Great Halloween Movie Countdown #8 : John Carpenter’s “They Live”

Posted: October 13, 2009 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
"They Live" Movie Poster

"They Live" Movie Poster

Okay, I suppose it’s not at all surprising to find a John Carpenter film on our little “Halloween countdown” list, but the fact that it’s not—well, you know—I suppose that may qualify as a bit, just a bit, of a surprise. And yes, the cinematic adventures of Michael M. are indeed great fun to watch at this—or any—time of year, especially the original. But one thing we hate to be here at TFG is too damn obvious. And truth be told, “Halloween” isn’t my favorite Carpenter film. Nor is “The Thing.”

That distinction belongs to 1988’s “They Live.”

Now, wait just a minute before heading over to my house with pitchforks, burning torches, a noose or two, and cries of “blasphemy!” on your lips.

I freely acknowledge that “Halloween,” The Thing,” “Escape from New York” and “Big Trouble in Little China” are all better movies than “They Live.” All I’m saying is that I enjoy this more than any of them.

Why, you might reasonably ask? I mean, after all, this thing stars “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, for Christ’s sake!

Okay, that’s a charge I can’t duck. But in his defense, Piper is pretty good as Nada (how’s that for the most unsubtle character name in movie history?) and in truth it’s the cool concepts that carry this film more than its “stars” or special effects anyway.

On paper the basic idea (adapted pseudonomously by Carpenter under the pen name “Frank Armitage” from  Ray Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”) isn’t too terribly different from something you’d find in an old “Twilight Zone” episode — an alien race has secrety taken over the world by disguising themselves as ordinary human beings and maneuvering themselves into the top positions of power in finance, politics, and the media. Along the way they’ve allowed certain select “elite” humans into their globe-spanning secret cabal by promising them a share of the money and power at their disposal, but most of us are just livestock to them, cattle to be worked for all we’re worth before our inevitable slaughter. We are, quite literally, being farmed.

The economy is in ruins with a small slaveholder (not that they call themselves that publicly, mind you) class ruling over the rest of us miserable serfs and hoarding all the planet’s natural resources for their profit while dumping toxins into the atmosphere to replicate the conditions of their homeworld,  leaving for the masses a few meager table scraps on the floor for us to fight over, and keeping us in line with subliminal messages being bombarded at us in our newspapers, books, magazines, movies, and of course, television shows (examples include “obey,” “consume,” “submit,” and perhaps most ominously of all, “marry and reproduce”).

Sound familiar? It should. Except for the fact that the rulers are alien, this is more or less exactly the world we’re living in. There’s nothing too terribly alien about the whole concept apart from the aliens themselves and, as always, subtlety isn’t Carpenter’s strong suit. He’s making his point here with a sledgehammer, and you know what? It works just fine.

There’s one small kink in our Andromedan overlords’ plan, though—a small group of human resistance fighters have developed a special type of sunglasses that allow us to see these interlopes for what they are, as well as the hidden messages they’ve placed all around us and our guy Nada, a down-on-his-luck manual laborer, happens across a box full of these nifty contraptions after the cops raid a resistance meeting at a church near the shantytown where he’s “living” and don’t quite clean up all of the evidence. He puts on the shades and for the very first time (okay, here comes a cliche, sorry) his eyes are opened to the reality of the world around him.

Absurd? Absolutely. But then, is reality itself any less crazy? Think about it for a minute—in the real world we don’t need special sunglasses to tell who these folks are nor to decipher their not-so-secret messages. They operate in broad daylight and go about their business of reducing this planet to a toxic, high-tech plantation largely unmolested. One might be tempted to think, in fact,  that it would all be so much easier  if our rulers really were an evil race from another planet hellbent on our destruction and we could get everyone to rise up if we had some magic device that allowed us to see them as they really are. As it stands, we see them paraded before us every night in both “news” and “entertainment” programming on television and instead of forming angry mobs and going after them, we continue to buy their products, listen to their lies (even those most of us don’t believe them) and vote for them when the time comes.

It's all around us

It's all around us

If all this sounds a bit David Icke, it should be noted that this is one of Icke’s favorite films and personally I think all he did was swap out reptiles for aliens and has made a career out of it ever since.

But, obvious as the message Carpenter is conveying here might be, who can argue with its resonance? Hell, unlike most 1980s horror and science fiction flicks, not only has this thing not become a dated relic, it’s even more relevant now than it was then, as the tentacles of the global (I apologize for using this term, but damn if it doesn’t apply) conspiracy tighten around us all the more.

But mind-numbingly urgent and relevant as the message itself might be, that doesn’t mean this flick isn’t all kinds of fun. In fact, it’s a straight-up blast. We’ve got B-movie genre semi-legends like Keith David and Meg Foster in good supporting roles. Piper himself, as I mentioned before, is entirely (and perhaps surprisingly) adequate. The pacing is tight , the everyman-as-hero archetype just about always works, the dialogue is economical and sharp, there are plenty of good laughs along the way, and rather than roll your eyes at how simple it seems to bring the whole thing down, on the contrary you’ll be wishing it were that simple.

In short, it’s precise and unambiguous social commentary disguised as a throwaway horror/sci-fi/action flick. You can dismiss the whole thing as lightweight, superbly-crafted,  absolutely unpretentious fun while absolutely agreeing with everything it has to say at the same time. It resonates and entertains in equal measure. You don’t have to decide whether or not it’s throwaway entertainment or spot-on allegory because it’s both. I don’t know about you, but in my book that makes it a work of genius, and I don’t use that term lightly. Largely unheralded genius, to be sure, since this is often an overlooked entry in Carpenter’s lengthy oeuvre, but genius nevertheless.

Says it all, really

Says it all, really

“They Live” is available as a bare-bones bargain DVD and is also playing all this month on FearNet. Check it out if you haven’t and see it again if you have!

Comments
  1. DJ Greene says:

    They Live is certainly a Carpenter fave for me (AOP13 and The Thing being my other faves). Also don’t forget about the legendary 8 minute fight scene between our hero and his buddy. Classic.

    • trashfilmguru says:

      Yeah, Carpenter had so many classics — “They Live,” “Halloween, “The Thing,” Assault On Precinct 13, ” “Dark Star,” “Big Trouble In Little China” — and some underrated gems like “In The Mouth Of Madness” and “Prince of Darkness.” It’s hard to boil it down to just one favorite of the bunch, but I think if roced — absolutely forced — to pick just one, I’d go with “the Thing.” Tomorrow, however, I might have a different answer!

  2. DJ Greene says:

    For sure, i’d say “The Thing” is probably his best. I really liked “Mouth of Madness” as well.

    If you haven’t seen the “Masters of Horror” story he did “Cigarette Burns” I would recommend that, plus there is a reference in it to “Profondo Rosso” which was cool to see.

    I just watched “The Fog” for the first time the other night, not too bad. A little more subtle the some of his other films.

    For some reason I just couldnt get into “Dark Star” or “Prince of Darkness”.

    • trashfilmguru says:

      I’d have to agree, “Cigarette Burns” is easily the best of probably the entire “Masters of Horror” series, while the other one he did, “Pro-Life,” is probably one of the worst, although it’s absolutely dripping with potential. Apparently he’s got a new film due out relatively soon, so we’ll see if he can bounce back from his long theatrical slump.

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