Welcome to My First Time, a series where I review classic films (1930s -1990s) as I see them for the first time. Check back weekly for new installments!
It’s tough to be a horror fan. I enjoy the genre – and have since my Goosebumps-reading days – but liking scary stories carries a certain stigma with it. Fortunately, I’ve never encountered much opposition. Sadly, though, one often hears stories of fellow horror fans having their passion rebuked with a distasteful sneer and an utterance of “You actually LIKE that stuff?”
To be fair, I can understand where that distaste for horror comes from. Let’s admit it: a lot of horror films are smutty, overly gory, and just plain gross. After 1978’s Halloween (actually not a bad film), a wave of slasher movies hit the screen, all featuring promiscuous teens, gory deaths, and killers that we’re encouraged to root for. Allow me to be clear: aside from a couple good exceptions (Halloween and the parts of Scream that I’ve seen), I dislike those movies. They give horror a bad name.
What’s especially sad is that bad horror films cause some to reject the whole horror genre, and that’s a shame. That means missing out on great stuff like Stephen King novels, Boris Karloff’s TV series Thriller, the first two film adaptations of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video, 1963’s The Haunting…
…And John Carpenter’s They Live!
As They Live begins, we meet John Nada (Roddy Piper), a drifter making his way into Los Angeles. After getting a job at a construction company, Nada meets fellow worker Frank Armitage (Keith David), who befriends Nada and takes him to a soup kitchen near a shantytown. While at the kitchen, Nada becomes intrigued by strange activity revolving around the nearby church: a preacher standing outside the church and vehemently urging people to “wake up,” as well as another drifter claiming that his TV signal is often jammed by another signal from the church.
Nada enters the church building, only to realize that the building isn’t a house of worship; rather, the place is filled with scientific and broadcasting equipment. Nada discovers a false panel in a wall and moves it aside, revealing a cardboard box. He reaches for it, but stops when the preacher notices him. That night, the “church” is inexplicably raided by the police. Nada returns the next morning to find the building empty – except for the box hidden in the walls. Nada snatches the box, runs to an alley, and opens it, uncovering… lots of sunglasses.
Nada slips on a pair and immediately notices some strange things. First, the sunglasses force the wearer to see their surroundings in black-and-white. Second, all magazines and signs have been stripped of their usual images, replaced with messages like STAY ASLEEP, WATCH TV, CONFORM, and NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT. Third (and definitely most disturbing), Nada discovers that a solid percentage of the people on Earth aren’t people at all; rather, they’re aliens who look like zombies.
Rather than being frightened, Nada becomes aggressive, confronting two aliens in a grocery store and killing most of the aliens in a bank. Unfortunately, this brings him to the aliens’s attention, as well as placing him on the police’s radar. Desperate for a place to hide, Nada hijacks a car, forcing Holly Thompson (Meg Foster) to take him to her apartment. After hearing Nada’s crazy-sounding story, however, Holly takes matters into her own hands. Catching Nada unawares, Holly pushes him out the window of her second or third-story apartment. However, Nada survives.
Nada returns to the alley he left the glasses in and retrieves them, only to encounter Frank. (Remember Frank, Nada’s construction-worker friend?) Nada wants Frank to put on a pair of the glasses, but Frank, believing Nada’s just a crazy shooter, wants no part of it. After a famous six-minute fist-fight sequence, Nada slips a pair of glasses on Frank, waking him up to the true state of the world. Now on the same side, Frank and Nada team up to put an end to the aliens’s rule once and for all!
If I had to describe They Live‘s plot in one sentence, I’d say, “What if an ’80s action hero dropped into the middle of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers?” There’s a lot of humor and horror inherent in that situation, and writer/director John Carpenter understood that. As he adapted Ray Nelson’s story “Eight O’Clock In The Morning” into the They Live script, it’s obvious that Carpenter (under the pen name Frank Armitage) took care to balance the action-oriented, horrific, and comedic elements of the story. He succeeded remarkably well!
This balance is easiest to see in our lead character. John Nada is a perfect example of what I call the “Carpenter Horror Hero:” a brave person who, rather than cower in fear of the evil confronting them, immediately decides to stand and fight back! John Carpenter had made a definitive statement on this hero in his 1982 film The Thing. Where it was serious in The Thing, however, Carpenter does it more playfully here. While Nada is scared of what’s going on, he also finds time to drop a number of ’80s-action-hero one-liners. Some of my favorites include:
“Mama don’t like tattletales.”
“Come to show them where I am, huh? NOT NICE!”
And, most famously (one swear word in this one, so be warned):
Even with all this humor, horror, and action, John Carpenter also manages to share an important theme, warning against conformity, group-think, and the power of the media. Not bad for a little genre movie!
That brings us to the acting. If you saw the video above, you could probably tell that Roddy Piper wasn’t the greatest actor in the world. Heck, you don’t have to be when you’re a WWF superstar! However, like another wrestler-turned-actor named Dwayne Johnson, Piper is fine when he’s given something in his wheelhouse. The role of John Nada is perfectly crafted to fit Piper’s strengths; all it requires is swagger and a strong physical presence. Piper delivers both of those things in spades! It doesn’t matter that he reads his lines a little flatly; Nada is a classic B-movie hero, so an in-depth interpretation isn’t needed.
Keith David cleans house as Frank, but I was expecting that! He’s not quite as physically strong as Roddy Piper, but he exudes a sense of sturdiness and toughness with every line he delivers. He gives my favorite performance of the three leads!
I wish I could say Meg Foster did a good job, too, but I cannot tell a lie. She’s just as bad with line delivery as Roddy Piper, but her role isn’t accommodating like Piper’s role. It also doesn’t help that she almost ALWAYS has the same look on her face, regardless of the situation.
I didn’t want to wrap up this article without talking about the score, which was composed by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth. Carpenter often writes the scores for his films, and they’re famous for being simple, electronically-based, and keyboard-driven. That wouldn’t work for every film, but they fit Carpenter’s brand of movie perfectly! For They Live, however, Carpenter brought in Alan Howarth to help, and you can hear his influence. Carpenter’s electronic base is still there, but Howarth (I’m assuming) adds bluesy guitar stings that give the music such a unique flavor. It’s unlike any horror score that I’ve ever heard!
Like I said at the beginning of this review, horror gets a bad rep, and it’s often deserved. However, gems like They Live are what make dipping into the genre worthwhile. The balanced mixture of action, horror, and comedy make it truly unique, and the themes are worth picking up on. They Live is totally worth your time!
Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars