‘Someone’s Watching Me!’ – The Lost John Carpenter Movie

 

Someones Watching Me Blu ray cover

Someone’s Watching Me!” is often referred to as the lost John Carpenter movie due to its unavailability on video and DVD for many years. It finally got released on DVD in 2007 (Shout Factory later released it on Blu-ray), but while there are some Carpenter movies I still need to catch up on, this may be the only one I haven’t heard of previously. I ended up buying it from a video store which was closing down as I am a huge fan of the director’s work, and I have no excuse for being this far behind on the films he has made.

The movie stars Lauren Hutton as Leigh Michaels, a television director who has just moved to Los Angeles and has set herself up in a luxurious apartment in a high-rise building. But as soon as she starts unpacking her things, a stranger begins stalking her with his telescope and calls to leave threatening messages with that deep, ominous voice stalkers usually speak in. Things continue to get worse from there until she finally decides to take matters into her hands.

Carpenter wrote “Someone’s Watching Me!” back when he was primarily making a living writing screenplays. At that point he had only directed “Dark Star” and “Assault on Precinct 13,” and this movie was completed a few days before he began work on “Halloween.” You can see a lot of “Halloween” in this one as Carpenter gets some great shots of what’s going on behind a character, and the point of view shots really increase the tension as he puts you into Hutton’s shoes to where you feel as menaced as she is. It also shows how brilliant he was in not only creating suspense and tension, but in maintaining them all the way to the end.

This script also shows one of Carpenter’s strengths as a writer as he creates strong female characters which would inhabit all his movies. Hutton is very good as Michaels and I thought she made the character very believable in a way which wasn’t showy. As her anxiety gets increasingly worse, she stands her ground and refuses to move out of her apartment. Michaels is not about to be intimidated by this peeping tom, and you root for her to turn the tables on this guy at any given opportunity.

“Someone’s Watching Me!” also stars Adrienne Barbeau who would later become Carpenter’s wife for a time (this was the first project they worked on together) and starred in “The Fog.” She plays Michaels’ co-worker, Sophie, who is tough as nails and not easily intimidated by anyone around her. Barbeau gives Hutton great support throughout, and it’s great fun watching her steal one scene after another.

The movie also stars David Birney as Paul Winkless, the man Michaels ends up flirting with and falling for. It’s almost surprising Michaels would fall for anyone as she proudly asserts herself as an independent woman right from the start. Birney matches Hutton’s strength and wit throughout, and Carpenter’s direction successfully casts doubt on him as well as everyone else surrounding Michaels throughout.

Charles Cyphers, a member of Carpenter’s repertory company of actors, appears here as police detective Gary Hunt. It threatens to be a thankless part as the character seems brought in just to express disbelief in the protagonist’s fears, but watching Cyphers here makes you see why Carpenter loves working with him. Cyphers gives us a character who might be a cliché, but he imbues him with a worldliness which makes his actions and beliefs understandable. Some actors would just consider this a paycheck role they could just walk through, but Cyphers proves to be the kind of actor who doesn’t fall into such inexcusable laziness.

Carpenter gets to pull off a lot of shots which have long since cemented him a master of horror and suspense. He utilizes different camera moves like shooting handheld or panning back and forth to reveal something just around the corner. The fact this made for TV movie holds up today says a lot about his talent.

Granted, this movie was made back in 1978 when voyeurism seemed like a rarity at best. These days everyone’s a voyeur as technology allow us to peak into those dark corners which we assumed were inaccessible. To discover someone is watching you from afar and that your privacy is a thing of the past is not a hard scenario to believe in this day and age. This ends up making a movie like “Someone’s Watching Me!” scarier than ever before. Even with the constraints of a made for television movie, Carpenter creates a thrilling tale which holds you in its tense grip and never lets you go.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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It Follows

it-follows-poster

To me, “It Follows” was to 2015 as “Honeymoon” was to 2014; an infinitely creepy horror movie deserving of the attention many low-budget movies don’t always get. It’s a mesmerizing and terrifying piece of work which invites comparison to some of John Carpenter’s best films, and it’s smart enough not to reveal every single detail of its story. Like the best Hitchcock classics, it strings you along to where you keep guessing as to what’s behind the cinematic madness all the way to the very last frame.

