Friday, February 8, 2013

John Carpenter's TV work: Someone's Watching Me (1978)

As a fan of director John Carpenter it's frustrating how much he has slowed his output in recent years. He's only made two films in the last decade and seems in no hurry to make any more. As a result, in order to satiate my appetite, I've had to dig a little deeper into his back catalogue and catch up with his (semi-)forgotten TV movies. So over the next month I'm going to be doing reviews all his small screen work. First up is Someone's Watching Me, a TV movie that he wrote and directed in 1978, the same year that he made Halloween. Reportedly, he wrote the script for the cinema but ended up retooling it for TV when NBC offered to finance it. It was shot in 10 days just before he went into pre-production on Halloween. Like all Carpenter's films it has a pretty clever hook. It's more or less a reversal of the classic Hitchcock film Rear Window - so instead of having the protagonist spy on a killer, in this movie the killer is the one spying on the protagonist!

The plot revolves around the character of Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton), a young woman who has just moved to LA to work for a TV station. She buys an apartment in a high rise building and before long she starts getting weird phone calls, mysterious presents and bogus letters. She slowly deduces that someone in one of the adjacent high rise buildings is watching her every move through a telescope! But who is it and why are they targeting her? She goes to the police for help but they refuse to get involved so she decides to take matters into her own hands and enlists the help of her colleague Sophie and her boyfriend Paul. Together they discover that this Peeping Tom may be more deadly than he appears, he may in fact be a killer who uses his telescope to pick out lonely women to murder! Will they be able to stop him before he gets to Leigh?

Someone's Watching Me is actually a pretty good film all things considered. Carpenter definitely had to make some compromises converting it to a TV movie. For instance, although the film generates some decent suspenseful sequences it's obvious that Carpenter has had to leave quite a few spaces for the commercial breaks. As a result, the film seems to stop and start a lot. It's a shame because one of the great things about Halloween was how well he kept ratcheting up the tension throughout. The film also feels in a need of a little 'edge'. I don't know whether some gore would have 'improved' it per se but it would have probably made it feel a little tougher and more cinematic.

One of the best aspects of the movie is the main character Leigh. As a way of getting around the fact that she spends much of the film on her own, Carpenter makes her a quirky offbeat character who talks to herself a lot. This character trait sounds annoying on paper but actress Lauren Hutton really makes it work. She also does a great job of conveying the character's emotions, starting off carefree and naive before becoming increasingly paranoid and frightened. She's ably supported by Adrienne Barbeau who plays her work colleague Sophie. One of the film more unusual aspects is that Carpenter makes Sophie openly lesbian but then never develops it as a plot point which I thought was quite progressive thinking for a TV movie from the 70s.

The camera work is pretty good - again, taking into account how dull and dry most TV shows looked at the time. Despite the 4:3 framing you can still recognise that it's been made by Carpenter's hand. Like Halloween, he uses a fair bit of smooth steadicam work and several POV shots from the killer's perspective. In a lot of ways, this film feels like a sort of dry-run for Halloween. Both are obviously heavily indebted to the work of Dario Argento and Bob Clark's Black Christmas, but this film feels a bit more Hitchcock-esque with its red herrings and underlying tension. One thing is for sure Carpenter definitely rings the maximum potential out of the film's quite narrow scope; taking his time to set-up and then unravel the mystery.

all Someone's Watching Me is a very watchable thriller that stands head and shoulders over 99% TV movies. It's no Duel but it's a consummate piece of work that slots in very nicely to Carpenter's back catalogue. If you're a Carpenter completist like me you should definitely think about picking it up. For a long time it was really hard to get hold of but a few years ago Warner released under the banner of 'The Twisted Terror Collection' along with a few other unrelated horror films. You should be able to find it pretty cheap on Amazon or Ebay and it's also available on Netflix. Check it out.



  1. Great review! I've never seen this one. I wonder if it's available here in the states at all. Sounds like something I'd thoroughly enjoy though. I love me some 70's, television work. And it's John Carpenter, so I'm in.

  2. I'm a big John Carpenter fan but haven't seen his TV movies and Masters of Horror episodes yet. Nice review, I'll certainly check it out when I get the chance. And cool that Adrienne Barbeau is in this Carpenter movie too!

  3. Jason: Yeah, check this one out if you get a chance. It's definitely on Netflix and Amazon. You can also find it on a certain 'tube' if you want to try before you buy.

    Chris: Yeah, this was the first time he and Adrienne worked together. I think they got married not long after. I'll be getting on to reviewing the two Masters of Horror episodes next week.

  4. As I just posted on another site, I am skeptical that Carpenter could have shot this movie in 10 days. 17 or 18 days seems far more likely. May I ask where you heard that it was shot in 10?