Tag Archives: television

WATCH THIS: John Carpenter’s “Lost Film”, SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME!

This piece originally appeared on iHorror.com.

A pretty, sandy-haired young woman is stalked by a mysterious figure; first via car, then by creepy phone calls, and then directly outside her window. He’s even seen in the background spying on her while she converses on the phone. She eventually takes the shadowy figure head-on, stumbling around a living room and fighting for her life, ending with a climax that reveals nothing about the madman’s motivations. Oh, and the whole thing was directed by John Carpenter in the late ’70s. Gotta be Halloween, right? Wrong.

Though it wrapped shooting two weeks before Halloween even went into production, John Carpenter’s television directorial debut, the NBC-produced Someone’s Watching Me! was actually released one month after Halloween. Due to this loopy timeline it’s easy to think Halloween informed many stylistic choices of Someone’s Watching Me!, when in reality it’s the other way around.

Leigh (Lauren Hutton) is an ambitious television producer who moves from New York to Los Angeles. She settles in a large high rise apartment, the kind where the living room is basically one giant window overlooking the thoroughfare. Unbeknownst to Leigh, a creeper who lives in a building across the street spots her and takes a real liking to her. He starts following her, calling her, and leaving her gifts. She continually rebuffs the mystery man, causing him to pursue her more aggressively. With the support of her co-worker Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau) and her boyfriend Paul (David Birney), Leigh goes to the police. Tired of the cat and mouse game, the creep finally attacks.

While not an exact Halloween clone, Carpenter admits SWM! did lay the groundwork for what would become his slasher masterpiece. “A lot of the shots, the framing – and a lot of the flow”, would be reused for Halloween. Carpenter also says, “I got to make mistakes”, referring to the TV movie, which allowed him to hone and sharpen the basic idea and deliver a much leaner and ultimately more frightening movie with Halloween. There are a few familiar Carpenter players in the small cast, namely Adrienne Barbeau and Charles Cyphers. And if you pay attention, you’ll probably spot some names in SWM! that Carpenter would later reuse, including Leigh, Paul, and Officer Tramer.

Noticeably absent from SWM! are a few trademarks Carpenter’s films would come to be known for. He had no input on the score, so here his usual piercing synths are substituted with dramatic, swelling strings – common in ’70s television productions. And his stunning wide-angle lens shots – usually courtesy of Dean Cundey but here provided by Robert Hauser – have been cropped and tightened to fit the 4:3 aspect ratio of a TV screen. Still, the movie displays all the great themes the director would come to be known for, including voyeurism and paranoia.

Watching SWM!, it’s clear that Carpenter who, in 1977, was still new to the horror genre (at that point he only had two feature films under his belt: the sci-fi satire Dark Star, and Assault on Precinct 13, a dystopian Western exploitation flick), was heavily inspired by the works of Alfred Hitchcock – mainly, South By Southwest, Rear Window, and Psycho. At times it feels like it could be entitled Alfred Hitchcock’s Halloween, and I mean that in the best way possible. For a TV movie made in the ’70s, SWM! is incredibly suspenseful and flat-out spooky. The tension builds, keeping you guessing until the very end.

Someone’s Watching Me! is often called “the lost Carpenter film” due to its relative scarcity on home media, but don’t let the hoity-toity label exclude you – I assure you it’s not just for the John Carpenter completest. In fact, I would consider it required Carpenter, especially if you’re a fan of Halloween. It’s one of those special movies that shows its director in transition; especially powerful here since Carpenter’s next film would prove to be his greatest success.

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Remembering “MonsterVision”

I was raised by T.V. That makes my parents sound really neglectful, but I assure they weren’t. There was just no activity I found more comforting than watching T.V., and if it kept me quiet and compliant then my folks were definitely okay with it. Even if I was drawing pictures, or eating a snack, or playing with GI Joes, the T.V. was guaranteed to be on, if nothing more than for those little moments when my concentration on the task at hand would break and I’d want a different distraction. My life was pretty much like the intro to HBO’s Dream On (making a reference to T.V. about how my life is like…T.V.) Needless to say, I have a lot of memories of hours spent in front of the tube. Those memories remind me of being young, they remind me of being home; they’re happy memories.

I won’t say T.V. was better back then, but I feel like basic cable television took a lot of chances at a time when pushing the boundaries or being edgy wasn’t expected tumblr_m72vn8wxnO1r3eyr4o1_400the way it is today. A lot of artistic chances. At times watching T.V. made me feel like I was on another planet or seeing things that no one else could possibly understand. I’m sure it had something to do with my young age, but it wasn’t just entirely that. There was the surreal, salacious animations of Liquid Television. There was the straight-to-video schlock of USA Up All Night, which was hosted at different times by both Gilbert Gottfried and Rhonda Shear. There was Comedy Central, back when it was called ‘The Comedy Network’ and literally only played episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, all day. It was like the Wild West. It was exciting.

