by Michael Seymour Blake
Carpenter’s Someone’s Watching Me! didn’t get a proper physical media release in America until 2007—a cinematic sin. It’s not as iconic as some of his other films, but this tense little character-driven thriller belongs in any fan’s library, digital or otherwise.
A somewhat lonely but upbeat woman named Leigh (Lauren Hutton) moves from NY to LA. She lands a job directing live TV for a local station and makes quick friends with her new co-director, Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau). Besides having to deal with unwanted advances by a creepy co-worker named Steve, things are lookin’ up for our hero. Soon, she starts receiving strange prank calls and getting letters and packages delivered by a mysterious company called "Excursions Unlimited.” Things continue escalating after she meets an intriguing philosophy professor named Paul (David Birney) at a bar.
After realizing the anonymous harasser doesn’t plan on easing up anytime soon (the opposite, actually), and learning that the police are too indifferent or misguided to help, Leigh has a decision to make: flee or fight.
This movie feels like a distant relative of Spielberg’s Duel, where a faceless truck driver relentlessly follows and harasses a man (David Mann to be precise) through endless desert roads until, desperate, worn down, and angry, Mann must make a final stand. Mann, who realizes there’s no escape from the quasi-demonic force stalking him, is pushed to his ultimate limit. Will he be swallowed up by the soot-covered engine of his pursuer, or will he prove himself to be more than a match for it? Someone’s Watching Me!’s landscape is urban, and our hero is a woman who isn’t quite as alone, but it feels almost as desolate and isolating.
Even after the villain is revealed, he feels like a faceless representative of all the dangerous weirdos out there living among us. Aerial shots of cities and periodic glimpses of lofty buildings reinforce this, asking us to wonder about the people behind all those windows—are they dangerous? Would they help us if it meant putting themselves in harm’s way? Would they even believe us if we said we needed help? Is there truly safety in numbers?
Sometimes movie characters can feel hollow, just there to prove whatever point a writer’s trying to make. We get a poorly packaged message through preachy dialogue or forced situations which provide ample opportunity to smash us in the face with a lesson or two. Someone’s Watching Me! could have easily fallen prey to this. It doesn’t, thanks to a balanced screenplay that gives us people, not sounding boards. Of course, there’s lessons to be gleaned here—almost every movie has these—but they’re absorbed naturally rather than stuffed down our throats. Hutton was the right choice for this role. She plays one of the most relatable characters in any recent horror movie I’ve watched.
Leigh is endearing from the start, with idiosyncrasies (like the frequent quips and comments she makes to herself) that read as genuine and unique to her personality—you know, like a real live person. When she comments aloud that the TV is there to assuage lonesome nights, I thought about her desire for (but—importantly—not need for) companionship. I did not think about the writer (Carpenter in this case) trying to hammer home that idea. Her amusing under-the-breath remarks had me invested in her. Her healthy aplomb throughout the first half of the movie not only helps define her, but it also makes her inevitable breakdown much more moving; ditto her inevitable regrouping and final stand.
After Leigh’s frustrating experiences with creepo Steve, it was refreshing to watch her strut her flirting skills on Paul at the bar. While watching the scene, I was trying to remember the last time I saw a woman in cinema hit on a man with such goofy, effortless confidence. Her coin tricks and silly come-ons win Paul over. After a successful end to the night, Leigh takes a moment to appreciate it all. “Not bad, LA. Not bad.” (A nice jump scare follows this.) By that point I was rooting hard for her, so the movie could have collapsed, and I’d still be in. It doesn’t collapse, though. Watching Leigh’s transformation from watched to watcher is so damn cool without going too over the top.
Her new pal Sophie (Carpenter’s future real life wife) is supportive, helpful, and gay. Her homosexuality isn’t made a big deal of, and as she tells Leigh, “Don’t worry, you’re not my type.” That’s all there is to it. It’s a part of who she is, it ain’t all she is. I loved how it was handled. Then there’s Paul. He’s likable, cool, and interesting. What more can we ask for? But characters aside, Someone’s Watching Me! is a tense horror/thriller with a bunch of truly noteworthy moments.
I won’t go into all of them, but one of the standouts comes early on. Leigh comes home to find her door unlocked. She’s uneasy, but attributes it to a forgetful maintenance worker and calls her landlord (I think) about it. At first all seems well. Leigh stands in the foreground facing us while on the phone. Behind her, we have a partial view of the living room. Then, on an unexpected beat, a figure darts across the background. It only lasts a second, but wow is it effective. I think I even inadvertently cursed at the screen when it happened. There’s also chilling telescope POV shots, sweat-inducing walks through empty(?) apartments and laundry rooms, disheartening police interactions, and even a risky break-in or two. If that’s not enough for you, I haven’t even mentioned the crafty camerawork and overall contagious sense of dread throughout.
For all its limitations (both budget and TV restrictions), Someone’s Watching Me! manages to stand alongside any of Carpenter’s theatrical releases. The closing clash could’ve been a little tighter, and at times the TVness shines through, but it plows past these obstacles with great characters, impressive tension, and memorable scares. Two weeks after filming this, Carpenter began shooting the legendary Halloween. Nice double feature idea.
Watch Someone’s Watching Me! at night with some popcorn (or whatever it is you like to snack on), the lights turned down, and the curtains open wide.
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