John Carpenter’s initial intention when writing the script for Someone’s Watching Me (also titled High Rise) was that it would be given a full theatrical release. But it didn’t work out that way. Purchased by Warner Brothers, the project was transformed into a made-for-TV project for NBC. Yet, despite the constraints and regulations that a television environment would have naturally imposed upon his story, Carpenter still managed to build Someone’s Watching Me into an incredibly tense, nail-biting thriller.
Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton), a single woman with a new job at an L.A. television station, lives in a high-rise apartment building. Quite suddenly, her life is thrown into chaos when she starts receiving phone calls from a stalker, one who’s set up shop in the building across the way, allowing him to see every move Leigh makes. Pushed to the breaking point, Leigh calls the police, only to learn that there’s little they can do unless the stalker actually tries something. Unwilling to wait for her assailant to make the first move, Leigh takes matters into her own hands, and sets out to discover the identity of her mysterious caller so that she can bring his days of harassing her to a crashing end.
With only a television-sized budget at his disposal, Carpenter realized that the success of Someone’s Watching Me was extremely reliant on its two main protagonists: Leigh Michaels and the unknown stalker. Fortunately, both develop into characters with enough strength to move the film along at a rapid, suspenseful pace. As played by Lauren Hutton, Leigh Michaels is no pushover. Having just moved to L.A. from New York, Leigh is thrown, on her first day at the television studio, directly into the control booth of a live cooking show, and before she even has a chance to introduce herself to her co-workers (among whom is the future Mrs. John Carpenter, Adrienne Barbeau), she’s directing cameras to fade in and go to close-up. The show proves a success, thanks in large part to Leigh, who impresses her new boss, Mr. Frimsin (John Mahon), with her tenacity and skill. Fresh off of this success, Leigh returns home to discover that her apartment door, which she locked on her way out that morning, is cracked open. Instead of fleeing or calling for help, she walks through the door and cautiously looks around, calling out “Hello Mr. Burglar” as she does so. It’s clear from this early stage that Leigh Michaels will prove a formidable opponent for her unwanted new acquaintance, and Lauren Hutton is a big reason why. Of course, there are times when Leigh’s bravery crosses the lines of logic (had it been me, once the late-night calls started, I’d have simply taken the phone off the hook), but this is minor distraction. In Hutton’s capable hands, the strength of Leigh Michaels is brought to the surface, and Someone’s Watching Me has a main character it can build around.
Or course, Hutton’s solid portrayal would have all been for naught had the character on the other side of the equation not been equally as daunting. This is where Carpenter’s skills as a storyteller take over. In the opening sequence of Someone’s Watching Me (the clip of which is included below), we get a glimpse of the stalker at work, terrorizing his previous victim with yet another in what must have been a long line of threatening phone calls. We see a hand dialing a phone, a reel-to-reel tape deck that starts recording the minute the line on the other end begins to ring, and a shot of a telescope, through which he’s able to see every move his intended prey makes. In these first few minutes, we are in the world of the psychopath, seeing what he sees, hearing what he hears. Yet, in true Carpenter fashion, we’re only shown a fragment of what we’d like to know. Giving his skills at suspense a full workout, Carpenter makes us privy to tidbits of information about the stalker, things Leigh Michaels, does not know, yet at the same time we’re as relatively in the dark as she is. Our ticket of entry into the stalker’s world takes us just deep enough to give the story its suspenseful arc. After that, we’re in the same boat as Leigh, waiting impatiently for him to make his next move, never quite sure of what, or where, that move might be.
Having sharpened his skills on Someone’s Watching Me, John Carpenter was ready to move on to bigger and better things. In fact, his very next project, a low-budget horror film titled Halloween, would prove to be the one that finally put Carpenter’s name on the cinematic map.