Saturday night was a particularly stacked night for television in the Jose household.

hqdefault-5It would begin with SNICK – the clever portmanteau of “Saturday Night Nickelodeon”. The line-up would change over the years, but the two heavy hitters – The Ren & Stimpy Show and Are You Afraid of the Dark? – were constants. After Are You Afraid of the Dark? was over, I’d immediately switch over to HBO for a couple episodes of Tales From the Crypt. I’ve often talked with friends about how this era (from ages 9 to 12) was great because I wasn’t too young for the hard stuff but I also wasn’t too old for the softer stuff.

After TFTC, if there wasn’t anything of interest on (sometimes an episode of Dream On, and a few years later, the great Dennis Miller Live), I’d see if there was anything good happening on Saturday Night Live. After SNL, I’d flip over between two local stations – one played Liquid Television, the other played old shorts of The Three Stooges. Everything I’ve named has been instrumental in making me who I am today. In fact, at times I feel less like an actual person and more like the perfect algorithm painstakingly constructed by a desperate television programmer with pages of Nielsen ratings stuffed in his backpocket. Back then I was like Lewis and/or Clark, discovering new, untraversed landscapes of cathode-illuminated interlacing. But I digress.

Onto the topic at hand: MonsterVision. At some point during my exploration, I discovered a show I would immediately fall in love with and abandon all other Saturday night fare for (who am I kidding – I was an obsessive ‘flipper’, constantly jumping back and forth between channels.)

Popping out from a mobile home that was resting on cinder blocks, with a koozie-nuzzled Lone Star in hand, was a tall, bolo tie-wearing good ol’ boy named Joe Bob Briggs. He spoke excitedly in his 100% authentic Texan twang about The Three B’s: blood, breasts, and beasts. He had his own lingo, affixing “-fu” to the ends of words, an all-purpose suffix to give them more oomph. He would break down a movie by how many decapitations, nekkid women, and explosions it had and tally them all on his ‘drive-in totals’ list. And he never missed an opportunity to talk about his metallic blue ’73 Toronado.

Needless to say, he was the coolest dude on T.V. (especially to a 10 year old boy.)

hqdefault-2Perhaps it’s because he reminded me of my own dad – a tall and lanky beer drinker full of antiquated southern sayings himself – that I took so immediately to Joe Bob. He reminded me of the man that raised me – doesn’t get more familiar than that.

During MonsterVision, Joe Bob would usually show two movies, beginning with the more popular film first. On special occasions he’d do something longer – like a memorable Halloween episode which saw him have a Friday the 13th marathon. The running joke throughout the entire 12+ hour episode was what a crappy TV station TNT was and how cheap TNT magnate (and Joe Bob’s boss) Ted Turner was. But this type of trash talking happened in almost episode.

This was perhaps the most magical and enjoyable aspect of the show: the fact that there didn’t seem to be any rules. Joe Bob could get away with anything.

In between commercial breaks before heading back to the movie, Joe Bob would come on and talk about whatever he wanted while nipping at his beer. His ex-wife, guys he used to know, his opinions on world issues. Every episode he’d be visited by buxom mail girl Honey (and in later episodes, buxom mail girl Rusty.) After a few minutes of flirting with Honey desperately and unsuccessfully, she’d deliver actual fanmail which Joe Bob would read on the air and respond to in his own witty Southern way. The format was loose and off-the-cuff, and that made it feel more personable, as if Joe Bob were talking to you directly. Another common occurrence was Joe Bob interacting with his off-screen camera crew (who could often be heard snickering and cheering.)

Lastly, one of my favorite things about Joe Bob is his enthusiasm. You can tell that he not only loves the films he watches and reviews, but that he loves doing it. The earnestness of his zeal is as clear as day – this man is the real deal. He wasn’t some paid talking head being fed facts from a TelePrompter. This was before the internet, before Google, before Wikipedia. All of Joe Bob’s wisdom was learned, soaked up from his days and nights spent sitting in front of a 70-foot vinyl movie screen.

Joe Bob Briggs previously had a show on TMC, Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater, but my introduction to the man was through MonsterVision on TNT, which followed the same exact format. And as I got older, I tracked down other Joe Bob outlets, such as his stand-up special Joe Bob Briggs: Dead in Concert, his renowned film commentaries, as well as his books (I’ve only read Joe Bob Goes to the Drive In, but I love it and say check it out.) He’s a personal hero, sure – but he’s much more than that. He’s an active and outspoken supporter of film and the horror/exploitation genre. And he’s probably the smartest hillbilly there ever was, graduating from Vanderbilt University on a writing scholarship.

So Joe Bob, this one’s for you. An endless amount thanks is due to you for your contributions to the horror and exploitation scene, and for showing that being a beer-swilling goofball who’s chock-full of esoteric movie facts ain’t such a bad thing to be.

Everyone reading this, do yourself a favor and take the Drive-In Oath. And remember: The drive-in will never die.

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