Saturday, August 22, 2009

Carpenter's Tools: Someone's Watching Me!

In between 1978's Halloween and 19890's The Fog, John Carpenter directed two made-for-TV films, Someone's Watching Me! and an Elvis biopic. Despite Carpenter's enduring cult legacy, both of these films remained hard-to-find on home video for decades. (Elvis still hasn't made its way to DVD, all the more surprising considering it sparked the Carpenter-Russell collaboration). Someone's Watching Me! isn't quite as noteworthy or interesting as the first Carpenter film featuring Russell, but after watching Christine, I found this to be far more theatrical and fitting with Carpenter's style than that project.

As with Halloween, Someone's Watching Me! concerns a serial killer whose actions are never explained outside of a basic set-up for his methods. In this film, a mysterious man terrorizes the female inhabitants of apartments across the city. He watches them, calls them and ultimately drives them to suicide. No evidence exists to make these cases look like crimes, so the police force doesn't even realize they have a killer on their hands.

The voyeur's latest target is Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton), who moves into a luxurious high rise. She already has issues with men after a turbulent experience in the past, and she's not even ready to date yet. She spends most of her time hanging out with her co-worker Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau) and fending off flirtatious men. Sophie is a terrific touch, as she is clearly a lesbian though Carpenter never makes it "obvious"; Leigh herself seemingly hasn't a clue.

Soon, Leigh starts receiving calls at all hours from an unknown man. We see a bug left under her table and a figure dart behind her when she returns to find her apartment door open. Strange presents are delivered to Leigh, all of which come with their own threatening phone message. The constant calls drive Leigh mad, and she flinches whenever she runs into a man in her complex.

Plot-wise, this film is about as bare as they come. Halloween choreographed its attacks for maximum construction, but they were still frightening despite the convenient nature of the set-ups. Christine was far more forced, and this sits somewhere in the middle. It doesn't contain murder so much as a never-ending series of arbitrary plot devices that prevent anyone from doing anything about the situation. Though the constant calling clearly qualifies as harassment, the police "can't arrest a man for dialing the wrong number." When a suspect is arrested, the cops close the case even when Leigh receives more calls and spots an attack across the block through her telescope. Not to mention, if the pressure was that severe, why not move out of the high rise? Why didn't the other people, who ultimately committed suicide, do the same? Little to no interest comes from the dialogue or the plot, and these contrivances only further bog down the story.

Where it excels, though, is in its direction. Drawing from the POV giallo of Dario Argento and the atmospheric terror of Alfred Hitchcock, Carpenter crafts a hell of a gripping thriller with Someone's Watching Me! I can scarcely remember the characters' names, but I certainly recall how I jumped every time the phone rang (which is about once a minute on average), or the brilliant play on Rear Window in which the person being spied upon buys her own telescope and searches the apartments for her voyeur. The scene plays out like a battle between snipers, frantically scouring the windows of the opposite tower seeking an enemy.

Carpenter's ability to take his "all tension, all the time" approach of Halloween and apply it to this Hitchcock tribute gives Someone's Watching Me! an entertainment factor that its flat script wouldn't hint at. It's also nice to go back and watch this film after Kurt Russell introduced a more masculine feel to Carpenter's work; Leigh, though tormented and fearful, ultimately takes matters into her own hands, and the mere presence of Sophie's perfectly average, non-camp homosexual is a great delight in a late-'70s film. It's not top-tier Carpenter by any stretch, but this would make a fun double feature with one of Hitchcock's second rank thrillers.

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