A somewhat peculiar-er theme this time in the “Night Terrors”-column. As it was back in the old days, every director would either start their careers on television or at least occasionally visit that realm. So here we have two Horror television movies directed by two men who turned into very famous filmmakers indeed. And both films were made in 1978.
Someone’s Watching Me!
Director: John Carpenter
Writer: John Carpenter
The production of “Someone’s Watching Me!” took place in between “Assault on Precint 13” and “Halloween“. During that two-year period, John Carpenter was doing a lot of writing, both as a writer-for-hire as well as working on his own material. Some of these ended up being made by other filmmakers; “Zuma Beach“(1978), a “rock’n roll beach movie” was directed for television by Lee H. Katzin, “Eyes of Laura Mars“(1978) was directed for Columbia Pictures by Irvin Kershner. Carpenter was even working on a western called “Blood River” for John Wayne‘s company Batjac for a while – with Wayne’s son Michael, but that project never materialized. “Someone’s Watching Me!” was originally meant as a theatrical film for Warner Bros., but they passed on it. NBC made an offer to Carpenter to make the project as a TV-movie and as he was eager to get back to work, and as this was an opportunity to work for a big studio, with a professional union crew, he accepted.
Leigh Michaels(Lauren Hutton), a live television-director moves to Los Angeles after a relationship has ended badly. She gets an apartment from a new high tech smart-building which has everything controlled by state-of-the-art computer system. She starts her new job at a local television station, KJHC, befriending a co-worker Sophie(Adrienne Barbeau). She also begins a relationship with a therapist named Paul(David Birney). But pretty soon after she has settled in, strange phone calls begin to occur. And later on, she begins to receive gifts from a company called “Excursions Unlimited”. The gifts are told to be clues and by solving them, she has a chance to win a luxurious vacation. Pretty soon it is discovered that the gifts and the phone calls are linked, and the company doesn’t even exist. And the unseen stalker, besides having a clear view of Leigh’s apartment, he also has access into it and had bugged the place for listening can even go as far as control all the high-tech systems – like lights and elevators. As Leigh becomes increasingly stressed and the police – after catching the wrong man but are convinced they have the right man – are of no further help, she must take matters into her own hands and catch the sadistic stalker with the help of Sophie and Paul…
This movie was a very pleasant surprise. It was, for many decades, sort of labeled as “the Lost John Carpenter film” before Warner Bros. finally released it on DVD back in 2007 as a part of a “Twisted Terror”-collection – along with a few other hard-to-find titles like Oliver Stone‘s “The Hand” and Wes Craven‘s “Deadly Friend“. Carpenter is a well-known Hitchcock-fan – he has made several appearances on retrospective documentaries about Hitchcock – and “Someone’s Watching Me!” is in many ways his love-letter to the Master’s works. There are subtle – and not-so-subtle – homages to films like “North By Northwest“(on the main title sequence), “Strangers on a Train“(an important item gets dropped through a drain in the floor at the most inconvenient moment), and of course the whole voyeuristic aspect of the story very much echoes “Rear Window“. There are also some very clear nods to Roman Polanski‘s “Repulsion“(including the “person suddenly appearing in a mirror”-gag).
But that doesn’t mean that the movie is nothing but homages to other directors’ works, oh no – you can clearly see that Carpenter is also using it as training grounds for future projects: he is perfecting his use of the mobile, subjective camera angles that he would put into heavy use later on, starting with “Halloween” just a year later. He definitely makes those hallways, basements, parking garages, apartments and even the outside spaces feel awfully claustrophobic.
And he is slowly building up his regular stable of actors here: Charles Cyphers, who was in “Precint 13”, makes an appearance here as a police detective(and would appear on five of Carpenter’s films after this one) and this was of course where Carpenter met Adrienne Barbeau whom he would both marry later as well as cast in “The Fog“(1980) and “Escape From New York“(1981). He also gets a great performance out of Lauren Hutton here. She is definitely not your usual thriller damsel-in-distress – very rarely the heroines in Carpenter’s films actually are – but a rather quirky character with a very strange sense of humor. I read that Carpenter actually rewrote the part to fit more to her personality after she was cast in the film, and it shows.
I think the only two things that manage to differ this film from Carpenter’s other works would be that first of all, it was filmed with the 1.33:1 aspect ratio which of course was the way television dimesions were at the time, and not the 2.35:1 widescreen that has always been his trademark. ALTHOUGH, for the DVD-release this film was matted to a 1.85:1, which I feel adds very much to the claustrophobic atmosphere and ends up working for the film. It really feels like a real film now. The other thing that is noticeable in it’s absence, is the score. I guess due to the time limitations – or just a network’s preference – the score is not composed by Carpenter himself, but TV composer Harry Sukman. But that’s fine, too – it has a certain Herrmann-esque quality that adds to the Hitchcockness of it all. And of course the movie doesn’t have the “John Carpenter’s...” attached to it’s title which is a trademark of his, but these are all minor squabbles. “Someone’s Watching Me!” very much deserves to be called a “John Carpenter-film” and I can highly recommend it.
