The success of 1978’s Halloween wasn’t immediate. It opened in just one region at a time, as distributor Avco Embassy, who didn’t have the studio money of, say, a Warner Bros., could only afford to strike a few prints. Over the course of several months, Halloween slowly spread across the country, and then the world, as its distro-tour unfolded. John Carpenter was actually be on set of this early, obscure television effort, Someone’s Watching Me!, when he find out that Halloween was seeing unprecedented success, and would eventually hold the record for most profitable independent film of all time until The Blair Witch Project over twenty years later.
Someone’s Watching Me! is a very different kind of Carpenter film — one that lands squarely in thriller territory; it features absolutely no blood and just a handful of non-squeamish violent scenes. When Halloween was released, film critic Roger Ebert gave it a very favorable review, comparing it to Psycho, so it’s appropriate that Someone’s Watching Me! slyly plays around with Hitchcock conventions by fashioning a sort of reverse-Rear Window: instead of a home-bound city dweller using a pair of binoculars to spy on his neighbors in the apartment building across the courtyard and discovering one of them might be a murderer, Lauren Hutton’s Leigh is a home-bound city dweller being spied on by someone living in the high-rise building across the street — someone who watches her with a high-powered telescope, and who begins stalking her by leaving gifts, making threatening phone calls, and entering her apartment — all in an effort to drive her crazy before trying to kill her and staging her suicide.
Much of Someone’s Watching Me! is a one-woman show, with Hutton (who is still acting today, and seen as recently as Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty) spending most of her screen time alone in her apartment having conversations with herself as she deals with the increasingly strange attention from her anonymous neighbor. For the most part, Hutton shoulders this burden well, although some of the dialogue Carpenter wrote for her, when heard with modern ears, can sometimes be corny, or the least bit…off color. (There’s a joke in there somewhere about her being raped by midgets and it makes me wince every time I hear it.)
Frequent Carpenter collaborator and one-time wife, Adrienne Barbeau, is also along for the ride, playing the spunky sidekick who helps move the plot along into more dangerous territory. Notably, Carpenter writes her character, Sophie, as a lesbian; refreshingly, this never enters into the plot, and never becomes notable beyond the one-time mention, which helps to make things feel just a bit more realistic. Sure, one could argue it doesn't serve a purpose as far as the plot goes, but it's the smaller details that don't necessarily contribute anything substantial that help to ground small-scale and intimate stories like this. We should also note that this creative choice was made long before the push for all-inclusive atmospheres in films and television featuring females and members of the LBGTQ community.
Someone’s Watching Me! starts off somewhat slow; Carpenter takes his time introducing Leigh, allowing her affability and subtle painful emotional history to earn the audience’s sympathies — this so Carpenter can methodically turn on the creep and raise the stakes a little at a time. He wrings genuine suspense during several key moments, one of which takes place in a desolate parking garage. Though Leigh falters a handful of times, coming close to emotionally surrendering to her tormentor, she refuses to be run out of her new home. Someone’s Watching Me! isn’t a slasher flick, but Hutton is definitely a final girl, and she’s one of the strongest the genre has ever seen (and she’s got the ultimate bad-ass line, which ends the film).
Though this was still very early on in Carpenter’s career, and he was working with a cast and crew outside of his usual repertoire (no Carpenter score for this one, and no D.P. Dean Cundey), Someone’s Watching Me! still manages to feel like a Carpenter film, especially when it comes to the camerawork. Also, look for an appearance from Len Lesser, Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo himself (“Hello!”) as one of the film’s handful of suspects.