In 1978, John Carpenter released that little obscure slasher movie ... y'know, Halloween. Often, it takes a little time and exposure for indie-budget horror movies to catch on and develop an audience, but that film frequently credited with popularizing the slasher genre struck a chord almost immediately, sliding into pop culture and putting the director on the map. What those who aren't Carpenter devotees might not know is that he released a made-for-TV film in the same year that went somewhat unnoticed: Someone's Watching Me(!), equal parts psychological thrills and woman-in-distress suspense that also marks the first time he worked with legendary actress Adrienne Barbeau in a significant secondary role, both for its portrayal and its inclusiveness. While there's no escaping either the clear influences, homages, and "borrowings" from other films or the dated tech and dull endpoint to the thrills, Carpenter's execution of TV-safe tension makes it worth keeping an eye on it til the curtains close.
Barbeau doesn't play his heroine here, though, a distinction that instead falls upon cult-film starlet Lauren Hutton to embody Leigh Micheals, a director for live-broadcast television programs. After getting away from a vague toxic relationship, she's moved into a high-rise apartment in Los Angeles and taken a job at a nearby station, wherein she meets both men and women behind the cameras, quickly befriending Sophie (Barbeau) and shrugging off instantaneous male advances. Almost as immediately, Leigh begins to receive anonymous phone calls, typed messages, and wrapped gifts from a mysterious source -- not exactly in a threatening manner, but uncomfortably forward and intrusive in their timing. Gradually, the advances turn more invasive, to a point that suggests she's being closely watched and stalked. Enlisting the help of Sophie and a new potential romantic interest, college professor Paul (David Birney), she attempts to cope with the situation and then, when things get more dire, tries to discover his identity herself.
At times, it can be problematic to watch thrillers that hinge on the technological limitations of a bygone era, but if the strength of the tension or themes remain strong enough, one can ignore outdated components and get wrapped up in what's going on. When viewed from a contemporary viewpoint, Someone's Watching Me hasn't aged well: there are repeated calls between landlines that can't be identified, snail-mail scams that'd mostly filter into "junk" email folders nowadays, and other elements that reduce it to a relic from another time. An absence of originality doesn't help, either, as Carpenter cobbles together Hitchcockian characteristics and tension -- most notably, the voyeuristic focus of Rear Window -- with the phone harassment parts of Black Christmas and surveillance paranoia in the vein of The Conversation. With all that distilled into a single production, Someone's Watching Me comes across as limiting and derivative, a made-for-TV patchwork of ideas that have worked on the big screen.
What keeps Someone's Watching Me from remaining entirely in the shadows of obscurity -- well, besides that it's an early film of John Carpenter -- comes in the fact that it doesn't treat Leigh as if she's a hapless victim, emphasizing her shrewdness and resilience from the beginning. Granted, you've got to get past some early gullibility on her part and an awkward joke she tells about her fear of being raped by dwarfs, but once those hurdles are crossed, she becomes a reputable example of a woman who won't allow herself to be objectified or harassed. Lauren Hutton's portrayal of the independence-seeking TV director balances increasing fright and decreasing patience, in which she doesn't simply rely on the strength of others for protection or to solve dilemmas. Combined with Adrienne Barbeau's plucky assistant Sophie, whose lesbianism smoothly integrates into the film as meaningful, yet unobtrusive representation, Leigh navigates the measures she's able to take when the authorities aren't as helpful as they should be.
Persistent phone calls and swift movements down the hallway leading to Leigh's apartment create stylized, yet predictable and repetitive suspense in Someone's Watching Me, so the intensity of Hutton's performance being channeled into how she investigates the stalker's identity becomes crucial to the film's success. The design of Carpenter's script doesn't leave many options for surprises in the reveal, though, where the components of the mystery could've either resulted in an antagonist with specific, outlandish motivations or it being somebody unknown and impertinent to what's happened beforehand. While the execution of the approach to this reveal might play out like classic horror a la John Carpenter, with effective fake-outs and amplified reactions from those being stalked, the reveal itself turns out to be remarkably anticlimactic and without resonance or meaning. Someone's Watching Me ends up being a functional studio-controlled suspense film that's entitled to a few good scares due to its iconic director, but it doesn't successfully hit its notes in the ways that his holiday-themed horror outing did in the same year.
Video and Audio:
Someone's Watching Me was created with a television broadcast in mind, but as evidenced by Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, and especially Halloween, it's clear that John Carpenter favors shooting at a wider perspective than that. Some may want to see what his made-for-TV film looks like with a theatrical aspect ratio in place, and others will, of course, want to view it with the original full-frame aspect ratio in place and Shout Factory have aren't about to make viewers choose between one or the other. Both the 1.85:1 "theatrical" framing and the 1.33:1 intended ratio have been made available through 2K scans of the original 35mm elements -- the full-frame transfer was used for the initial viewing of this disc; the theatrical for the commentary -- and the results are spectacular. Fine detail is astonishing, especially considering it's a late-70s TV movie, with impeccable strands of hair, skin surfaces, and the textures seen along the metal of a telescope along with an exceptional film-grain presence. Flesh tones, tans of wood and fabric, and metallic gradation are impeccably preserved, while contrast levels do a tremendous job of creating natural, satisfying depth of the image and responsive shadows. Shout Factory have done a bang-up job of presenting this film on Blu-ray.
The mono soundtrack arrives in a DTS-HD Master Audio track that makes exceptional use of the cleanliness of the recording and the condensed surround design. Atmosphere tends to be much stronger than one might expect, in which the chatter at bars and restaurants, the rushing of shower water, and the slight echoes in a parking garage create surprisingly immersive sonic environments, elevated by the disc's tight focus on that facet and its evenhanded balance with the scoring. Punchier effects aren't frequent, but the ones that are telegraphed are strong and confidently presented, especially the heavy, persistent ringing of the classic phone that completely fills the space of the apartment. Dialogue fluctuates in sharpness throughout, sometimes like a razor and other times hampered by the recording's vintage, but there's never a moment of missed dialogue and the midrange responsiveness allows it all to come out naturally. Pretty terrific stuff all-around from Shout Factory.
The core extra here comes in an Audio Commentary with Author Amanda Reyes, though "author" should really be tweaked to be more centered on her vast, well-researched historian knowledge on the made-for-TV spectrum. It's a tremendous track in which Reyes gets her hands dirty with Carpenter's homages, filmmaking tricks, and thematic pursuits, addressing how the director works with voyeuristic / "male gaze" symbolism and interpretation. She also explores the historical context surrounding the film, offering backstory on Carpenter's career shortly before the TV movie's creation, Lauren Hutton's modeling career, and the usage of old-school telephones. Reyes showcases impeccable book smarts, but also maintains a natural conversational rhythm and a delightful enthusiasm as she touches on what could be seen as mundane details. Quite good.
A pair of new Interviews have also been included with Someone's Watching Me, one with Adrienne Barbeau (10:32, 16x9 HD) and the other with Charles Cyphers (9:43, 16x9 HD). Barbeau discusses how she initially got hooked up with Carpenter -- both as an actress and a little bit on a romantic level -- while also addressing the slyness of introducing her character's sexuality and what her representation meant to others watching the film at home. She mentions key advice the director gave to her about transitioning from theatrical performances to onscreen acting, as well as how she handles violent scenes. While Barbeau's interview sticks to Someone's Watching Me, the interview with Cyphers bounces around much more, touching upon some of his memories of shooting this film as well as those from his work on Assault on Precinct 13 and Elvis and many others later on.
Shout Factory have also included an installment of Horror's Hallowed Grounds (7:12, 16x9 HD) centered on revisiting the locations from the film -- mostly in Santa Monica -- as well as a legacy interview with John Carpenter called Director Rising (6:14, 16x9 HD), in which he chats about the real-world roots of the story and how it maneuvered from the big screen to TV, as well as some brief observations on casting, filmmaking (namedropping Hitchcock), relinquishing some control, and how he utilized lessons learned from Someone's Watching Me in making Halloween. There's also a series of TV Promos (1:01, 16x9 HD) and a Photo Gallery.
While many modern audiences will look at Someone's Watching Me and think it's -- to use the words of director John Carpenter himself -- "old hat", devotees of the filmmaker will relish the opportunity to see his relatively rare made-for-TV horror film. Superior classic films better utilize the stationary phone harassment concept and the eeriness of voyeurism and surveillance, and when combined with the lackluster (albeit real-world) reveal of who's responsible for stalking TV broadcast director Leigh, the end result is an innocuous thriller whose dated components don't withstand the test of time as well as others. That being said, Carpenter's execution of escalating dread within a capable non-victim heroine still has its absorbing qualities, complimented by Lauren Hutton's enlivened performance and supported by a confident secondary cast of friends at her character's side. While those less enamored with John Carpenter should be satisfied with a one-time viewing of this broadcast-caliber horror film, this Shout Factory release was created with fans of the director and his body of work in mind:, sporting dual aspect ratios, a scholarly commentary, and a nice collection of interviews. For those interested, this package from Shout comes very strongly Recommended.