Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, March 15, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1978) Part 1

3. Someone’s Watching Me!

“Someone’s Watching Me!” is probably the most obscure film in John Carpenter’s filmography. It’s also an important one. Carpenter’s previous films were in the sci-fi/comedy and action genres. “Someone’s Watching Me!” is the director’s first crack at horror. Similarly, the movie is, in a way, a prototype for “Halloween.” (Not to mention, a bit of a companion piece to the Carpenter-written “Eyes of Laura Mars.”) It’s even important as the first collaboration between Carpenter and Adrianne Barbeau. While not a great film on its own, it shows Carpenter as a developing stylist.

For a television film from the late seventies, the cinematography is surprisingly good. The first shot, in a darkly atmospheric apartment room, is a long pan down a telescope. The angle frames the telescope as strangely phallic, which characterizes the movie’s voyeurism as gender motivated, as a man forcing himself on a woman. This seems supported when a character later in the movie explicitly compares the emotional violation with a physical violation. The opening credits show a white-on-red grid fading into the harsh lines of the apartment complex, the film’s setting. The director doesn’t seem to have a high opinion on the then-high tech apartment, deliberately making it an isolating, frightening place. (The apartment is called Arkham Tower, which I’m sure is Carpenter intentionally referencing Lovecraft.) Carpenter employs a lot of tracking shots, an emerging trademark. The camera watches the film’s heroine as she walks through hallways, talking to herself. The Vertigo shot is used in one scene, which is notable since this is something of an extended Hitchcock homage. The camera peers under table at listening devices and also stares from behind telescope lens.

Another important distinction is that, while “Dark Star” and “Assault on Precinct 13” were largely ensemble pieces, “Someone’s Watching Me!” focuses squarely on one person, practically a character study. The combined effect of the angle and the dialogue works towards establishing the character’s inner-world. Carpenter’s screenplay eschews voice over in favor of our heroine spending a lot of time talking to herself. It’s a move that’s a little odd and the dialogue is sometimes stilted or a too on the nose.

Having said that, Lauren Hutton centers the film. As the story progresses and her nerves are shaken more apart by the intrusion of her privacy, Hutton does a good job of believably portraying the emotional break-down. This is important, since the movie employs the cliché of no one believing our protagonist is in danger, even though she is aware of the danger and it’s obvious she is in danger. Luckily, the script, while occasionally awkward, is well constructed enough to prevent anyone from coming off as an asshole or idiot. A lot of credit goes to Charles Cypher as the detective in charge of the case, clearly sympathetic to Hutton’s plight, who makes it clear his hands are tied by bureaucracy.

The movie is concerned with gender. Hutton is a single career woman, living on her own for the first time. Her best friend, played by the ravishing Barbeau, is an open and out lesbian, probably a unusual occurrence on 1970s television. Early on, Hutton worries about her new boss hitting on her. At the job, she has to quickly dispel come-ons from a male co-worker. An important moment finds her in a single’s bar. Frequent ‘70s television star David Birney plays a man that quickly catches the woman’s eye. He’s enough of a swinging seventies dude to ask her to bed on the first date while being sensitive enough to graciously accept no for an answer. (They still end up in bed before the end.)

The main focus is on a woman in peril from men. The emotional threat soon becomes a physical one. The movie mines some suspense out of these moments. Hutton quivers in terror under a grate in the parking garage, the threatening man standing above her. The climax finds her in a dark apartment, attacked by the man, both dangling out an open sky-rise window. Probably the most effective moment involves a character’s final fate happening off-screen, the audience only hearing her panicked screams. A subtle, early moment has the barely glimpsed man escaping the woman’s apartment. “Someone’s Watching Me!” is quite nearly a feminist horror film, even if its exact stance on the issue isn’t totally clear. It’s empathetic to a well-written woman in peril from villainous man without her being overly strong.

While mostly feeling like a theatrical film, the movie doesn’t avoid some of the pitfalls of seventies television films. The musical score is overdone and toneless. There are at least two particularly lame fake-out scares, one involving a mysterious man in a parking lot, another involving a janitor. (The Janitor: The go-to character type for fake-out scares.) While Hutton, Barbeau, and Cypher are all good, Bimey is less so. How the movie hints at Bimey or some other established character being the unseen villain, and then goes in the opposite direction, is kind of lame and misleading. The commercial break fade-outs are present and accounted for. While Hutton’s breakdown or a character getting trapped in an elevator are good moments, both seem to pad the movie out a bit.

“Someone’s Watching Me!,” unavailable on home video for many years, is perhaps more important for what it represents to Carpenter’s overall career then as a stand-alone film. It’s an interesting movie, with a number of pluses in its favor, without being a terribly memorable one. [Grade: B-]


Sean Catlett said...

In terms of a director trying out a low-budget horrror thing, it rates above Stone's The Hand and Spielberg's Something Evil but below Weir's The Plumber. It's a very specific rating scale.

Jack Thursby said...

Agreed, this isn't a great film but an interesting watch to see the evolution of Carpenter's work.