One of Carpenter’s most elusive, underseen works.
Four films written by John Carpenter saw release in 1978, with only one of them (the frothy TV beach romp Zuma Beach) not organized around the sickening allure of a good murder. The other three approach the subject in a triangulated manner, each tackling different questions of representation and aesthetics, each aligning the killer’s taste for blood with the perverse inclinations of the horror auteur. Kick-starting the modern slasher genre, Halloween cemented Carpenter’s career and also his habit of issuing incisive updates on familiar genre formulas, placing himself in the antagonist’s headspace by repeatedly shooting from his menacing point of view. Eyes of Laura Mars, while roughly handled by producer Jon Peters and director Irvin Kershner, retains the core concerns of Carpenter’s script, the tale of a fashion photographer whose gore-kissed subject matter spawns a series of copycat murders, which the title character finds herself witnessing through the killer’s own eyes.
Someone’s Watching Me!, on the other hand, aired only on television, appearing a month after Halloween and then disappearing from view. Attaining status only as one of Carpenter’s most elusive, underseen works, the film’s slight reputation might obscure that it was actually shot first, functioning as a slim study that’s also ripe with concepts and ideas. An allegory about creation that’s insecure about the icky side effects of oppressive authority, it’s equally willing to push that burden away from viewers and directly onto its creator. Control is thus expressed as a coercive, uniformly masculine force, exhibiting itself as the primary thrust of an entitled macho culture, its beneficiaries getting off on the power they’re able to exert over women. Seen more than 40 years on, it’s a movie that’s now especially timely, while also firmly of its time.
The film opens with an exceedingly phallic slide down the tube of a telescope, the weapon of choice of a mysterious voyeur, his face buried in shadows. After chasing off his current victim, the stalker sets his sights on Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton), a TV director and therefore no stranger to the link between aesthetics and control. Moving from New York to Los Angeles after a breakup, she lands a new job but has no time to focus on it, finding herself trapped in a high-rise apartment stage-managed by this maniacal madman. Exploiting the high-tech system that runs the building (a luxe fortress reminiscent of those in Ballard’s High Rise and Cronenberg’s Shivers), he surveils her from the tower across the street, gradually drawing the net tighter and tighter.
Carpenter does the same, aligning his interest in symbolically ensnaring a victimized woman for visual kicks with that of his shadowy villain. Perhaps more than any of his other films, Someone’s Watching Me! expands the director’s classic libertarian vision to encompass gender issues, crafting a broad-based critique that imagines the micro and macro aggressions of a male-dominated society as constituent parts of the same general assault. Classic cinema, in which the male gaze stood as the overwhelming default, is also drawn in, as a source of reference points exploited for their familiar frisson. From Peeping Tom to Rear Window and Psycho, these formal allusions potently confirm the focus on observation as its own form of power, their twisted takes on the subject supplementing and informing his own.
Aligning the dangers of contemporary technology and a burgeoning surveillance state with the pressing hand of a paternal culture, Carpenter implicates himself via his keymaster villain, who maintains a near omnipotent control over the film’s confined apartment setting. At the same time, his lead character is able to use her own knowledge of stagecraft to turn the tables on her adversary, eventually flipping the dynamic and revealing the shivering heart of cowardice beneath his sadistic entertainment. Exploring ideas that would be streamlined in the more evocative but not always as complex Halloween, the director provides a fascinating prospectus of his own enduring concerns, in a movie that finds him processing influences and ideas in concise, intimate form.