Someone’s Watching Me!

swm_coverAs far as cultural impact goes, the TV movie is dead. It’s hard to imagine a time when this wasn’t so – TV’s content restrictions and inability to command the greatest talent guarantees a kind of flatness. Outside of the pay cable channels, even the miniseries, which used to be the overhyped May sweeps event on NBC, ABC and CBS, is largely gone. The audience has dispersed, and is seeking other things.

It is funny to think of a nascent John Carpenter sweating in the fields of the TV movie mills. He was an in-demand screenwriter, but would ultimately be known for a film whose effect was all in the cinematic technique – the sort of thing you could never accuse a TV movie of doing.

Someone’s Watching Me! is not a revelation, nor will it become (I think) the new favorite of any John Carpenter fan. Shot in ten days, and completed just weeks before shooting commenced on Halloween, it is in some ways Carpenter’s Lost Movie, a dry run for some of the ideas used more fully in Halloween, and the most direct homage in his career to one of his great influences, Alfred Hitchcock.

In grand TV-movie fashion, the premise and full extent of Someone’s Watching Me! is delivered in the title. Lauren Hutton plays a New York transplant, living in L.A. in a wonderful new high-tech luxury apartment. When the apartment manager explains the techno-loveliness at her fingertips, it feels like the opening scenes from David Cronenberg’s Shivers, and while Hutton’s lithe body is on frequent made-for-TV display, unfortunately no intelligent, snake-like venereal diseases show up. Instead, she is watched, stalked and frightened by some man. He doesn’t make any direct threats, so the police can’t do anything. Hutton is on her own.

The plot is decent. Carpenter’s screenplay doesn’t have the bite or viciousness of Halloween or Assault On Precinct 13, but it doesn’t fall into the traps of typical TV movie blandness, either – of long master-shots and sitcom-intercutting. It looks like a Carpenter film. His cinematic imagination has never been as painterly or deliberate as, say, Hitchcock’s. One would be hard-pressed to find individual images in Carpenter’s oeuvre as striking as the umbrella scene in Foreign Correspondent, or the scene of Gary Grant on Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest. Some of Someone’s Watching Me!‘s most arresting shots are direct quotes from the master: the opening credits scene is almost exactly like Northwest‘s from a different perspective; writing disappears from a steamed bathroom mirror like the fog-breath writing on the train window in The Lady Vanishes; and countless voyeuristic shots are paralleled in Rear Window. But Carpenter’s eye is less personal, and less expressionistic.

Here he uses Hitchcock’s style of suspense, with his flatter (though still fluid) style. It’s OK. The material has been played out before and after many times. It’s of no great interest. However, Someone’s Watching Me! is a professional, slightly quirky and above-average TV movie. Its personal importance to John Carpenter doesn’t necessarily translate into great art, but it was probably exactly as good as it could have been.

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