“It Follows” opens up on a teenage girl fleeing her home in terror, and we’re not sure why. The next day she is found murdered and her body is contorted in ways which make it look like a yoga exercise gone horribly wrong. From there we meet Jay Height (Maika Monroe) who swims alluringly in the family swimming pool, and it’s hard not to be sucked into her realm as a result. After making out with her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary), he renders Jay unconscious and takes her to an abandoned building where he says he has passed on a curse to her. As a result, an entity which can only be seen by those who have been cursed will follow them, and once they are dead it will go after the person who gave it to them.

It’s an ingenious concept for any horror movie as this is the kind of curse which doesn’t invite an easy explanation. We can’t be sure of what the curse is, and as a result our imagination runs wild with endless possibilities as to how it can appear to us. Now I know a lot of moviegoers are desperate to have everything explained to them, and they will probably have serious issues with “It Follows” as a result, but I loved how this is a film which keeps its secrets close to the vest as revealing any of them could make the whole endeavor fall apart irrevocably.

This is only the second film from writer/director David Robert Mitchell whose previous credit was “The Myth of the American Sleepover.” I liked how he just immerses us into the lives of these young characters to where he has the viewer in a trance. It’s certainly one of the most atmospheric horror films I have seen in a while, and even the cheap scares thrown in have a stronger impact here than they do in the average scary flick.

Mitchell has given us a horror film with real down-to-earth characters which is very commendable as this genre usually benefits from having the opposite kind. Horror movies these days are typically reduced to having one-dimensional characters to where you find yourself rooting endlessly for the masked villain to decapitate them in the worst way possible, but this is not the case here. As a result, the horror feels a lot more real as these characters fight to escape from a deadly force only they can see.

Mitchell also has a very strong cast to work with as well. Chief among them is Maika Monroe who plays the movie’s main protagonist, Jay Height. Monroe was terrific in the criminally underrated thriller “The Guest,” and she succeeds in giving us a strong female heroine who is vulnerable but not too vulnerable to let this evil spirit take her down. Strong performances also come from Keir Gilchrist as Paul, Jay’s friend who has a not-so-secret crush on her, Lili Sepe as Jay’s sister Kelly, Daniel Zovatto as Greg Hannigan, and Olivia Luccardi as Yara.

In addition, “It Follows” features a very cool and utterly visceral electronic score courtesy of Disasterpiece. I grew up on the electronic scores of John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, and I think it’s great this kind of film music is making a comeback in movies like this, “The Guest” and “Ex Machina.” Disasterpiece has created a memorable score which is at times lovely and thoughtful, and at other times highly unnerving as it goes out of its way to sound like it will overload your stereo speakers with no mercy.

Mitchell only had a budget of $2 million to make “It Follows” with, and he certainly made the most of it because the movie looks like it cost so much more. Also, he got to film it in Detroit, Michigan, a city which, despite its problems, has proven to have a very unique look other American cities do not possess. This is a wonderfully creepy, suspenseful and terrifying movie which stands out among many others in its genre, and it leaves the viewer with a lasting impression as the ending makes clear the terror is far from over. And I don’t just say this because RADiUS-TWC, the company that distributed it, is already thinking about a sequel.

