With that whole election thing, I thought I was being so clever in deciding to watch They Live. I guess it’s not really that much out of character or anything, especially since I just rewatched Escape From New York over the weekend, but still, out of all the days I could have watched it, I chose election day. And ya know what? SO DID EVERYBODY ELSE. Even though I wasn’t the only one watching it, it ended up being a very appropriate context to view it in, and out of all the others times I’ve seen it, none resonated quite like this time. Watching this so closely after Escape From New York made me realize that the font used in the opening credits, in addition to the whole tone of the opening credits, is the same for They Live as it is for Escape From New York as it is for Prince of Darkness as it is for The Thing. I’m sure that if I revisited all of John Carpenter‘s movies, I’d find even more examples, but I don’t have time for that right now. Since all of these movies take place in different geographic areas and in different years, it feels like all of his movies all take place in the same universe. It adds a really cool vibe to all of his films featuring that font/style for the opening credits, and for all I know, he might have just been doing it to create the simplest opening he could.
This right here is America if I’ve ever seen it.
Our hero, who is never actually referred to by name, is played by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and will only be referred to as such. Rowdy Roddy is a drifter looking for work when he stumbles onto a construction site, and the only person who really tries to steer him in the right direction is Frank (Keith David). When Frank leads Rowdy Roddy to some sort of outdoor homeless shelter place, Rowdy Roddy notices some strange activity at the church across the street. When he investigates, he learns that there’s some sort of conspiracy going on, but his investigation is interrupted by the police destroying all the homeless people’s houses or whatever they are. When Rowdy Roddy explores later, he finds a hidden box of sunglasses, and being curious as to why they were hidden, takes a pair with him when he goes into town. When he’s wearing these glasses, he sees messages on billboards, money, and in magazines that say things like “MARRY AND REPRODUCE”, “CONFORM”, and “THIS IS YOUR GOD”. He also starts noticing people look, in Rowdy Roddy’s terms, “real fuckin’ ugly”. When Rowdy Roddy meets back up with Frank, the two learn that they aren’t the only ones aware of this invasion that’s going on, and they aren’t the only ones willing to do something about it. It’s up to Rowdy Roddy and Frank to stop the invasion from these trans-dimensional strangers, leading up to one of the best endings of any sci-fi films of recent memory.
I can totally get behind those “STAY ASLEEP” ads. That’s what I’m wishing I did most days!
Similar to most other entries in John Carpenter’s filmography, They Live is another movie that he not only directed, but also did the music for and wrote the screenplay. One difference in this process from his other films is that he wrote They Live under the pseudonym of “Frank Armitage”, which is the name of a character from the H.P. Lovecraft story The Dunwich Horror. Although the inspiration for the movie came from Carpenter’s frustrations with the commercialization of society in the late 80’s, it was also inspired by a few other short stories about alien invasions and mind control, as well as mirroring some of Lovecraft’s common themes of being surrounded by unseen monsters, or even gods. Since I’m not a big political person, I’m not going to try to dissect or analyze the more political implications of what Carpenter was trying to accomplish. However, the idea of mass media trying to control the population at large is a terrifying, all too real subject that we have been fighting for decades. Although the subliminal messages in this film are authoritative, those messages weren’t necessarily trying to use fear as its persuasion, as we never really see what happens to people who don’t conform. In our current society, we are constantly in fear of war, environmental disasters, financial troubles, and our neighbors. Considering there is one specific device that is masking all of these creatures and messages in the movie, making it a physical obstacle instead of some philosophical ideal, ties even more into our culture. Between the TV, the internet, and smartphones, humans are constantly receiving input from multiple sources from multiple organizations trying to push their agenda, whether the people realize these messages are being received or not, so some of those themes resonate even more strongly than I feel they would have in the late 80’s.
This is why they never turn the lights on in a bar.
I’d say that arguably the most memorable part of this movie is a scene where Rowdy Roddy walks into a bank and exclaims to everyone, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.” That’s right, that’s an actual line of dialogue from the movie. Rowdy Roddy was hired by John Carpenter because he really wanted someone who could fill the boots of his ass-kicking main character, and Rowdy Roddy was allowed to ad lib for that scene. Supposedly, that was a line he was going to use in a wrestling routine, but adapted it for the movie, immediately making it one of the most ridiculous, hilarious, and kick ass lines of dialogue in any movie ever. Another memorable moment of the movie is when Rowdy Roddy confronts Frank about what’s happening around them, and Frank doesn’t want to believe him, so they fight each other in what has to be one of the longest fight scenes ever, lasting over five minutes. I’m not talking a huge action sequence that’s five minutes, I’m saying that these two dudes just pummel each other on the street for five whole fucking minutes. There are knees to the groin, headbutts, headlocks and suplexes, and every time you think the scene is over, someone gets bashed with a trash can. Compared to some other films, Rowdy Roddy’s charming ways are toned down for the film to help sell him as that mysterious drifter, but even still, his performance is one of the movie’s biggest strengths and you can’t imagine this movie without him.
Rowdy Roddy! You’ve got a mustache! Made of Blood! BLOODSTACHE!
Unfortunately for Mr. Piper and Mr. Carpenter, it’s those moments of silliness that are a detriment to the message of the film as a whole. Although I’ve seen this film plenty of times, it wasn’t until election day that I was able to view it through a different set of sunglasses, if you will, that exposed how saturated with social commentary the movie really is. Even though the movie is barely 90 minutes long, it takes almost an hour for things to really get cooking as far as uncovering the hidden agenda of consumers being controlled through subliminal messages. I’m not saying that I wanted John Carpenter to make a Matrix-esque dystopian futuristic movie or anything, I just feel like had they made some stronger points earlier in the film, it would have made a stronger impact and held more weight as some really heavy, intelligent science fiction. Even if it’s not “smarty pants” sci-fi, it’s still a shit ton of fun, and definitely one of Carpenter’s more underrated masterpieces.
Wolfman Moon Scale