Twisted Terror: Someone's Watching Me Review

Someone’s Watching Me is so patently a cut above the usual television movie that it barely exists in the same universe as, say, Cruise Into Terror or the ineffable Mayday At 40,000 Feet. Compared to John Carpenter’s movies of the time, it’s nothing more than a bit of fluff. But on its own level, Someone’s Watching Me is something of a triumph.

Lauren Hutton plays, very capably, Leigh Michaels, a talented live TV director who moves into a new apartment and discovers that she is being observed from the building opposite by a man with a very long lens. This would be bad enough but her watcher soon decides to become a closer acquaintance by dint of nuisance phone calls which would, in less censorious circumstances, presumably be obscene. This being TV-movie land however, the calls are more cryptic than shocking, indicating that Leigh will receive a series of gifts through the post. The first of these is a telescope, the second a particularly tasteless bikini. Gradually, the stalker’s attentions become more malevolent and Leigh discovers that the brand new apartment – complete with computer controlled central heating – is more prison than paradise.

As I mentioned in my review of Eyes of a Stranger, the ‘phone psycho’ genre became popular around the end of the 1970s. Black Christmas set the template and remains, for my money, the best of the lot – can anyone forget that voice whimpering “Filthy Billy. I know what you did, nasty Billy”? Naturally, Someone’s Watching Me is rather more circumspect but it does capture some of the elemental terror of Black Christmas in the scenes where Leigh’s glass tower becomes a place without anywhere to hide. The intrusiveness of the telephone, the way it brings the outside world into our home without invitation, is a potent device for horror and Carpenter uses it well. There are some effective nods to classic Hollywood movies, notably Rear Window which is the inspiration for a memorable suspense sequence. He also conjures up an ingenious plot which manages to nudge at a few taboos without frightening too many of the horses. Most notably, he includes a lesbian character, Sophie (Barbeau), whose sexuality is never made an issue. This means that there’s not a single frisson between her and Lauren Hutton which might upset some slavering fanboys but is very sensible in plot terms.

Indeed, what impresses throughout Someone’s Watching Me is the strength of the principal female characters. In recent years, Carpenter has hardly been a progressive in terms of gender roles, but his early stuff is frequently dominated by tough women who take no shit and give as good as they get – none more so, of course, than Laurie Strode in Halloween. Leigh Michaels isn’t a particularly original character but she’s a convincing single woman – happy enough with her own company but not lacking the will to go out and look for someone if it suits her. Lauren Hutton is marvellous in the role, attacking her dialogue with relish and dominating the screen in the long stretches where she’s alone in her apartment – or apparently alone… Adrienne Barbeau is equally good – this is the film where she first met Carpenter, her future husband. The men don’t get much of a look in, largely because the boyfriend character, played by David Birney, is underwritten and poorly played. But it’s certainly nice to see Charles Cyphers, an actor who appeared in all of Carpenter’s work between Assault On Precinct 13 and Escape From New York.

John Carpenter’s direction is a model of professional craftsmanship here and it’s good to see such a clean, crisp job of work on a TV movie – a form where hackwork of the Bruce Kessler kind is much more common. His camerawork is typically brilliant, even in the confines of the 4:3 frame, and he executes some wonderfully tense moments, particularly the renowned scene where the stalker reveals his presence behind our heroine while she’s on the phone. Someone’s Watching Me is hardly in the class of Halloween or The Thing but it’s a lot better than you would have any right to expect – and it’s a reminder that Carpenter was, at one point, one of the most promising horror filmmakers of his generation.

The Disc

A much requested title, Someone’s Watching Me arrives on DVD from Warner Brothers on a reasonable, if unremarkable, disc.

The film is presented, rather oddly, in 1.85:1. Given that it was transmitted in fullscreen and was, presumably, made for that format, I’m not sure why this ratio has been used. However, it does look fine in the cropped ratio so it could be that Carpenter was bearing 1.85:1 in mind while shooting 4:3 in the hope of a possible theatrical release. Whatever the answer, I would of course have preferred the correct ratio. The film suffers from some speckling here and there and it’s excessively grainy in places but, on the whole, it looks OK. Colours are acceptable but there’s the flat look which is so typical of 1970s TV movies. The mono soundtrack does all that could be expected of it.

We also get a short documentary entitled John Carpenter: Director Rising which consists of an interview with Carpenter in which he discusses the film, why he made it and the experience which it gave him. This is short but entertaining because Carpenter is always a pleasure to listen to.

The film has optional subtitles but the documentary does not.

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