Friday, November 18, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: Someone's Watching Me (1978)

Originally titled High Rise, this made-for-TV movie from director John Carpenter stars Lauren Hutton as Leigh Michaels, a headstrong, single, career woman who moves into Los Angeles' impressive Arkham Towers.

Arkham is a state-of-the-art (for 1978) apartment building replete with computer-controlled air-conditioning, high-tech elevators, "eighty miles of wiring and cables" and boasting a restaurant in the foyer, a gift shop, even a wedding chapel in the lobby.

Despite such "modern" conveniences, TV-director Leigh finds herself targeted and pursued by a dedicated and obsessive technological stalker, one who operates from a safe distance with the very latest tools of the trade: electronic surveillance devices, telescopes, tape recorders, walkie-talkies and the like.

In a way, it's the "flip side" of Halloween. Because here, the killer doesn't need a knife to do damage. The telephone will do just fine.

The film's central notion, well-captured by the young Carpenter (who also wrote the teleplay), is that - as Hutton's Philosophy professor boyfriend (David Birney) opines -- "we insulate our lives" and "guard our spaces," but technology can bring terror home; to our very hearths.

The invisible stalker, Birney suggests, is "trying to hurt" Leigh "without touching" her.

Or, as Leigh's lesbian friend, Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau) aptly describes the situation: "rape is when a man consciously keeps a woman in fear."

This is a premise that carries a new meaning, certainly, in the 21st century, with the advent of social media and ubiquitous iPhones. We have seen, just in the last few years, how these tools are harnessed to diminish and bully women.  See Gamergate for just one example.

As a filmmaker, Carpenter is a neo-classicist, an old-fashioned visually-skilled auteur who here -- instead of evoking Howard Hawks (as in Assault on Precinct [1976]) -- suggests the canon of that master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.  For example, th film opens with a Saul-Bass style opening credits scene that could have been ripped right from Psycho (1960). The credits are accompanied by Harry Sukman's Herrmann-esque score, which squawks like Psycho too.

Also, the film involves the pursuit of a woman by an unseen killer, and there are plenty of Hitchcockian red herrings among the characters to keep things lively, including a "slick man" who accosts Leigh at night, an obnoxious co-worker named Steve who doesn't take "no" for an answer, and the odd horticulturist who lives across from Leigh, in the parallel building called Blake Towers.

Each one of these men could be the long-distance stalker, and Carpenter wrangles maximum (for TV...) suspense out of the killer’s identity. In one telling shot that evokes the best tenets of film grammar, the killer tells Leigh he can see her through her open window, and she retreats whimpering to the sheltered bathroom, to a tight, confined space between toilet and bathtub, Carpenter's camera adopts an overhead angle. It's as though we're gazing down at Leigh in a fishbowl, which is precisely what the comfortable apartment has become for this woman. Her privacy has been stolen from her.

Carpenter's telefilm also cogently suggests the anonymous, disconnected and isolating manner of modern metropolitan life.

An early shot at street-level reveals a group of cars traveling in one direction endlessly, not unlike lemmings. 

Who's in them? Where are they going? Could one of the drivers be the stalker? 

These are the questions the uncomfortable composition suggests.

The film also pauses during scene transitions to include views of gleaming skyscrapers, ones with mirrored windows.

In other words, you can't see in; can't see what's behind the panes. All we see is ourselves, looking in; reflected. The identity of others (like the stalker...) are protected.  This also seems like an uncanny premonition about our modern culture. Social media is about seeing ourselves in a positive light; about narcissism.

Two things tend to date Someone's Watching Me!

The first is the film's technology. The surveillance devices, tape recorders and telephones all appear antique today, in the world of micro-technology, apps, wi-fi and the like. It's up to the minute for the late 1970s.  But watching the film, you can't help but realize how far we've come.

