A John Carpenter guilty pleasure turns 35.
I experienced John Carpenter’s 1988 cult film “They Live” for the first time the other day, and I must say it is iconic. The kind when a certain pair of sunglasses can make you see that certain people are really aliens with skull faces. A buddy of mine recommended this movie to me, and he made a good call.
Do horror movies have to follow the same cliches that most movie-goers are into these day? Or do they crave originality? Maybe “They Live” wants to break tradition and try something different. If a new generation hasn’t seen or heard of this movie, I don’t want to spoil too much, but I can tell you what’s fresh and what isn’t.
The late Roddy Piper plays a drifter in Los Angeles, who lands a job at a construction site and sleeps in a shanty town soup kitchen. He also sees televised reports about how something is keeping society in a dream-life state, and the source needs to be shut down. What exactly is he talking about?
Well, fights break out, and the drifter comes across a box of sunglasses. The kind that makes him see that humanity is under control from messages about reproducing, consuming, and conforming. Oh, and they’re the glasses that makes him see people as the aliens I described a few paragraphs ago. Capitalism, one might say.
This drifter finds himself battling one alien after another, in moments that wouldn’t look good out of context, considering what everyone thinks they’re seeing. He kills alien cops and alien bank customers. That’s when he comes across an employee named Holly Thompson (Meg Foster), whom he hosts hostage and tries to put the glasses on her. If you ask me, this female character is inferior to the hero and his co-worker/new partner Frank Armitage (Keith David). She’s basically cut-and-paste with her development.
Frank is the one who got the drifter a place to stay, and after he becomes a wanted fugitive, Frank tries to distance himself from him. The drifter tries to get him to wear the sunglasses to prove he is the good guy, but he fights back in a six minute battle. It takes place in an alley, there is no wall-to-wall noise, and you’re constantly thinking: “Just wear the damn glasses!.” That’s how entertaining that fight sequence is.
But then the drifter finally gets the glasses on Frank, and these two become partners willing to join the resistance to take down the aliens. Or at least, destroy the transmitter to wake everyone up.
“They Live” is based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” and is directed with attitude and style by Carpenter. He is a filmmaker who specializes in the horror genre, whether they’re admired, disliked, or under-appreciated. This movie is under-appreciated, because it has two fresh leads like Piper and David, fun sequences, and a conclusion that refuses to take the easy way out.
This movie has its flaws, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad movie. Because it isn’t It’s a B-movie that deals with capitalism in its own way. And I’m not that political.
Special Screenings This Sunday and Next Wednesday
This article was written by me with full support of the SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America strikes.