They Live: Thinking-Man’s Sci-Fi Is A True Carpenter Classic


The Plot:

A man looking for a work opportunity and a hot meal in a foreign town quickly finds a spot to lend a hand and make some bread. But when he also stumbles upon an underground race of alien beings who have been preparing the minds of unknowing humans for years, he decides to take matters into his own hands. Armed with a pump-handle shotgun, a shiny revolver, and a pair of sunglasses that give him the ability to distinguish between man and monster, the man must convince his friend to aid in the battle against the mind-controlling coalition if he has any shot at success. With the alien race getting closer and closer to its ultimate goal, he must give it his all if he hopes to have a world to even make a little money in. Making a living can be hard and doing it among a secret alien race can feel like hell. Welcome to They Live.

The Review:

I am completely enamored by the works of filmmaker John Carpenter. My love for the director’s gifts, which began when I first viewed his 1978 masterpiece Halloween, grew to a point where I added his entire filmography to my readily available movie collection. I was, and still am to this day, convinced the man is among the best filmmakers the world has ever seen. While I’m a much bigger fan of his films from the 1970s, and early 80s, I do have a love for a wide array of Carpenter-helmed tales. Which brings me to this little gem known as They Live. It’s never been one of my favorite Carpenter films but I felt it time to revisit the film as it’s been a few years since I’ve witnessed the apocalypse of consumerism, advertising, and ever-drying supply of bubblegum. I’m glad I did, because I had a highly enjoyable hour and a half as a result. So let’s all apply for every job we can, put on those inconspicuous sunglasses, and think a little more for ourselves as I review the 1988 Sci-Fi political action film, John Carpenter’s They Live.

You Look Like Your Head Fell In The Cheese Dip Back In 1957-Man

The Direction:

John Carpenter directs They Live with God-given talent and indestructible focus. What makes the film work is the filmmaker’s ability to know when to direct in a highly stylized manner and when to let his script breath. By allowing the camera to calm itself, the director can let the script have its day and use the camera as a true narrative vessel. That’s not to say the director doesn’t use his camera like a stop sign in the hands of a prompt crossing guard, but knowing the difference between which filmmaking technique to utilize is a talent in itself. In fact, Carpenter gives his audience many great instances of amazing camera work and composition.

More from Horror Movies

Carpenter, who also helmed the 1981 post-apocalyptic classic Escape from New York and the 1986 sidesplitting genre mash-up Big Trouble in Little China, really show his competency as a filmmaker hasn’t faded along with the man’s hair color. They Live features several instances of the filmmaker’s patented shot of starting on one subject/principle and panning over to reveal another without cutting. One beautiful over-head shot before the script sends a jolt of excitement down the audience’s spine, and a very great push in during a pivotal story moment showcased in the film’s finale; a great shot as actor Piper exits a building after securing the box of sunglasses (shot starts as a low angle pointing up and slowly pulls back as the actor exits and turns left), and an awesome tracking that speeds left like Mario on opposite day. I’d like to go into this shot a bit if you don’t mind, Elm Street residents.

The shot opens with a view of the many down-on-their-luck people waiting in line for a hot meal and a little bit of comfort. The shot is a high medium, and as the shot opens, the camera begins to pan left to show just how crowded this lunch line truly is. As the camera beautifully continues to pan, audio from performer Keith David can be overheard, yet he isn’t in the shot. He’s close by, waiting for his share of the pity pie. The camera continues until both David and Piper are in the shot and we see the two waiting in line like everyone else. This is done in one take, whereas some directors would do this in two or three shots; just one of many shining examples of the mastery of John Carpenter and his cult film They Live.

The Script:

Around 1986, Carpenter came in contact with the Ray Nelson’s comic “Eight O’clock in the Morning”, and subsequently became inspired to write the screenplay for They Live. Written under the pseudonym Frank Armitage – the alias is common in the directors filmography – They Live is a film bursting with ideas. Bred by the filmmaker’s fear of Ronald Reagan’s Republican ran administration and “Regonomics”, the film leans heavily on its political agenda and powerful ideologies. Social inequality, economic division, and the disintegration of middle class American are the driving forces behind Carpenter’s slightly hip 80s action film wrapped in an homage to 1950s and 60s science fiction. While often corny and stereotypical in its depiction of the upper class, for example the luxurious gold watches used by the alien opposition as teleportation/communication devices and the exotically posh party for the human elite in the film’s finale, Carpenter’s thematic intentions in They Live sound off like a revolver at a Relay Race.

