So someone new writes me and recommends this movie, saying the main character is very goofy and it's directed by John Carpenter, just before he did Halloween. What he didn't mention was that it also features Adrienne Barbeau [!], and once I saw that, it went right to the top of my list. We open with the sounds of someone calling this woman Elizabeth and her kind of freaking out, as we see telescopes and reel to reel tapes and such. Then we see this grid of lines receding into the distance. Now I, having read in advance that in this movie Carpenter was consciously trying to pay homage to Hitchcock, immediately knew that these lines would be filled in with a photograph of an apartment building, exactly like the opening credits of North by Northwest, and that is precisely what happens.
Then we meet our main character, Lauren Hutton as Leigh Michaels, who has just moved to L.A. from New York. She moves into this [furnished] apartment, which has an apartment building right across from it, leading to many, many Hi Mom!-style shots of action happening in front of the window with the apartment building visible outside. Leigh makes up a bizarre story about her mother to her landlord—then instantly admits that she has a "strange sense of humor" and the whole story was made up. You might think this would figure into the plot, and it's an interesting idea, but, uh, no. Somewhere in here we see a newscast that this woman "Elizabeth" was found DEAD! She then walks around talking to herself as she sets up her apartment, all the way down to her car the next day [walking through the garage talking to herself in a perfectly normal tone of voice], and all the way to a job interview at a TV station. She imagines what that her prospective new boss might ask her if she has any ideas for new shows, and she thinks there could be one with a Chicano who only reviews Westerns, called "Rio Taco."
She goes to the studio, and is virtually instantly offered a job. There she meets Adrienne Barbeau as Sophie, who quickly reveals that she is a lesbian. There is also this guy who lays one look on Leigh and starts really aggressively asking her out. Maybe these elements were added because Carpenter [who also wrote the script] thought he would develop them into possible suspects, but while Sophie develops into Leigh's friend, after a few phone calls the guy is just dropped, never to appear again. By this time [her second day in L.A.] we can see that the stalker has installed a bug in Leigh's apartment. We also notice that she lights up a cigarette in virtually every scene—and this is a made-for-TV movie, remember. Times have changed.
So after meeting sexy philosopher [really not kidding] David Birney [then-husband of Meredith Baxter] in a bar but refusing to sleep with him on the first date because of long-standing relationship issues, she experiences some tepid car-based creepiness. At home, hangin' with Sophie, she gets a letter from "Excursions Unlimited" that promises her an exotic vacation if she guesses the correct location, which they will begin sending her shortly. Sophie says the letter "looks real," even though it's just a printed letter on beige stationery—but we have to recall that this film was made way before computers and home printers and photoshop. Soon after she receives a telescope in the mail, and just after that a phone call that says "Present number one." Oh, I forgot to mention that she's been getting harassing telephone calls this whole time.
So by now it hasn't exactly been totally boring [well, okay, yes it has], just extremely slow going. Which can be too bad, because about now, 54 minutes in, is when Leigh starts really cracking up and having the first of her many freak-outs, and I love me some freak-outs, but I was lulled into such a stupor by this point I didn't really care. First she gets a note saying he'll meet her down in the parking garage, so she grabs the 12-inch butcher knife and heads down there. You gotta love anyone who just reaches for the 12-inch butcher knife when the going gets rough. There's no one in the garage, but she hears someone in the laundry room—and just goes ahead and gets right down in the massive [and incredibly clean!] drain in the floor. She's got spunk! A mysterious man drops a lit cigarette on her, but that's about all the mystery. Soon after she realizes that he's in the apartment building right across the way, and calls the police. It's the typical "we can't do anything unless he actually kills you" line from the authorities, and at one point the detective asks her what she wants him to charge the guy with and she says "How about first-degree scaring the hell out of!" After another something more concrete, they go arrest this guy, make him lose his job, and force him to move to Des Moines! Whew! I guess it's all over!
SPOILERS > > >
But wait! She gets another letter after she thought the guy was caught and realizes it wasn't him! But now the police doesn't want to hear it, so she has to investigate herself! She decides [in a bit ripped off entirely from Rear Window] to go over and break in while Sophie watches from her apartment, again armed with her 12-inch butcher knife and a walkie-talkie. She finds a reel-to-reel tape hooked up record all their conversations, and a phone log of all the calls placed. Then she sees Sophie get killed, across the way! So she runs out, leaving her walkie-talkie AND leaving the log of all the calls. Nice one, Leigh. Yeah, you won't need evidence.
Anyway, Sophie's gone and the police don't believe Leigh, and this is getting pretty frustrating. Relieving that, however, is that we are getting more and more total meltdowns from Leigh. In one, she spontaneously decides to pull a desk down on top of herself in frustration [I know I always pin myself under furniture during those stressful moments], at which point she discovers the bug. It goes on, at one point Leigh going out and breaking into someone's house—and smoking a cigarette there. Don't these people think at all? Then she goes home and it is, seemingly arbitrarily, time for the stalker to finally take it to the next level. He very courteously decides to hurl himself off the balcony when Leigh demurely steps out of the way. Sometimes crazed stalkers can be so considerate!
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It had its merits, but ultimately it really seems like a made-for-TV movie from the 70s. It has that TV pacing in which nothing really happens for long stretches, and nothing really has to happen, because it's TV and no one paid money to see it, and in many ways they're just trying to stretch this thing out as long as they can. So we have basically 45 minutes of story in a 100-minute package. And it's too bad, because there is some good stuff here, but—at least in my case—the fatal pacing made me tune out early, so by the time things amped up I just wasn't really paying attention. It's nice that you have such a goofy main character, and liked little added touches like Barbeau being a lesbian or Leigh's talking to herself, but ultimately they just weren't enough. Set expectations low, and you might have a winner.
The most interesting way to look at this is as a training ground for Carpenter to try out techniques, and he pretty much casts the whole film this way in a five-minute retrospective interview that's on the disc. You can see him trying different things, borrowing this from Hitchcock and drawing on that influence or whatnot, but ultimately it just ends up seeming really made-for-TV and mind-numbingly slow.
Of course I had Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me" in my head the rest of the night.
Average viewers should probably avoid it, but if you're a Carpenter fan or something, maybe.