Shot just before production began on Halloween and aired a month after that film boosted John Carpenter’s profile, the NBC TV movie Someone’s Watching Me! finds the filmmaker working in a similar, if far tamer, register of stalker horror. A Rear Window-esque thriller, the film is set mostly inside the apartment of Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton), a TV producer who’s just moved to Los Angeles and becomes the obsession of a stranger. Carpenter uses the opening scenes to establish the dimensions of Leigh’s apartment, rooting the camera in a fixed position to pan around the unit in order to subtly emphasize its spatial limits, as well as how much of it is exposed to outside view. When the camera does start to rove through the area, it immediately gives the impression of an intruder prowling the cramped space around Leigh.
Given the typically low budgets and tight shooting schedules of many of Carpenter’s most vaunted theatrical releases, it comes as no surprise that Someone’s Watching Me! boasts many of his visual trademarks. The filmmaker lays out much of this film’s tension in simple, haunting images, like an apartment door left ajar, or a high-power telescope glinting like gunmetal as it’s aimed at Leigh’s window. The scene where Leigh returns to her apartment to discover it unlocked is an exercise in pure dread, with Carpenter constantly rotating around Leigh as she investigates the place for signs of a break-in, each new orientation of the frame leaving ample negative space in the background that’s eventually, terrifyingly filled by the flash of a man darting for the door. In his theatrical work, Carpenter establishes his antagonists as supernaturally omniscient, but here he offers glancing views at the more quotidian ways in which Leigh’s stalker monitors her, from glimpses of a figure watching her in her apartment’s parking garage to a shot of Leigh at her desk that sinks down slightly to show a listening device attached underneath.
This subtle but unrelenting escalation of tension is classic Carpenter, though in some respects Someone’s Watching Me! stylistically deviates from his usual work. For all of Carpenter’s acknowledged debt to Hitchcock, his filmmaking approach typically, and sharply, differs from that of the master of the suspense. His camera is objective, at times almost alien, in its cold observation and geometrically precise movement, whereas Hitchcock’s is psychologically moored to his characters, embodying their anxieties and desires even in long shot. Here, however, Carpenter practically crafts an extended tribute to Hitchcock. The director employs numerous shots from the perspective of Leigh’s stalker peeping through his telescope, the camera jittering in order to communicate the man’s pent-up sexual frustration.
Throughout Someone’s Watching Me!, references to Hitchcock’s techniques abound, including a blatant lift of the reverse dolly zoom from Marnie that Steven Spielberg had made famous with Jaws. There’s a tactile nature to the movie’s anxiety that bears little in common with the more ineffable fears stirred by Carpenter’s usual approach to horror. If Carpenter’s other films give the impression of the camera as a clinical observer watching the action, here it more closely suggests the vantage point of a lascivious voyeur.
Carpenter’s sense of economy is such that no element seems out of place; every piece of spoken or visual information adds to our grasp of plot, atmosphere, and character. His neo-Hawksian tendencies are on full display in Leigh’s self-sufficiency and confidence, traits that Carpenter stresses when establishing her character in order to further underscore just how fully her stalker later drives her to hysteria. The early glimpses of her quick thinking and boldness likewise presage later displays of ingenuity to find her abuser, as when she thinks to slip underneath a giant floor grille by the apartment building’s entrance to spot and identify anyone who enters. This depth of characterization, which even extends to ancillary characters like Sophie, a defiantly out lesbian played by Adrienne Barbeau, deepen this ostensibly simple film, proving that Carpenter had already mastered his craft and could churn out nastily effective, unexpectedly rich thrillers with next to no notice.
No earlier home-video release of Someone's Watching Me! has fully captured the sickly glow of the seafoam-green fluorescent lighting in the apartment complex's halls and garage as well as this transfer does. The backgrounds in Robert B. Hauser's deep-focus cinematography reveal an astounding clarity of detail. Interestingly, the disc offers viewers the chance to watch the film either in its original television ratio or in the 1:85.1 format it was presumably composed for. Both versions pull from the same transfer and boast the same strengths. The mono track renders the film's dialogue-heavy soundtrack with clear, balanced volume, though the increasingly persistent ringing of Leigh's phone from her stalker's endless calls are fittingly ear-splitting in the mix without being distorted or producing hiss or other artifacts.
An audio commentary by film historian Amanda Reyes is an engaging, informal affair. Individual interviews with John Carpenter and actors Adrienne Barbeau and Charles Cyphers respectively tackle Barbeau's excitement about playing an out lesbian on television in the 1970s and Cyphers's whirlwind collaborations with Carpenter on Someone's Watching Me!, Halloween, and Elvis, which were all shot in 1978. Carpenter himself holds forth on that tumultuous, educational year and how the pressure of working on all three works helped him to further hone his filmmaking skill. He particularly emphasizes the work done on this telefilm for allowing him access to professional, experienced crew members who taught him even more than he already knew about how to film under tight deadlines and small budgets. Finally, a present-day tour through the film's shooting locations is included, as are TV promos and a still gallery of press material.
Long a hidden gem in John Carpenter’s filmography, Someone’s Watching Me! receives a strong A/V upgrade from Shout! Factory.