Summer of Fear (aka. Stranger in Our House)
Director: Wes Craven
Writers: Glenn M. Benest, Max A. Keller (based on the novel “Summer of Fear” by Lois Duncan)
By the time he made “Summer of Fear“, Wes Craven had made two independent horror films; “The Last House on the Left“(1972) and “The Hills Have Eyes“(1977). These two were independently financed, made with non-union crews and while successful in their theatrical(and drive-in) runs, Craven didn’t want to be labeled as indie-filmmaker of highly violent features. He wanted to expand his horizons a bit. So when writer/producer Max Keller offered the Lois Duncan-novel adaptation to Craven – to be made as a television special airing on Halloween night, Craven accepted. Of course he still had to be approved by heads of NBC. How did this happen, you ask? Well – according to his commentary, Craven and Keller had to screen the director’s latest work to the head of production. This happened to be “The Hills Have Eyes“, so naturally he thought that he would be kicked out of the building faster than light. But the boss ended up liking what he saw and the deal was made. As this would be the first time Craven would be handling a production with a union crew, this would also get him accepted into the Director’s Guild of America.
The Bryant family, consisting of father Tom(Jeremy Slate), mother Leslie(Carol Lawrence), daughter Rachel(Linda Blair) and sons Peter(Jeff East) and Bobby(James Jarnigan), takes in Leslie’s niece Julia(Lee Purcell) after her parents – along with their housekeeper – have died in a fiery car crash. After a while, it begins to seem like Julia is taking Rachel’s place in the family and she is barely even noticed anymore. Then Rachel’s life goes even more to hell, as she gets a horrible skin condition before an important dance and Julia goes there in her place – stealing her dress AND also her boyfriend/horse-riding trainer Mike(Jeff McCracken) in the process. After Rachel’s horse – which has acted very erratically and violently in Julia’s presence – has a bad accident during a competition and has to be put down AND as even her best friend Carolyn(Fran Drescher) is spending all her time with Julia, Rachel begins to suspect that something is not right. After finding some strange items, including a vax figure and a disfigured photo of her that that precisely mirrors her earlier skin condition, she asks help from a professor next door, mr.Jarvis(Macdonald Carey), who is an expert on folklore and mythologies. After reading some material he gives her, Rachel is convinced that Julia is practicing witchcraft to essentially make everyone serve her. And further evidence reveals that Julia might not even BE Julia. It’s a race against time, as Rachel tries to prove Julia’s true nature to those she has spelled while Julia is set to eliminate Rachel and her mother, with the intention of taking both of their places in the family…
Okay, look: everyone who knows the works of the late Wes Craven pretty much knows that it varies in quality. It varies a LOT. For every masterpiece like the forementioned “The Last House on the Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes” as well as “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, “The Serpent and the Rainbow” and “The People Under the Stairs“, there are some serious stinkers. Like “Swamp Thing“(which kinda goes into the “so bad it’s kinda good”-category though), “The Hills Have Eyes 2“(probably the ONLY film in history where even the family DOG has a flashback to the previous film!), “Deadly Friend“, “Vampire in Brooklyn”, “Cursed” and “My Soul to Take“. “Summer of Fear” is not one of the worst that Craven has made, but it’s definitely not good either. It goes in the “meh”-category. It’s tonally VERY tame, especially considering the two films that came before it. There is very little actual witchcraft displayed in the film; in fact I think it all amounts to a horse freaking out and a few moments of a car driving by itself at the end.
Craven also states in his commentary that this was the first project Linda Blair did after completing a program she was put in for “some legal trouble”(meaning that Blair was busted for possession of cocaine. It’s the Big Endless Circle of the Hollywood child stars), and it shows. Her performance feels awfully artificial; she goes from “sort of likeable” to “vacant” to “annoyingly whiny/bratty” – sometimes in the duration of one single scene. It’s like she’s still using her child-star mannerisms that worked well for her benefit in “The Exorcist” but has forgot that she really isn’t that 13-year old kid anymore(She was 18 at the time of filming). Lee Purcell as Julia does a much better job actually, portraying a slowly-growing malice with an ease. That is, until her witch-persona is revealed – then is becomes the case of overacting wildly while wearing some (extremely painful-looking) red contact lenses while getting blasted by wind machines. The character basically becomes an instant caricature of the Wicked Witch of the West – just without the green face. Or the pointy hat. And because of those contacts she’s wearing it’s very clear that she can’t even see anything while filming. Some of the other actors that are worth a mention are of course Fran Drescher in one of her first roles(there’s a moment in the movie where her character has a panic attack which looks just unbelievably ridiculous – but I guess everyone has to earn their stripes) and Jeff East, who plays Blair’s older brother – he went on to portray the young Clark Kent(although his voice was dubbed by Christopher Reeve) in Richard Donner‘s “Superman – the Movie” right after this one.
The movie was showed in television as a shorter version titled “Stranger in Our House“, but a longer cut – the “Summer of Fear” cut – was released to foreign markets for theatrical screenings and apparently was something of a hit at the time. But it really is a very dull, workmanlike film. The big stunt of a car being driven off a cliff, which is supposed to be the big climax of the story, shows the budgetary limits as it’s been both filmed with basically every camera they could get and is also used as a pre-credit moment when Julia’s family is killed. Which makes no sense as they are supposed to be on the other side of the country but it’s the exact same piece of coastal road. And then there’s a moment where you can see a big camera box bolted on the passenger side door in one angle – a predecessor for the backing up-cameras of today? I know – these gaffes are prominent in the days of pre-CGI, but it’s one of those many moments where you see the production was pretty rushed. And there are also some very laughable story beats like the friendly neighborhood Professor just happening to have a very handy pile of books on witchcraft in the trunk of his car… How awfully convenient. And the moments where Julia is putting the moves on the father – with a late-night rendezvous at the fridge becoming awfully close to “9 1/2 Weeks” – just feel icky.
Not Cravens’ finest hour, for sure. But I guess it helped him get better gigs in the future.