I’ll keep it simple: John Carpenter is my favorite director, and has been since I grasped the concept of what a director did. His run from 1976 to 1988 is unparalleled in my opinion; from the eerie siege of Assault on Precinct 13 to They Live’s way too prescient take on governmental oppression, there’s nary a stinker in the bunch. But within this stellar run he made a couple of turns towards the small screen, where he was able to hone his craft under the duress of tight schedules and restrictive content. And since this is a horror column we won’t be talking about the excellent Elvis (1979) but rather his tip of the hat to Hitchcock, Someone’s Watching Me! (1978), a suspenseful tale of voyeurism that’s a more than solid lead in to Halloween.
Originally airing on November 29th as part of the NBC Wednesday Night at the Movies, SWM! had to contend with Charlie’s Angels/Vega$ over on ABC with CBS offering up One Day at a Time/The Jeffersons. Big shows with big numbers, true; but if one needed some blood chilled, The Peacock was the place to be that week.
Let’s flip open our TV GUIDE and find out what JC was up to:
SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME! (Wednesday, 9pm, NBC)
A young woman is stalked in her L.A. high rise by a stranger who watches from the apartment building across the street. Lauren Hutton, David Birney star.
We open with a man, a telescope, and a menacing phone call to a woman across the way, who with a quiver in her voice tells him she’s moving out and that he’ll never find her. He promises he will. Cut to Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton – Once Bitten), new to L.A., and after signing off on an apartment at Arkham Towers, is on her way to an interview at a TV station for a director position. She’s immediately thrown into the broadcast booth with Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau – The Fog), gets the job, and walks away with a new friend to boot. What a swimming start to her new life, right? Except Leigh starts receiving phone calls late at night, and then presents from a company called Excursions Unlimited, including a telescope and a nighty.
Law enforcement is of no use; Gary Hunt (Charles Cyphers – Halloween) informs her that it’s not illegal to receive gifts, nor do his creepy calls suggest any direct threat. Finally Leigh, her new boyfriend Paul (Birney – Oh God! Book II), and Sophie spot a man (Len Lesser – Blood and Lace) in the high rise across with a telescope and assume he’s their guy. Hunt believes he’s caught the pervert, and the man leaves town. Yet the calls continue, and it’s time for Leigh to take matters into her own hands and confront her stalker…
Someone’s Watching Me! started as a writing spec for Carpenter called High Rise; deeming it too tame as a theatrical film, TV came calling and he decided to offer his screenplay as long as he could direct it. This was all before Halloween, mind you; it’s not like he held a lot of clout with only two films (Dark Star and Assault) under his belt, but he was curious about the TV experience, and it paid off in several ways: with a 10 day shooting schedule (!) he was forced to work fast and on his toes, and he developed some of the moves that would come to fruition in his next film.
This and Halloween really are of a piece; not only because he only had 2 weeks between completing this and starting that, but his propensity for strong female characters begins here. Leigh is at the forefront of nearly every scene and is the lead of her own life; this creepy intrusion is just that, something that needs to be taken care of and dealt with, and if the authorities won’t do it, she will. Hutton started as a top fashion model before transitioning to acting in the late ‘60s; she wanted to branch out, and Carpenter puts her through every emotion with skill and sympathy. Leigh is definitely a proto Laurie Strode and Stevie Wayne combined into one badass woman.
There are a couple of set pieces as well that show Carpenter flexing his horror muscles; there’s a scene in Leigh’s underground parkade where she first looks for, then hides from the killer, that keeps the viewer on edge, and the finale on her balcony uses delicious Hitchcock timing to wring out the terror.
This is essentially Carpenter’s take on Rear Window, the biggest difference being that Leigh is not the voyeur, but rather the recipient of such; so maybe it’s his Peeping Tom, but from the victim’s point of view? Regardless, Carpenter’s intended victim fights back hard, foreshadowing Laurie’s future battle with Mikey.
Carpenter would also add to his repertory company here; he already employed Cyphers in Assault, and added Barbeau to the roster (not to mention marrying her the following year). Finding them here is part of the comforting connective tissue of his films. But some anomalies behind the scenes show how strong his style still shines through; even without shooting in his beloved Scope (or with his soon to be cinematographer Dean Cundey), this still looks and feels like a Carpenter. The shots are there, just framed a little differently. This was also one of the only times he didn’t do the score; however, he did get to learn with composer Harry Sukman (Salem’s Lot) where to put the music, another skill that would certainly come in handy very soon.
Naturally the TV format is restrictive in what can be shown and how it’s displayed; in Carpenter’s hands, however, the restraint is not a hindrance but rather a challenge to see how much he can manipulate the audience without using the more florid crimson window dressings allowed by the big screen.
Clearly, Someone’s Watching Me! was a learning tool for Carpenter on his way to claiming his terror title; it’s only missing one thing: a compelling and scary antagonist. I think it’s safe to say he remedied that issue on his next outing.Next: It Came From The Tube: THE DEVIL’S DAUGHTER (1973)