Listen you mother, you’ve got to understand that John Carpenter was to the late seventies and eighties what David Bowie was to the seventies and early eighties. Both enjoyed a streak so hot that their eventual downslide was all the more depressing given how initially invincible they appeared to be. Carpenter kicked off his feature-length journey with 1974’s Dark Star, which I still haven’t seen and really should, so I’ll skip to the lethal siege thriller Assault on Precinct 13, which boasted masterly genre direction on a low-budget. Plus it had the nerve to kill a sweet child whose only crime was to complain about her flavour of ice cream. Once that happened, all bets were off. Precinct 13 was great, but Halloween (1978) was a total masterpiece and more or less the final word in slasher cinema. Is there a better slasher film? Okay, the bit where one of them gets killed in a car and she does the funniest death-face in cinema isn’t great, but the rest is. There are plenty of rivals, contenders and all that, but none match the horrific purity of Carpenter’s film. Then we got a spree of gems, ranging from middle-weight but still well worth any horror genre-fan’s time such as The Fog (one of the ultimate jump-movies) and Christine (the best evil car film ever), a great sci-fi ride in Escape from New York (which I do think is slightly overpraised but is still a peach) and one of the finest remakes ever in The Thing, which boasts probably the most imaginative special effects ever created. You also got the genuinely sweet and moving Starman (a hot contender for most overlooked Carpenter film, and definitely the saddest) plus the hugely enjoyable Big Trouble in Little China, which may have the worst theme song ever but does have Kim Cattrall in a geisha-outfit and the most hilariously ineffective lead hero since Indiana Jones. However, some unhappy experiences working with big studios led to Carpenter retreating back to indie filmmaking for the last two films of his golden era – true, Prince of Darkness and They Live were distributed by major studios but in essence they were made by Carpenter’s own Alive Films company. Prince of Darkness was a flawed but still effective apocalyptic horror, but They Live is nigh on perfect, a true cult film, a clever, dumb, angry, exciting, hilarious and striking slice of paranoid SF that died a death at the box office and yet grew to become another much-loved Carpenter peach. It was also the last truly excellent film this director ever made – good stuff would follow, but They Live is definitely the last of the golden era.
I must say that ace film critic Vern (author of the genuinely amazing Steven Seagal film guide Seagalogy)’s take on They Live could be the final word on the matter, and anything I say won’t be able to elaborate much further than this man’s infectious enthusiasm for the film – http://www.outlawvern.com/2006/08/23/they-live/- but I’ll throw in my two cents. They Live is essentially a tale of Us against Them, partly a class war, but the rich turn out to be more than just well off, they’re literally from another planet. Turns out grotesquely ugly aliens are living amongst us, and they’re the ones with the fancy gold watches, the housemaids, the much-coveted promotions, basically the ones who aren’t poor, underclass or from an ethnic minority. They look like us, but that’s only because they’ve installed a huge aerial that transmits a brainwashing signal that makes us see otherwise. There’s also subliminal messages hidden or virtually every shop sign, billboard, magazine, newspaper, stuff like ‘Obey’, ‘Consume’, ‘Marry and Reproduce’, ‘No Independent Thought’ and so on, stuff that you can’t see with the naked eye but are there if you wear the special sunglasses created by a small band of resistance fighters. Turns out they’ve created these glasses that reveals all the messages, the aliens’ true appearance and the weird little flying cameras that act as surveillance everywhere.
So who’s our hero? ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, that’s who! For those not in the know, Piper was a pro wrestler in the then-WWF, and They Live was his breakthrough film role. True, he’d appeared in Hell Comes to Frogtown the year before, but I think the man’s cinematic legacy begins and ends with this film. The thing is, Piper’s really good in the role – he probably gives the best performance by a wrestler in any film, ever. Yep, better than Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride. Definitely better than Hulk Hogan in Rocky III. Piper’s character is named Nada, though we never hear it mentioned in the film – Nada means ‘nothing’, which from a social mobility scale of things, is pretty much where our man is throughout the film. Homeless and new in town, he manages to find a job working construction, whilst spending his free time at the local soup kitchen and slums with all the other down-and-outs. Nada’s an inquisitive guy though, and he’s suspicious of the comings and goings at the local church, which appears to be holding prayer sing-a-long sessions at four in the morning. Turns out that’s just a cover, and that what’s really going on is a plot to overthrow the aliens. Of course, Nada doesn’t realise any of this just yet, and fellow construction worker Frank (the mighty Keith David) doesn’t want to know anything. He’s got a wife and kids. Just stay out of it, he says. Yet Nada won’t let it go, and after coming across a box of the sunglasses and seeing what’s really going on, he becomes a target. Admittedly, he does bring this on himself by openly insulting the aliens in public, referring to one as ‘formaldehyde-face’ and commenting on one touching up her hair in a mirror that such things is like ‘putting perfume on a pig’. All of a sudden his ‘cover’ is blown and he has to kill a couple of alien cops to get away. One blind detour leads him to hide out in a bank, which, given he’s armed with a shotgun, does raise extreme panic amongst the customers. This leads to the immortal ‘I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum…and I’m all out of bubblegum’ line, which does indeed lead to him blowing away any alien he sees. The thing is, aliens and humans aren’t mutually exclusive – if you want to sell out and work for the aliens, you’ve got it. You’re guaranteed a better job and more money if you do. Still, Nada won’t kill any humans, so he’s not insanely trigger-happy. Still, he’s going to need help, given that the anti-alien HQ and the slums were trashed by the police earlier on. His first port of call is Frank, but he’s not having any of it. He certainly won’t put on the glasses. This leads to my absolute all-time favourite fight scene in the movies. Seriously, this fight is a rough, tough, mean, dirty, funny and really painful looking scrap – David and Piper beat the living shit out of each other for over five minutes, and you really can feel each punch, kick, bite and bodyslam. I mean, Piper was a wrestler – even if this was his foray into another entertainment medium, he had to deliver the old-school goods, and he doesn’t disappoint. Without a doubt, this is one of the most spectacular set-pieces in cinema, and it barely cost a cent. Proof that sometimes, all you need to make great cinema is a good smack in the chops.
Anyway, Frank does see what’s really going on, and this is when the going gets tough – they reunite with the resistance, and before they can initiate their plan of action, they’re raided by the law, mostly killed, and only Frank and Nada are left to barely escape when they use one of the aliens’ gold watches (which doubles as a teleporter) to arrive at alien HQ, which is where the big hypno-transmissions are coming from. Oh yeah, there’s a disturbingly alien-like human played by Meg Foster (Evil-Lyn from the He-Man movie, boo!) who works for the cable network that’s responsible for the bad airwaves. What follows next I won’t reveal, but let’s just say it’s a wholly satisfying and uncompromising ending. The final montage of scenes are absolutely hilarious, particularly the very last couple of shots. Carpenter always seemed to end his films on an unforgettable shot (the hand/mirror cliffhanger in Prince of Darkness, the empty house/heavy breathing in Halloween, the lights emanating from the spaceship take-off in Starman) and this is no exception.
I remember catching this on ITV back when they used to show really cool films after the News at Ten (or possibly even later) and it was a real treat then – seeing it in proper widescreen (Carpenter is one of the best 2.35:1 directors) on DVD is even better, and the inventiveness of the visuals (the monochrome sunglasses-vision is particularly striking), the half-dated, half unbeatably addictive score and perfectly judged script (Carpenter has never been so pissed-off at the state of the nation) makes this one of the key science-fiction films of the eighties.
PS: On the 2008 UK Optimum DVD, the back blurb refers to our leading man as ‘Rowdy’ Roddy POWDER. This amused and angered me in equal measures.