Stars: 6 of 5.
Running Time: 93 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: "Rowdy" Roddy Piper (HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN, WALKER-TEXAS RANGER), Keith David (THE THING, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, MR. ROGERS), George "Buck" Flower (BACK TO THE FUTURE II, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, MUNCHIE), Peter Jason (PRINCE OF DARKNESS, DEADWOOD), Meg Foster (STEPFATHER II, LEVIATHAN), Raymond St. Jacques (RAWHIDE, FALCON CREST, THE PAWNBROKER), Sy Richardson (REPO MAN, MYSTERY TRAIN). Shot by Gary B. Kibbe (Carpenter's perennial cinematographer and camera op on MELVIN & HOWARD, CONVOY, STAR 80, & SIXTEEN CANDLES).
Tag-line: "Who are they? And what do they want?"
Best one-liner: "You look like your face fell in the cheese dip back in 1957!"
"It figures it'd be somethin' like this." THEY LIVE is not just some 80's sci-fi/action/horror vehicle with mullets and shotguns– it's a powerful, humanist statement on the world that we live in (or should I say, the world that we sleep through). From the very outset, you can see the handiwork of a master filmmaker: the cryptic underground mantra "THEY LIVE" melts away from main title into some inconspicuous graffiti and the camera tracks past a freight train to reveal a lone man, our hero, emerging from this industrial wasteland.
It's 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper, and while he's no Olivier, his reactions throughout the film to the increasingly mind-numbing realities have an earnest, incredulous, down home realism to them. He EARNS every bit of the artistic capital it takes to pull of lines like "I don't like this ONNNE bit!" or "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass... and I'm all out of bubblegum!"
By the time Piper receives his sunglasses-induced epiphany about our ruling class, I believe that- no joke- this is one of the most important films ever made.
To those who say it's heavy-handed, I ask, have you ever been laid off on your 19th week, so your boss doesn't have to owe you unemployment? Have you worked alongside men and women who've thrown away thirty-five years or more of their lives, ground themselves down into nothing because they had no other choice, while trust funders live high and fast off the fat of mommy and daddy and the blood of the poor? If only we lived in the world of THEY LIVE; then the unmasking of these people for what they really are could be as simple as destroying a satellite dish or slipping on some rockin' shades.
Carpenter's bold, dystopian vision has about zero deviation from the horrorshow we're all living out here. There's entertainment here, to be sure, but this film has the moxie of a sturdy whack to the guts.
The notorious 6 minute fistfight (between Piper and the electrifying, hot tempered Keith David) is basically a hyper-stylized rehashing of Paul Schrader's BLUE COLLAR, illustrating our inability to connect with one another on the most basic of issues.
And Keith David and Roddy Piper pulled no punches- literally- in this scene, unless said punch involved a face or genitalia:
When the truth is fleetingly broadcast over the airwaves, even the surly homeless man (George "Buck" Flower) razzes the speaker- anyone going against the grain of the media's status quo is intrinsically labeled "disruptive." The System in place is immaculate in its ability to keep people unfocused, fingers perpetually clenched around the wrong throats, and in this day and age, I'm not sure the System can ever be broken. In times like these, levelheadedness can be dangerous- we’ve got to get mad. Every time I see THEY LIVE- I'm going on maybe a dozen viewings now- it never fails to fire me up, and for that I am thankful.
P.S. The soundtrack (by Carpenter himself and long-time collaborator Alan Howarth) is fantastic. It's got proletarian twang, oppressive martial undertones, and it's always goddamned catchy. Carpenter sure knows how to lay out an impressively simplistic soundtrack (see also: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK).
P.P.S. I also think that you can generally judge the quality of a movie based on how many people in the cast possess genuine nicknames- the sort of nicknames that you always say their entire name, nickname included, like Jeff "Skunk" Baxter. Here, we got "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and George "Buck" Flower, both titans of the genre.
2009 Halloween Countdown
31. PROM NIGHT (1980, Paul Lynch)
30. PHENOMENA (1985, Dario Argento)
29. HOUSE OF WAX (1953, André de Toth)
28. SILENT RAGE (1982, Michael Miller)
27. BASKET CASE (1982, Frank Henenlotter)
26. THE DEADLY SPAWN (1983, Douglas McKeown)
25. PELTS (2006, Dario Argento)
24. ANGEL HEART (1987, Alan Parker)
23. KILLER WORKOUT (1986, David A. Prior)
22. FREDDY'S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE (1991, Rachel Talalay)
21. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971, Robert Fuest)
20. FRANKENHOOKER (1990, Frank Henenlotter)
19. HELLRAISER (1987, Clive Barker)
18. GEEK MAGGOT BINGO (1983, Nick Zedd)
17. ALLIGATOR (1980, Lewis Teague)
16. LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN (1971, Lucio Fulci)
15. THE CARD PLAYER (2004, Dario Argento)
14. SPASMO (1974, Umberto Lenzi)
13. C.H.U.D. (1984, Douglas Cheek)
12. FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III (1982, Steve Miner)
11. SWAMP THING (1982, Wes Craven)
10. DIARY OF THE DEAD (2008, George A. Romero)
9. THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988, Ken Russell)
8. PIECES (1982, Juan Piquer Simón)
7. THE NEW YORK RIPPER (1982, Lucio Fulci)
6. MOTHER OF TEARS (2008, Dario Argento)
5. THE CHANGELING (1980, Peter Medak)
4. FREDDY'S GREATEST HITS (1987, The Elm Street Group): PART 1
3. FREDDY'S GREATEST HITS (1987, The Elm Street Group): PART 2
2. THEY LIVE (1988, John Carpenter)