John Carpenter’s Someone’s Watching Me! must have seemed “of the moment” when it was released for television in 1978. Blending technology and feminism, the film stars Lauren Hutton as Leigh Michaels, a live television director, who has just moved to Los Angeles to start a new life. She quickly finds a job, apartment and a problem: she keeps receiving harassing phone calls, and the authorities won’t take her seriously. Carpenter goes through the basic minimum lengths of presenting Leigh as a capable and intelligent woman, and her struggle to stop the escalating technological harassment.
In many ways, it would be easy to assume that a film centered on old technology would seem outdated. But Someone’s Watching Me! feels oddly prescient, as it tackles escalating and persistent harassment by men using technology and how support systems continually fail women. Refreshingly, Carpenter doesn’t indulge in any of the typical calls for solutions as Leigh doesn’t “unplug,” and she doesn’t run away or hide. The police especially come across as useless, and it becomes clear that the call for legislative changes goes much further back than the invention of Twitter. What has been framed as a new issue, provoked by the anonymous abuse of the internet, has been unwittingly revealed as a decades-long political stalemate over women’s safety.
Inspired in many ways by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the film uses the incredibly modern apartment complex Leigh moves into as a source of horror. High rise apartments were never so frightening than in the 1960s and 70s, when directors from all over the world poured anxiety into sardine can living, from the humble digs of The Tenant to the ultra-modern High-Rise of J.G. Ballard. Leigh’s futuristic apartment can easily be controlled by a computer, which regulates her lights and air, and it’s also facing a nearly identical sister building, where her watcher stalks her through cross-hairs on a high powered telescope. By advancing modernism, in terms of political freedom and technology, Carpenter does little to open up the autonomy of women. Leigh’s movements become increasingly limited within the film until even the refuge of her apartment — a private sanctuary — has been psychologically invaded.
Lauren Hutton’s Leigh ranks quite easily among the more thrilling female protagonists of the 1970s. And Carpenter’s script affords her a wicked sense of humor and gleeful resourcefulness. Hutton fills in the rest, presenting her supermodel beauty as graceful, but with an endearing combination of awkward playfulness. She brings to the table a weariness of turning down men that feel worn and exasperated, which deepens the awareness of how the issue transcends phone calls. Carpenter doesn’t frame the film as being about an outlier male abuser, but a culture that has little respect for a woman’s personal space. Her persistent harasser serves as an extension of all the other men within the film who don’t take no for an answer and invade Leigh’s space, physically and mentally. For many women, Someone’s Watching Me! hasn’t lost any luster and acutely represents an impossible journey towards comfort and peace of mind.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.