I think it is forgivable that whenever a TV movie comes up in conversation, the natural expectation is that the film is going to be trash. The TV movie in the early 1990s is synonymous with “cheap cash in on headline making crime,” while the television movie in the twenty-first century is synonymous with "the format where pseudo-stars’ careers go to die on either the Lifetime or Sy Fy Channels." As such, the notion that that a television film could be good, let alone as great as Duel (Spielberg 1971) is likely an alien one to most audiences.
John Carpenter’s single effort on the TV movie front, the 1978 film Someone’s Watching Me!, is not close to being in Duel’s league. It is, however, a darn fine film in its own right, and arguably one of the more thematically complex films in Carpenter’s body of work, despite a rather simple narrative. Leigh Michaels (Laura Hutton) is a woman who has just moved to L.A. looking to make a fresh start, taking a job as a director at a local television station and moving into a modern, high-tech apartment. She quickly finds herself the target of a peeping-tom-come-stalker, who makes repeated phone calls, sends odd gifts, and is seemingly able to mess with the electricity in her apartment. Without a clear, legally defined crime, the police are unable to offer much assistance, which results in Leigh to take the investigation into her own hands, assisted by a friendly co-worker (Carpenter regular Adrienne Barbeau) and new romantic partner (David Birney).
While the setup could have made for a decent, if low-rent thriller, Carpenter elevates the material by using the premise as a metaphor for the struggles of women entering and fighting for space and agency in a male dominated culture, by literally having Leigh fight for dominance over her home space. It is no mistake that the obstacles which Leigh runs into over the course of the film are associated with male figures, and half the fun of the film comes from watching Leigh both refuse and subvert the various roles she is expected to play by these men. Within this context, it is also no surprise that the identity of the stalker is of little value: he is important for what he represents, not who he is.
These feminist themes within the film become all the more relevant given that the film also is meta-commentary on the potentially abusive relationship between directors and their subjects. Within the opening scene of the film, we are shown our peeping tom tormenting another victim over the phone, and Carpenter’s writing and directing are carefully controlled so as to establish a the subtext of stalker-as-director, such as having the character makes “suggestions” as to what his victim should do for his gaze, and focusing his shots on the technology the criminal is using to watch and record his victim’s actions and reactions. The violent form of direction on the part of the stalker is contrasted throughout the film to Leigh’s lighter and more constructive approach, at not only her job, but also in her personal life. Her first encounter with Paul (Birney), for example, involves Leigh directly setting up their meeting, as she gently nudges Paul into the actions she wishes him to take by involving him in the situation rather than trying to dominate his choices of actions.
In terms of film making, Someone’s Watching Me! is overall a success, with Carpenter managing to wring out the most tension he can given the restrictions of the network television format. Originally written as a feature film, one can imagine there is a more extreme version of the film which originally existed on the page, which addressed the seedier elements of the story more directly. While the toning down of the content does not ruin the film, the tension in the film feels muted. Meanwhile, the technical restrictions of a twelve day television shoot do result in the film having a made for television feel about it despite Carpenter's attempts at a more cinematic look, making the film feel “safer” than was likely intended. However, Carpenter’s skill at composing striking frames is on full display, even though the reformatting of the film’s full frame image into a widescreen image for the DVD does tend to make some scenes feel claustrophobic when they should not.
The cast as a whole turn in solid performances, with Hutton being the stand out, making her character authoritative and powerful figure without falling into the trap of playing the character as too hardened. Barbeau is given little to do beyond playing the best friend role, while Birney likewise is left playing the concerned lover. However, the trio has good chemistry together, and it is a shame that Hutton and Birney never went on to appear in another Carpenter film.
Overall, Someone’s Watching Me! is a minor work from Carpenter, but a fun one with a strong cast and sharp writing. While a purchase of the film is a bit much unless you are a big fan of the film, are looking to complete a collection of Carpenter’s work, or have a nostalgic love of 1970s television programing, the film is worth a rental if you having nothing immediately pressing that you have to see. Or have Duel to watch. Because Duel is just plain amazing.