“They influence our decisions without us knowing it. They numb our senses without us feeling it. They control our lives without us realizing it. They Live.”
That sounds a lot like a GOP candidate’s running slogan, but it’s actually the synopsis for my absolute favorite John Carpenter movie, They Live. A movie that leaves us wondering, “How does Carpenter feel about consumerism? Could you be more specific, John?”
We’re introduced to Nada (Roddy Piper) a bumbling, homeless wanderer, who arrives in Los Angeles looking for work and soon finds it at an L.A. construction site. While there, he befriends a fellow worker named Frank (Keith David) who takes him to a local shantytown where most of the workers live. After spending one night at this shantytown, Nada notices odd behavior at a small church across the street, accompanied by a blind preacher loudly telling others to “WAKE UP” as a police helicopter hovers overhead. After some “investigating” (he literally just bumps or backs into things) Nada discovers that the church is just a front. Say what? That’s right, a front. In this “church” he finds scientific machinery, which in the 80’s just means a large computer, some beakers filled with glowing goo, some strobe lights, and, in this case, a bunch of sunglasses. But these are no ordinary sunglasses. If you wear these sunglasses, you see THE TRUTH. The truth is that really badass looking aliens walk among us and they’re using mass media to brainwash our minds. This doesn’t sit too well with Nada, and the mission to stop the madness begins.
How I love this movie, let me count the ways. First of all, John Carpenter put Rowdy Roddy Piper and his glorious blonde mullet in the lead role. With lines like, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum,” and “Brother, life’s a bitch and she’s back in heat” how could you not be on board with that casting decision? Secondly, this movie has one of the best alley fight scenes in cinematic history. Bold statement, I know, but I stand by it. Yeah, it’s a little over six minutes long, and it probably doesn’t need to be, but who fucking cares. FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! Oh, and Evil Lyn is in this movie, and she’s throwing Nada through plate glass windows for no apparent reason, and he survives with no more than a cut on his cheek. Carpenter also does a fantastic job with the juxtaposition between “glasses on” and “glasses off” creating a gray, consumer driven, bleak world with “glasses on” and a bright, happy, naïve world with “glasses off.” And last, but certainly not least, as usual, Carpenter pulls out all the stops with the “Aliens.” He has a real eye for what works and every time I watch this movie I’m blown away by how aesthetically terrifying they actually are, right down to the last line of the film, spoken by an alien getting laid, “Baby, what’s wrong?” I think the scariest part is how accurate this sci-fi horror movie really is compared to the world we live in, and I always find myself asking, “Where’s our Rowdy Roddy?”
For me, it’s hard to dissect a Carpenter film. In my eyes, the man can do no wrong, and he holds a very special place in my horror loving, adolescent heart. He already perfected the ‘hack ‘em up serial killer’ in ’78 with the release of Halloween…Michael Myers still haunts my dreams, and as the 80s trudged on with the Freddys and the Jasons, John Carpenter, for me, always stood out. Starting with The Fog, he owned that decade, as far as I’m concerned, and They Live is just the climax to a ridiculous, bloody, head exploding genre that Carpenter called home.
Liza Marie is a Milwaukee based standup comedian that enjoys all things sci-fi and horror.