Beyond the Slimy Wall: They Live
By Stephanie Star Smith
November 12, 2004
We here at BOP are an eclectic group, and our tastes in movies run from the serious cinephiles to the foreign-film aficionados to niche film lovers. Thus was born the idea for this weekly column, devoted to horror films of all shapes and sizes, but concentrating on those B- and C-grade films that mainstream reviewers disdain, but are the bread-and-butter of every spook movie lover's viewing. So come with me as we venture beyond the slimy wall, uncovering the treasures - and burying the time-wasting bombs - that await those who dare to love the scare.
Hollywood has pretty much had one basic scenario for extraterrestrials invading Earth: ships come flying into Earth's atmosphere, and start shooting up cities and/or people either right off the bat or shortly after hovering ominously in the sky. It's always a frontal assault.
But what if aliens decided to take over Earth from within? Not only by assuming our form, but by using our avarice, selfishness and lack of empathy as weapons against us?
Such is the premise of John Carpenter's brilliant social commentary-cum-science fiction film, They Live. It posits a world not that far removed from the realities of life in America during the 1980s, the era of Reaganomics and the "trickle-down" theory; the decade which saw the gap between the rich and the working-class poor grow wider with each passing year; where yuppies seemingly ruled the world, indulging in the most crass consumerism imaginable; when the phrase "He who dies with the most toys wins" became the mantra of the moment, and the new Golden Rule was "The one with the gold makes the rules." In fact, the rampant homelessness and raging materialism in the film seems but a logical extrapolation of the society that existed at the time - and one which, after a brief swing back to attempts at equality, we seem to currently be bent on surpassing - a world where only the rich and very rich could afford proper shelter, and the majority of people lived in shantytowns made up of cardboard condos and blankets-on-clotheslines apartments.
But every morality play needs a hero, and They Live has a great one in Rowdy Roddy Piper. Not the first wrestler to hit the big screen, but certainly one of the better actors of that group, Piper plays Nada - subtle subtext, that - a down-at-the-heels construction worker who is given a pair of sunglasses one day by a crazy street preacher. Or at least, the man seems to be crazy, ranting about how "they" are taking over society and quoting the "none so blind" truism and offering to give Nada the means to remove the scales from his eyes. Nada's not buying any of it, of course, but hey; sunglasses are sunglasses, and these seem a pretty nice pair. But when Nada puts them on...well, let's just say that he finds a whole new meaning for the term "social X-rays" and discovers there really is subliminal advertising. And the preacher has found a convert. But it's not long before Nada must carry on the fight alone, armed with a box full of the special sunglasses, and the might - and the will - to not only take the battle for humankind to the oppressors themselves, but to convince the more hard-headed of his fellow men to pay attention to what's going on around them and see the truth.
OK, so all that sounds a little heavy for a good science fiction film, but as is the case with the best SF flicks, They Live cocoons its message inside some cool effects. The film also benefits enormously from the presence of Piper, who is a likeable guy with an easygoing charm that translates well to the silver screen. And the script, written by John Carpenter, is fantastic, its plausible plot bolstered by crackling dialogue liberally laced with a wicked sense of humor, sprinkled with great action sequences and replete with that frisson of terror that comes from recognition of one's own world that sends a delicious chill down the spine. The acting is also uniformly excellent, especially the aforementioned Roddy Piper and Keith David as Frank, his eventual ally. Special mention must be made of the amazing knockdown, drag-out fight it takes to "convert" Gilbert, which is a tour de force piece of physical business that walks the razor-thin line between too graphic and just brutal enough.
In recent years, John Carpenter has been relegated to the fringes of the moviemaking business, being looked upon as a hack whose product is laughable at best; quite the comedown from the wunderkind status he held in the late '70s and early '80s in the wake of Halloween, The Fog and the remake of The Thing. I really can't understand why this has occurred - OK, Escape From LA probably helped - especially when one looks at films such as Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China, and They Live. Were it up to me, John Carpenter would rate above George Lucas on the Genius Director hierarchy, but since it's not, all I can do is be the lone voice crying in the wilderness, calling attention to the wonderful films that are too often overlooked because they're "directed by John Carpenter".
That sound in the distance is me crying, "Watch They Live. It's worth it."
I see by the shadows falling from my bust of Pallas that our time is up. Until next time, then, when we will once again venture Beyond the Slimy Wall.