It says a lot about a movie which manages to maintain a strong level of suspense and tension from start to finish, and “It Follows” is just the latest example of that kind of cinematic experience which, these days, no longer feels all that rare to us.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Movies My Parents Wanted Me To See: Cache

 

Cache poster

Cache” was written and directed by Michael Haneke who made “Funny Games” (both the original and the remake), “The White Ribbon” and “Amour.” My parents gave me the DVD to this film as a Christmas present, and I went ahead and watched it before going out to see the “Funny Games” remake in theaters. With all the polarizing opinions regarding that film, I felt it was in my best interest to see “Cache” beforehand as I was afraid that if I hated it, then I would never get around to watching the DVD my parents gave me. I have enough trouble as it is watching the other movies they have given me over the years, but this one had a great quote on the DVD cover by Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Like Hitchcock, only creepier.” I read that quote and was immediately intrigued about what this movie had in store for me.

“Cache” opens up with a long and uninterrupted shot of an exterior of the residence the main characters live in which lasts a good three or four minutes. But suddenly we hear voices and eventually realize we are actually watching a videotape along with two people who rewind it at one point. The couple is made up of TV talk show host Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), and they have received this tape from an anonymous person for reasons unknown. As this couple continues to receive more videos, their lives unravel at an increasing rate as the layers of the movie’s story keep getting peeled away.

Describing a movie like this is difficult because its creator makes it ambiguous to the point where we have no choice but to draw our conclusions as to what we have witnessed. These videos reawaken long and dormant memories for Georges as we come to see events from his childhood which may or may not be real, and it uncovers a guilt he thought he had long since made his peace with. But instead, he discovers that deep emotional scar never really disappeared, and now it is being picked at like a nasty scab more than ever before. In the end, it does not matter who is making these videos as much as it does the effect they have on Georges and those closest to him.

It’s clear to me Haneke really likes to play around with the audiences’ expectations. We are so conditioned by the formulaic movies mainstream cinema churns out with consistent regularity to where anything which challenges the norm seems designed to give us unbearable headaches. Those looking for a resolution which tidies up everything to everyone’s satisfaction will be endlessly frustrated with “Cache.” Haneke is not a director interested in spelling out everything for you as he is in trying to get you to figure out the story for yourself.

What is revealed is that Georges did something to another person he never really forgave himself for. Now the past is coming back to haunt him, and it ends up isolating him in his own guilt and fears and alienates him from his family. Anne, Georges’ wife, is incensed she is not being let in on any guesses her husband has as to who might be putting them through such immense anxiety. Georges is never portrayed as a bad person, but it doesn’t matter if he is a good person. Guilt tears away at him, and while some make peace with the past, he may never have that luxury. What’s worse, this guilt may end up being carried on by his son who only has inklings of what is going on between his parents.

Haneke won the Best Director award at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival for “Cache,” and it was probably well deserved. He keeps you hooked into the story which is like an onion that keeps being peeled away, and he succeeds in generating strong tension without the use of a music score. In fact, there is little to no music played throughout the entire movie. The only other movie I can think of which succeeded in keeping us on the edge of our seats without the aid of a music score is “The China Syndrome.”

All the performances are excellent without ever being flashy. Daniel Auteuil creates a morally ambiguous character who is not always easy to get along with, but we still care about what he goes through from start to finish. The most recognizable actor here is Juliette Binoche, and her performance is another in a long line of brilliant ones she has given. Binoche makes Anne’s panic and anxiety all the more real as she keeps getting shut out in the cold as to what’s really going on. Also, Maurice Bénichou, who plays a very pivotal character, brilliantly shows how a person can be threating while remaining perfectly calm.

“Cache” is a brilliant exercise in suspense, and it shows how much of a master Haneke in generating suspense. There are no easy answers to be found here, and the ending itself leaves a lot of things open, but not all movies are meant to be easily understood. Some are meant to engage you mentally so you can draw your own conclusions. What’s wrong with having a movie like that every once in a while? We need challenging movies which break the typical formulas dominating most of American cinema today. “Cache” engages you with the unblinking eye of the camera, and it traps you in the world of its characters to where it is impossible to look away. Movies don’t get more suspenseful than this one.

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.