Sunday, October 3, 2010

31 Days Of Horror: Day 3: They Live


This review is my first (but trust me not last) entry to JD's of Radiator Heaven's John Carpenter Blogothon. It's started off great and it's just going to get better.

They Live is not subtle. Neither is a Molotov cocktail through the window. But it’s mighty effective.

They Live is a satire that doesn’t want you to miss a single point it’s making. And that’s OK, as far as I’m concerned. I mean sure the coded messages Piper finds under the world's advertising, sending base messages of Obedience and consumption for consumptions sake, may be blunt. But can you say they're not true to life?

In the giddy world of making believe, the American economy is in a freefall, as the middle class is destroyed by corporate maneuvering; while the media is used to keep them pacified and powerful forces misdirect populist anger. I know it’s far fetched right?

Don’t worry though, it’s not David Koch, it’s a race of aliens, who are helping dismantle the government with the help of Earth’s parasitical elite. Phew.

You know I’m going to stop pointing to parallels now, before the aneurysm kicks in.

It’s all fairly in tune with what Carpenter’s always done. There’s a damn good thesis to be written about the use of the disenfranchised as a subject of horror. It focuses on another of Carpenter’s solidly blue collar action heroes. This time a hard working man out of work™. Whose living at a hobo camp when he notices a sharp increase in the rise of both Jack Booted Thuggery and strange Television commercials. Sensing a correlation between the two he sneaks into the basement of a local church where he finds…

C’mon seriously. Do I really need to tell you? More so then any of his films aside from Halloween, They Live has crossed over. It’s one of those movies everyone knows, even those who haven’t seen it. And while that isn’t solely because of the film alone (Shepard Fairey owes John Carpenter a fucking Coke that’s all I’m saying) that doesn’t change the fact that They Live is a film that relentlessly, primally works.

Into the chaos strides Rowdy Roddy Piper, AKA “I’m not Kurt Russell, though clearly I was intended to be.” Piper actually does turn in a pretty solid performance. He delivers the immortal “Kick Ass and Chew Bubblegum” line with conviction and certainly knows how to deliver a pile driver. He’s just not Kurt Russell. Still he is partnered with Keith David, who can generate enough charisma for ten men.

Carpenter would never get away with making They Live, the way it is now. And I’m not even talking about the subversive content. It keeps it’s hero in the dark for over a half an hour, more then a third of its runtime. No way any film today would be allowed to bury their hook so deep. Especially not one so insanely catchy as the one that power’s They Live.

The film does have it’s flaws, it carries the pacing goes slack at times, with a distinct whiff of filler, even in the famous “Put the glasses on!” scene, glorious expenditure of testosterone that it is. And though I can’t call something a flaw that I love so dearly, it has always struck me as odd that Carpenter seemed to consciously try to end They Live on the least classy note possible. The last shot of They Live is like one of those crazy ideas you would always hear Sam Fuller wistfully talk about that a horrified studio would never let him make (look up his plans for the opening of Underwold USA sometime). It gets the idea across in the most horrifically direct way possible.

And it’s that sheer heat of the movie carries it through. Sure we come for the kicking ass and the chewing bubblegum, Roddy Rowdy Piper laying some Space Skeleton’s low. But it’s impossible to watch a scene like the one set in the stockholder’s meeting, in which a smiling upper class blithely sells out the future of their species for their own personal gain, without tapping into the well of populist anger that flows through the film at all times. And makes it impossible to forget once seen.

8 comments:

Rob said...

Valid points all, and if Kurt had been in it, it would (possibly) regarded as a classic. The fight,Meg Foster's scary, scary eyes, even the end. I love They Live, and probably catch it about 3 or 4 times a year on late-night cable. Thinking about what you've written about the modern-day parrallels, we could use a few Rowdy Roddy's--but they'd probably get arrested and neutralized pretty fast...

The Mike said...

Great write up. This has been a film I love more each year, it never gets old. Fine points on the Piper/Russell thing, which is impossible to miss. And, yes, David is a great help.

Bryce Wilson said...

Yeah this is one of those watch anytime anywhere titles.

Thanks for coming by guys.

le0pard13 said...

Great post regarding this underrated (but fast-rising) Carpenter film, Bryce. I very much agree with you that Carpenter (or any other quick-witted director) wouldn't be granted permission (or money) to make such a film today. At least through any of mainstream studios, that is. I enjoyed this immensely. Thanks for this.

J.D. said...

Agreed, there is no way a studio would back this now. But then, if memory serves, I believe it was funded independently and then distributed by a studio but still...

And I always wondered what this film would've been like had Russell starred in it rather than Piper. That being said, Piper was awesome and did a pretty good job considering he's not a trained actor. JC wisely used his physicality and played that up.

This is one of those films that I never tire of watching. It is so much fun.

Thanks again for contributing!

Bryce Wilson said...

@ le0pard13: No man thank you for the kind words. If this was made today it'd be twice as dumb, twice as loud, and half as effective.

@ JD: No problem bud, thanks for hosting such a great event!

Biba Pickles said...

Put on the glasses!

Bryce Wilson said...

Don't make me pile drive you Biba...