More than that, the film is about the full price of the good life. It’s a narrative that asks many questions of its audience: How far are you willing to go for a slice of the pie called the good life? At what point does money begin to define you and your own validation as a human being? And what will you be, a free thinker or a mindless drone of a country you’re told is “free.” The mysterious sunglasses in the film are a literal analogy for free-thinking America. As Carpenter states on the “Independent Thoughts” Featurette, found on the amazing Scream Factory release of the picture on stunning blu-ray, “I must point out, I believe the 80s have never ended. They’re still with us today. We’ve never repudiated this ‘Regonomics’ idea. Everything has trickled down.” I couldn’t agree more Mr.Filmmaker.

As for the narrative itself, They Live gets off to a slow start with an arguably sluggish first act. It’s not that the first act is boring in the least, but it moves very slow in its pacing and its execution of world building. This has a distinct reason, one that strengthens Carpenter’s narrative and eventual third act. With his man-of-a-different-drumbeat score, composed with often collaborator Alan Howarth, Carpenter sets the tone for not only the picture but the man with no name as well. It’s entirely obvious in the first act that Carpenter wants us to see how much of a working man his protagonist is. The filmmaker needed to have a blue-collar character lead his narrative as it provides the backdrop for his white-collar themes. In fact, Carpenter cast star Roddy Piper based on his seemingly working stiff sensibilities, and more than once the film verbally reminds us of its protagonist’s hard worked life.

Once the first act does its job, and effectively so, the second act takes the film into fast moving, briskly paced narrative momentum. Once our nameless hero discovers the truth behind the ones that walk among us, the film is a rollercoaster ride until its satisfying end. Twice the screenwriter/filmmaker sets up situations and misdirects the audience as to where it’s going. It’s hard to not be at the edge of your seat during these moments and only a true storyteller could act as a movie-making magician with narrative misdirection and subsequent payoff. Essentially, and proudly so, I gobbled the last two acts like a townie at a chilly cook-off.

The Acting:

The acting in They Live is solid from top to bottom. Unlike some films, whose supporting performers can begin to cause some well visible cracks in the film’s overall foundation, They Live stands as one of Carpenter’s most bizarre yet well-acted pictures in his filmography.

Leading the group of free-thinking humans is late Wrestler/Actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Piper, who is a WWE Legend and one of the most accomplished wrestlers to ever step foot in the squared circle, does more than a great job playing the nameless protagonist: He body slams it. It really surprises me that Piper didn’t pursue acting full time, like his modern-wrestling colleague Dave Batista, after his experience with Carpenter’s now revered cult classic. You simply can’t take your eyes off of Piper; the performer is magnetic. Not only does he handle the comedy with ease, which come at the actor like a freight train in the second act, but he also slays the film’s more dramatic moments like a male version of Buffy on the hunt for a blood sucker. I was honestly shocked at how great Piper was in front of Carpenter’s camera; not bad for some assumed idiot from the “wrastlin” business.

More from 1428 Elm

Also appearing in the film, and giving the narrative respectful elevation, is screen veteran Keith David. With over 254 screen credits currently to the thespian’s name, and over 10 in development according to IMDB, what can be said that hasn’t already been spoken of the accomplished performer who graduated from the prestigious acting academy Julliard. In They Live, David kills as Frank. Frank, new and highly skeptical friend to our unlikely hero, is a perfect fit for David. The no-nonsense approach to Frank is as admirable as it is hilarious and the actor truly makes it look easy. Just look at the scene after Frank meets up with the man with no name and confronts him about the reasons why he’s being pursued in a state-wide man hunt. The scene is fantastic and further highlights why Keith David is one of my all-time favorite screen actors.

Rounding out the three is actress Meg Foster. While she’s the weakest performer of the three, she still does a serviceable job as the fear-stricken Holly. Though it can be said that the role is a little underdeveloped, and I could very well be one of those detractors, but I still felt that she ultimately succeeded. The problem is, the actress was tasked with arguably the hardest role in the film. She has to convince us of the truth in one situation, while it’s very possible her loyalty lies in the opposite direction. While a different actress may have done a better job at concealing her intentions, that’s not to say she’s bad. I still stand by my positive declaration of the films thespian nature, but I do feel that a better job could have been done.

Often Carpenter collaborators George ‘Buck’ Flower and Peter Jason also add support to They Live and it was a pleasure to see the two actors show up in the film.

The Verdict:

They Live stands as one of master John Carpenter’s most ambitious films. Much like Prince of Darkness, the film comes for a time when Carpenter had something to say with his camera other than basic narrative execution. What he says is more than a buffet of food for thought. I recommend the film to anyone yearning for a little ideology mixed within their Sci-Fi, carnivores of Carpenter’s work who have yet to see the picture, or anyone looking for one heck of a thrill ride. Before the score starts though, don’t forget to put on your sunglasses; you can thank me with a stick of bubblegum later. Deadite, you have been informed.

The Grade: B

Next: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Next: 20 Best Found Footage Films

Next: Scary Commentary: Halloween