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They Live (1988)

by on 2012/01/21

“I’ve got one that can see.”

* * * *

I hope John Carpenter isn’t still smoking. It bothers me to think a multi-threat talent like him could be cutting short his years of productivity. Although my favourites in his repertoire are focused in the Eighties, he began in the Seventies. I also enjoyed his relatively recent Vampires.

Like his latter-day equivalent, Robert Rodriguez, he does it all: producing, writing, directing, editing, composing, and more. While his stories often flaunt the trappings of the information age, they’re usually firmly rooted in the wild west and pulps of old.

They Live features a transient blue-collar worker, played by Canadian wrestler, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Like a classic gunslinger, he breezes mysteriously into town, never identified by name. (The end titles credit him as “Nada”, Spanish for “nothing”.) He crosses the train tracks into Los Angeles, and secures menial labour.

Later, he notices odd goings-on in the shantytown where he lives. Shadowy figures converge on a church across the street. Following them, he finds a laboratory, broadcasting equipment, and a cache of unusual sunglasses. After a surprise — and suspiciously hostile — raid by the local police, he returns to the church, and salvages a box of shades. When he actually tries a pair on, his life changes irrevocably as he suddenly perceives conspiracies all around him.

My most significant issue is tied to Nada himself, or perhaps an improvising Piper. Initially, he professes to believe in the American way; patience and effort will be rewarded. However, he then responds to his discovery by, essentially, going on a killing spree. I was able to find some motivation for his behaviour with the brutal police invasion but, if this incident was the catalyst, we’d hardly know it from his poker-faced reaction.

It’s not as if he doesn’t show emotion later on, though his expressions are generally confined to sneering, sarcasm, and psychosis. “They sure ain’t from Cleveland,” he observes of his monstrous foes. Fair enough. “I’ve come to chew bubble gum and kick ass . . . and I’m all out of bubble gum.” Spot on. But then, “Life’s a bitch, and she’s back in heat.” Um, what? And, after a prolonged fight scene, “Ain’t love grand?”

Misfiring irony notwithstanding, Piper is great fun to watch, nearly a force of nature, and his dominant blankness can often work in his favour, making him enigmatic, intense, and interpretive. I just assumed he was the kind of crazy it takes to overthrow The System, and then everything seemed right in the world.

That world is full of interest and excitement. The makeup and effects are a surprising step back from Carpenter’s then-recent remake, The Thing, but they’re suggestive without being horrific. The use of grainy black and white film stock helps to disguise their roughness.

The messages about conformity and consumerism are on target, if heavy-handed, but their presentation has an interesting novelty. Viewers of the underground broadcasts, and those who wear the special glasses, experience discomfort and headaches, like “a knife turning in your skull”. I think it’s poignant the truth should hurt, and the danger of complacency would be easier.

They Live is that rare action movie — okay, more of a low-budget thriller — which is as intriguing to the mind as involving for the adrenal gland. Is it a western, horror, science fiction, or satiric comedy? Yes to all of them. It reminded me most of a George Romero flick, or a Trancers with something of substance to say. Sure it stammers and stutters a bit, but it does get the message across.

* * * *

Rated R

95 minutes

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