Horror review: They Live

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 18, 1988

By Steve Newton

With such harrowing films as The Thing, Halloween, and Escape From New York under his belt, John Carpenter has proven himself one of the world’s top directors in the sci-fi/horror/thriller genres. So what’s he doing making a lightweight piece of fluff like They Live?

He’s trying to be smart, that’s what.

The movie starts out well enough. John Nada (wrestler-turned-actor Roddy Piper) is an unemployed but idealistic blue-collar man who drifts into Los Angeles looking for work and finds shelter in a desolate hobo encampment. Accompanied by a spooky synthesizer score played by Carpenter and co-composer Alan Howarth, the director’s images of urban decay and soullessness give the first part of the film a gritty realism that crawls insidiously under the viewer’s skin. The focus is on Piper’s character, and–though the performance is far from Oscar material–John Nada’s reactions to the depressing world around him are quite believable.

The film’s real downfall begins when Nada discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see all types of repressive subliminal messages that have been disguised as ’80s mass media–billboards, product labels, and magazines spout one-word commands like “Submit”, “Obey”, and “Reproduce”. Then Nada starts seeing every other person he encounters as a skull-faced yuppie monster. They notice his X-ray specs, too, and call in reinforcements through transmitters in their Rolex watches.

From here on in the movie becomes a phoney battle-royal with Nada and a handful of other homeless humans pitted against a thousand well-armed, skull-faced bad guys.

Guess who wins?

John Carpenter has said that They Live is meant as a strong commentary on the social and political climate of the U.S. today. “Basically,” he said, “the premise is that the Reagan revolution is controlled by aliens. The aliens were designed to look like Republicans. It’s an anti-yuppie film about greed. It’s about us in the ’80s.”

Fine and dandy, but does the average horror fan–who’s been scared silly from Carpenter’s previous work and loved every minute of it–really care about important underlying messages of social injustice and political economics?

Not likely. They want to be thrilled and horrified. Carpenter should stick to what he’s good at–scaring folks–and leave the political satire to Spitting Image.

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