Despite its flaws—and it does contain some fairly grievous ones—John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE is a witty, perceptive and impossible-to-forget concoction. With its blisteringly on-target critique of unchecked consumerism and political apathy, it’s one of Carpenter’s most memorable films.
THEY LIVE is notable for featuring a serious performance by pro wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (who reportedly got in trouble with WWF--before it became WWE--head Vince McMahon for appearing in a film the latter didn’t control). Piper’s committed performance must be counted as the finest ever delivered by a pro wrestler in a movie (no, I haven’t seen them all, but based on those I have viewed, which includes The Rock in the new WALKING TALL and the cast of 1986’s better-left-unmentioned GRUNT! THE WRESTLING MOVIE, I feel confident in making that assertion). It doesn’t surprise me that John Carpenter, a huge wrestling fan, thought it might be a good idea to cast Piper, although I imagine his presence was meant to entice wrestling’s notoriously conservative fan base into viewing this unapologetically leftist political screed.
Quite simply, THEY LIVE—made back to back with the less memorable PRINCE OF DARKNESS—was and remains one the most savage cinematic critiques of the Reagan administration on record, indeed perhaps the most savage. The Reagan years have now passed into history, but the sad fact is that this film is probably more relevant in our current age of media consolidation and widespread governmental control than it was back in 1988.
Nada is an unemployed but cautiously optimistic drifter wandering through LA. “I believe in America ,” he says early on in the film, “I follow the rules; everyone’s got their own hard times these days.” He joins a homeless consortium whose leaders are up to some strange activities in a church basement. One day the area is decimated by riot police; during the melee Nada manages to escape with a box pilfered from the church that contains a bunch of nondescript-looking sunglasses. Once Nada puts a pair on, however, he finds they possess a curious power, allowing their wearer to see the world as it really is: a staid black and white landscape where billboards and magazine covers appear as messages like “CONFORM,” “STAY ASLEEP,” “WATCH TV,” “DON’T QUESTION AUTHORITY” and so on. Worst, many of Nada’s fellow citizens look like skinless mutants through the glasses.
Turns out Nada’s stumbled onto an extraterrestrial takeover of the US utilizing television and advertising to lull the public into a false sense of security. Worse, it seems to be working...but not if Nada has anything to say about it. He begins a campaign of vigilante terrorism against the aliens, helped by a number of fellow homeless chums and a high level employee of the TV station from which the aliens’ nefarious activities originate--but there’s an unexpected betrayal on the horizon...
With THEY LIVE John Carpenter was in decent, if far from peak, directorial form. The intricately worked out horror/suspense sequences of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and HALLOWEEN are here replaced with a more eighties-friendly mix of straightforward action and comedy. Nothing wrong there, but THEY LIVE’S action scenes aren’t particularly well staged...that is, except for an outrageously drawn-out mid-film fight between Roddy Piper and his buddy Keith David that has been cited by many commentators as among the finest in movie history.
What the film has in its favor are a strong central performance by Piper, a witty and fascinating script—written by Carpenter under the pseudonym Frank Armitage, adapted from the story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson—and a vivid atmosphere of all-encompassing paranoia that rivals those of conspiracy classics like THE PARALLEX VIEW and JFK. The film’s glasses-eye views of reality are also quite effective, with black and white cityscapes that effectively (and no doubt intentionally) recall those of fifties alien invasion chillers like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, which stand as THEY LIVE’S true forebears, a fact Carpenter clearly understands.
Alive Films/Universal Studios
Director: John Carpenter
Producer: Larry Franco
Screenplay: “Frank Armitage” (John Carpenter)
(From the story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson)
Cinematography: Gary B. Kibbe
Editor: Gib Jaffe, Frank E. Jimenez
Cast: Roddy Piper. Meg Foster, Keith David, George “Buck” Flower, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques, Jason Robards III, John Lawrence, Susan Barnes, Sy Richardson, Wendy Brainard, Lucille Meredith, Susan Blanchard, Norman Alden, Dana Bratton, John F. Goff
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