And yet -- simultaneously -- that's a reckoning that supports the film's thesis too. Via the Internet (and faxes before it), and cell phones and beepers and the like, technology has infiltrated our homes in ways deeper than Carpenter -- or anyone -- would have imagined in the disco decade. Today, it's even easier for a stalker to "get in" while simultaneously remaining "far away."  This is actually the premise of a brilliant Black Mirror episode, “Shut up and Dance,” in 2016.

The second aspect of Someone's Watching Me that's aged, but which – personally-speaking -- I enjoyed, is the idea of having a character, in this case Hutton's Leigh, voice her fears as a running, external monologue. This device recurs in Halloween: we are often privy there to Laurie Strode's (Curtis's) thoughts. She has a running dialogue, calling herself “kiddo,” and the like.

Today, we might decry this running verbal soliloquy as stilted or dated, but again, it's right from the Marion Crane/Psycho playbook. It's a nice window into Leigh's thoughts in Someone’s Watching Me, but today we'd consider the device "hokey."

It's interesting to consider Leigh Michaels, as played by Lauren Hutton, because she represents the late-1970s ideal of the liberated American woman.

She's depicted as "kooky" but extremely smart; professional but with an off-kilter sense of humor. She reserves the right to say "no" but is also sexually aggressive when it suits her. Because she is a single, career woman in a "man's business," Leigh is also disbelieved by the authorities when she reports the nature of her stalking (which includes phone calls, and unauthorized visits to her apartment while she's at work.).

This allows for a "don't cry wolf" kind of subtext to the telefilm, but the point is exactly what Leigh says: "Whenever I get around to telling the truth, no one believes me." 

Someone's Watching Me! suggests that this happens because Leigh has stepped out of the "traditional" role of women in society. She can't be believed or trusted because she's sexually aggressive and unmarried, a heterosexual woman "making it on her own." Society has already dismissed her before the killer first sets his telescopic sights and sites on her.

Leigh's only friend, noticeably, is a gay woman, another female "outsider." Sophie believes Leigh where the men  -- the police -- don't.

The notion of voyeurism, the terrain of fellow Hitchcock heir Brian De Palma (see 1984's Body Double...), is also vetted carefully in Someone's Watching Me!, making it a sort of latter-day Rear Window (1954).

There are plenty of telling shots here adopting the perspective of the telescope lens as it peers in at other apartments, at women going about their business...unaware that they are being visually stalked. Carpenter alternates between this "remote" view of invaded personal lives with a series of stunning, desperate, faster-than-usual P.O.V. subjective shots symbolizing Leigh's "eyes." These occur as she finds her personal space (her apartment) violated by an unwanted visitor.

Had Someone's Watching Me! been made for the cinema, it would likely have been scarier than it is; but it's still one of the very best TV-movies of the era, in part because Carpenter's screenplay is filled with ideas about "modern" life in the disco decade; the change in women's roles in our society; the easy availability of technology, the isolating nature of city life, and the like.

These ideas make the perfect background for a solid thriller in the Hitchcockian vein, even if -- occasionally -- you'll marvel at how much things have changed since the era of Jimmy Carter and the ERA.

Technology continues to invade our homes, unabated, and the question becomes: is it still victimizing us today?   I’d have to say that it is, and to a much more significant degree.

Note: The avid Carpenter fan will find plenty of the director's trademark touches here, but also some direct references to his next project, 1980's The Fog. For example,The building across from Arkham is called Blake Towers. Blake, as you will recall, is the name of the Leper Leader in The Fog. Also, the first victim of the stalker in Someone's Watching Me! is named Elizabeth Solley. That's also the name of Jamie Lee Curtis's character in The Fog.


  1. John, very interesting review of this '70s John Carpenter's television movie. I had forgotten about it probably because it was not a theatrical film. I wish John Carpenter had remade his own film as a theatrical release. Great review!


  2. Anonymous11:34 AM

    Great review! Who can forget the basement stalking scene, with Leigh hiding under a grate? Also, I believe there's a great matte painting of the twin buildings because I tried to find their location and it's downtown L.A. but no such buildings there to be found. Great stuff at any rate!


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