FANGORIA Flashback: “THEY LIVE”
Would you bite the hand that feeds you? What if that hand belonged to an extraterrestrial force that controls your mind via consumerism? That’s the question on the mind of genre maestro John Carpenter in his satirical alien-infiltration thriller THEY LIVE, which is being screened for one week only for its 25th anniversary at New York City’s IFC Center (323 Avenue of the Americas at West 3rd Street) starting Friday, December 6. In commemoration of that anniversary, FANGORIA takes a look back at Carpenter’s hybrid of clever science fiction, intense horror and kick-ass action.
Starring wrestling icon “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Meg Foster, THE THING’s Keith David and Carpenter mainstay George “Buck” Flower, THEY LIVE is a rare occurrence in cinema: a film that’s biting and smart in its underlying message, while at the same time fun and degenerate in nature. Disguised as a rough-and-tumble shoot-’em-up, THEY LIVE actually functions closer to the social satire seen in Paul Verhoeven’s ’80s output, as opposed to Carpenter’s previous slow-burn trips into terror and the fantastic. However, Carpenter’s signature eye and voice are loud and clear, and when the film kicks into high gear, the fun doesn’t stop, even as the critique becomes sharper by the second.
The film follows a nameless drifter, commonly referred to outside of the film as “Nada,” who joins a job site and a homeless community before watching the latter torn to the ground and its helpless occupants beaten savagely. Nada hides from the brutality, only to discover a box full of sunglasses that reveal a world filled with controlling evil messages, secret patrol robots and aliens living under human visages. Soon, Nada and his begrudging cohort Frank (David) find themselves face to face with a threat much bigger than either could have imagined.
Written (under the pseudonym “Frank Armitage”) and directed by Carpenter, based on the short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, THEY LIVE is an absolute blast that actually makes you think about society. Of course, the film never tries to imply that any of its events are, in fact, reality, but rather a beautifully crafted metaphor for the mentalities we adopt and that we allow ourselves to be subjected to. Carpenter weaves in both existential dread and terrific makeup FX by Frank Carrisosa, ladling on the perfect amount of horror to balance out the sci-fi and action elements, finding a sweet spot for fans of any of those genres.
But more impressive is how smart THEY LIVE is throughout, standing as one of Carpenter’s most art-house-friendly films. It’s a fascinating specimen in terms of its subversive nature, especially considering that merely one film prior, he had abandoned the career path of a studio filmmaker in light of critical and commercial failure. The movie portrays the negative aspects of consumerism—what we’re told to feel, think and look like—as foreign to us as a species, which is normally supportive of one another when the odds are against us (as displayed by the tight-knit homeless community). Carpenter expressly asks the viewer to question authority throughout Nada’s adventure, whether it be corporations, the media (including a petty jab at Siskel and Ebert), the police and even our neighbors. To further that subversion, Carpenter uses audiences’ expectations against them to transmit these messages, packaging the obvious metaphors in what is on the surface a hard-bodied ’80s action flick, filled with fistfights, shootouts and explosions.
In many ways, THEY LIVE is an anti-action film, asking audiences who normally leave their brains at the door to instead bring them in and examine what it is they’re seeing. Carpenter looks at advertising through its bare and most basic lens, and who are we to say that he’s wrong? When it takes one of the most longwinded and brutal fight scenes in cinema history to show the blue-collar Frank the truth about the world he’s living in, what is Carpenter saying about the lower class? The filmmaker knows he’s not starting a revolution anytime soon, but in lieu of that, he’s asking that we see consumerism for what it is: pervasive, unsympathetic and outright inhuman. In fact, as modern headlines speak of social media sites and e-mail services invading our right to privacy, selling information to the government and advertising companies, THEY LIVE may be more important now than during its initial release.
Carpenter’s use of the sunglasses is particularly intriguing, as he is able to kill two birds with a single stone by using them as a catalyst for our hero while also providing a literal black-and-white allegory for the attitudes of the time. To Carpenter, you either lived blind to the corruption and conglomeration around you, or you wore the glasses and decided to rebel; middle ground was not an option once such a discovery was made. Carpenter makes the class struggles in the wake of Reaganism his own personal crusade with THEY LIVE, and in turn, makes racism and sexism non-factors, as society as a whole has been wronged by the reality of subliminal hypnosis.
Carpenter’s cast is also key to the film’s strong (and sadly still relevant) longevity, as the leads possess a unique chemistry. Piper is a revelation, playing such a likably mischievous blue-collar bastard that his reluctant-hero status is almost instantaneously embraced by both the audience and the actor himself. David is excellent as well, and his legendary fight scene with Piper is equally as memorable as his hilarious taunts and comebacks. Meg Foster deserves an extra special mention, as the ambiguity of her character’s intentions are a true testament to her dialed-back work in such an over-the-top film.
In conclusion, THEY LIVE is definitely worth a theatrical experience, especially one involving a beautiful DCP transfer. It’s too damn fun to ignore, and die-hard fans will have the opportunity to see both its wonderful social commentary and its awesome one-liners on the big screen. So stock up on bubblegum, take off your blinders and give a couple of hours to Carpenter’s clever cult classic; you won’t regret that you did.