Saturday, June 20, 2009

Someone's Watching Me: John Carpenter's "lost" movie

Someone's Watching Me, the 1978 film written and directed by John Carpenter, starring Lauren Hutton as Leigh Michaels, aired on television 11 days after the Jonestown massacre occurred.

The movie follows the story of Leigh Michaels who has moved to L.A. to be a live TV director. She scores a fantastic apartment in a modern high rise -- in which computers control the air conditioning! -- which has a view from every room. Unfortunately for Michaels, the view goes both ways: a stalker with a high-powered telescope watches her every move in the fishbowl apartment from the high rise across the street.

The mysterious phone calls start on Michaels' first day at the office and continue at home as she settles into her new apartment. When she receives what appears to be junk mail from a company called "Excursions Unlimited," she doesn't think twice about it. But the letter came from her new secret admirer, and is followed by "gifts" left at her door, along with more cryptic phone calls. The letter states that Leigh Michaels would receive a series of gifts and if she could identify what countries they came from, she'd win an all-expenses-paid trip to that country. The pitch didn't make much sense to her, but its nonsensical nature heightens the tension.

I first saw Someone's Watching Me when it aired in the late 1970s. The older brother of friends living next door had bought a conversion van around that time, and had just finished installing wood paneling and a bed inside it, along with shag rug on the floor. My friends' older brother was kind enough to allow us to spend the night in the van as it sat parked in the driveway between our two houses. We ran an extension cord out there and plugged in a small black and white television set.

I have no idea what drew us to Someone's Watching Me, since it didn't involve a cool car or superheroes. But somehow, we settled on it, and I was immediately sucked into the deceptively good thriller.

This was a different in North America. Back when there was no commonly used word for stalkers, much less any laws against their subtle, destructive psychological assault. This was back in a time when being drunk behind the wheel of a car was a defense: "Jeez officer, I'm sorry I was driving so crazy, but I'm drunk!" "Well, sir, sorry to have bothered you. We thought there was something wrong. But if you're only drunk, well, have a good night!"

This was also a time before "call display" or *69. Veiled behind the anonymity of the telephone, my friends and I had made tons of prank phone calls in our time, dialing -- because none of us, yet, had push-button phones -- seven numbers at random and using jokes that had been in circulation since phones had been invented: "Is your refrigerator running? Well, you better go catch it!"

Maybe Someone's Watching Me interested us because it involved prank phone calls among adults, which we had always figured was restricted to the province of kids. And the cryptic caller in the movie never asked if Leigh Michaels' refrigerator was running or if she had Prince Albert in a can. He'd leave a large gift in plain brown paper wrapping at her apartment door and then call and say, "Present number one." Then click. And dial tone.

The first gift is a telescope.

The psychological assault also goes beyond mere phone calls. At one point, Leigh Michaels' stalker dims the lights in Michaels' apartment, and then brings them back up. The poor woman was pwnd a full two decades before the term was even coined.

This was also a time when Kool Aid was in the news -- not just in commercials, but in strange, unnerving reports from the jungles of South America; stories of people drinking poisoned Kool Aid and dying. In my own home at this time, I'd found a copy of Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders on my parents' book shelf in our basement. I wasn't interested in books at the time, but the cover art sure caught my eye. I didn't read any of it, but just flipped to the montage of photographs in the center of the book: black and white pictures of bloody crimes scenes, smiling victims before they'd ever had any inkling they were doomed, and those words -- like graffiti around the neighborhood -- written in the victims' blood at the crime scenes. Everything about the book and gruesome story it told was far beyond my experience and ability to understand, but on some visceral level, it scared me shitless.

The second mysterious gift to arrive at Leigh Michaels' door was a poka dot bikini, as innocuous as Kool Aid and graffiti, but with all the sinister subtext of a threat.

Maybe it was the time, maybe the crime of stalking hadn't yet caught the public imagination, but it seems to take Leigh Michaels an inordinately long time to cop on to the fact that the cryptic calls she's receiving from an unnamed stranger are weird. At the same time, she meets a man -- perennial TV actor, David Birney, who plays Paul Winkless -- whom she likes and trusts and in whom she finally confides about the odd gifts and crank phone calls.

In an interview many years after the Manson murders, Vincent Bugliosi -- famed prosecutor who obtain death sentences (later commuted to life) for Manson and his family -- said, "If you can't be safe in your home, where you can you feel safe?" The randomness of the Manson murders certainly struck at that psychological pillar, and the movie Someone's Watching Me riffed brilliantly on this theme. When Leigh Michaels is encouraged by Paul to call the police about the cryptic phone calls, she says, "And say what? That 'someone is sending me gifts and wants to take me on a European vacation, please make him stop'?" It really reveals the vulnerability of the person being stalked and the seeming invulnerability of the stalker.

After having dinner with a female colleague, Michaels remains at the restaurant table after her colleague goes off on a date. A waitress comes to the table with a bottle of wine. When Michaels informs the waitress that she hadn't ordered the wine, the waitress says, "It's compliments of the man at the bar." Of course, when Michaels turns toward the bar there's no one there. When she asks the waitress what the man looked like, the waitress shrugs and says, "Just a man."

Leigh Michaels does eventually call the police about the strange phone calls. Predictably, the officer she speaks to asks, "Has he threatened you?" No. "Well, there's nothing we can do until he does something."

One scene that nearly strangled me with tension occurs when Leigh Michaels finds an envelope taped to her door. It contains a note from her stalker telling her to meet him in the parking garage in ten minutes. Rationally, she's an idiot for going, but the way the film is set up, it's believable that in her frustration and anger, she goes. She takes a large letter opener for protection. After walking through the parking garage -- it's midday, so there's light coming in from outside -- Michaels goes into the laundry room. Hopefully the movie was made on a soundstage and not an actual apartment complex because the laundry room setup is made-to-order for rapists. Through the laundry room door there is a long, dim hallway of storage lockers, presumably used by residents. Around the corner is the actual laundry area. Michaels creeps down the hallway and slowly turns the corner only to find a dryer running. Then there is a sudden noise and the implication of someone approaching. Michaels lifts up a floor grate and hides just in time for the stalker to come on scene. At one point, he actually stands on the grate under which she hides. He smokes a cigarette and unknowingly drops the through the grate, onto her. The scene is excruciating.

It's a theme reinforced several times through the movie, that no matter how people insulate themselves against the world-at-large, stories like Someone's Watching Me remind us that the terror and crazies and danger can seep through the well-hidden cracks of our homes and psyches. So we learned with the Atlanta child murders that occurred from the summer of 1979 into the 1980s. So we learned with the disappearance of Adam Walsh in 1981. So we learned, again and again. It would be many years after this made-for-TV movie aired that laws against stalking would be created and enacted. How effective they've proven to be, only the silent sufferers of stalking could say. It's a sure bet, though, that few would ever know the satisfying surety and finality Leigh Michaels experiences by the end of her ordeal.

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