Shadowvision: “THEY LIVE”Columns,Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black and white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.
As mentioned in our PSYCHO II edition of Shadowvision, a film with black-and-white elements can take on an entirely new tone when given a seamless monochrome visual palette. This is especially true for any film that corresponds to classic genre fare in both tone and story. But the question of intent is always a factor on these re-examinations, which means some may outright dismiss this particular Shadowvision considering how black-and-white is used throughout.
For those still board, there are plenty of valid reasons to revisit THEY LIVE entirely in black and white. By design, the film acts as a nostalgic trip into the ‘50s invasion film with a contemporary satire of consumerism. Furthermore, the pulp-inspired dialogue and hard-jawed heroes of THEY LIVE fall closer in line to the everyman badasses of old genre films as opposed to the unstoppable supersoldiers of mainstream ‘80s action fare. Most importantly, revisiting THEY LIVE in black-and-white comes from sheer curiosity: by removing the visual divide in the film, just how stark are the changes from one perspective to the next?
Technically speaking, this is another film where there isn’t much adjustment needed once the image is desaturated. The film features a fair share of bright and dark outdoor shots; therefore, you’re best off slightly raising the contrast and fiddling with the brightness instead. However, don’t raise the brightness too much, as the end result will be distractingly soft during certain sequences, such as the scene in Holly’s house.
Tonally speaking, THEY LIVE almost feels like a completely different feature when removed of color. Believe it or not, there’s a brooding tension that makes THEY LIVE a much more serious venture in black-and-white. The threats feel greater in nature, with the epic revelation of the alien menace grander in scale once you’ve seen the entire universe in black-and-white. And Carpenter’s specific brand of action feels at home here, as once the sci-fi element is introduced, the tonal shift is virtually non-existent.
However, THEY LIVE loses a great amount in black-and-white, specifically when it comes to the fun attitude of the film. THEY LIVE’s pulp aspects may come from ‘50s B-movies, but they’re also largely inspired by pulp comics as well. The colorful urban landscape then feels lifeless in black-and-white, which adds to the conspiracy angle but seriously detracts from the adventure. And Carpenter’s sense of somewhat self-aware humor is all but lost without color, save for the infamous fight sequence, as the social commentary feels more straightforward and shockingly overbearing.
Still, THEY LIVE in monochrome will be especially fascinating for die-hard Carpenter fans. The film begins to mirror his other pictures in ways that may be lost in the intended color version. In black-and-white, THEY LIVE’s action scenes appear closer to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK than BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, especially during the climactic shootout. Meanwhile, the newfound ominous dread within the first act is signature Carpenter, reflecting the director’s more horrific output such as PRINCE OF DARKNESS.
Other aspects aside from Carpenter’s stylistic flourish aid the black-and-white experience as well. The art direction from William Durrell and Daniel Lomino, while not as iconic as Carpenter’s previous work, maintains the visual staples of ‘50s B-movie cinema, from the homeless slum in the L.A. desert to the alien’s futuristic travel deck. The same can be said about Gary Kibbe’s straightforward cinematography, as B-movie genre fare rarely chose to experiment with the visuals in fear of obscuring their monster. However, the one element that doesn’t jive with the black-and-white is Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s synth-driven score, which is especially indicative of the ‘80s.
There are enough interesting qualities in a monochrome THEY LIVE to warrant a viewing, but not a complete recommendation. By draining the film of color, THEY LIVE is robbed of everything that color brings to life, from the humor to the sense of adventure. Instead, THEY LIVE is much more intense and dread-inspiring, which may appeal to those who love Carpenter at his bleakest. Either way, THEY LIVE and Carpenter fans may find more wealth in the shadows here than casual horror fans, so proceed with caution.
Recommended for Black and White Consumption?: Maybe.