. But Someone's Watching Me! is definitely worth a look, particularly if you're a Carpenter fan and want to see him begin to perfect the techniques that would serve him so well later in his career.