Stuff I Watch in October: They Live (1988)

they live

Happy October and welcome! All 31 days this month, I will be reviewing all the films I watch in the month of October. They’re mostly a selection of horror or suspense films in my own library or films and shows that have been recommended to me.

Please enjoy and leave a comment!

And if you missed any of our past reflections, take a look:

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Psycho (1960)
The Haunting (1963)
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)
The Other (1972)
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Young Frankenstein (1974)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Halloween (1978)
Alien (1979)
The Shining (1980)
Halloween II (1981)
The Evil Dead (1981)
Halloween III – Season of the Witch (1982)
Ghostbusters (1984)
Teen Wolf (1985)
Aliens (1986)
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Predator (1987)
The Monster Squad (1987)
The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
The Lost Boys (1987)
Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

Our next film is…

WATCHING: They Live (1988)

they live

DIRECTOR: John Carpenter. This is one of his most solid excursions after “Big Trouble in Little China” and “Halloween”. It’s funny that even his third best film is incredibly entertaining.

WHAT IS IT?: “They Live” is of the most inventive sci-fi/action satires I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, it also doubles as a source for your crazy political friends’ memes when they think the government is run by “dUh dEeP sTaTe”. More on why in a few.

THE PLOT: A homeless drifter named “Nada” (the late wrestler, Roddy Piper) wanders into Los Angeles and begins to look for a job. As he walks, he passes by a preacher who warns that “they” are in control. Ignoring this, he finds work at a construction site and befriends Frank (Keith David), who eventually brings him into a close-knit community of the poor led by a man named Gilbert (Peter Jason). It turns out Gilbert is one of the people leading a group hellbent on exposing the “truth” about a mysterious signal which keeps the general population of the city “asleep” so that a secret cabal can continue to run things.

After a portion of the community is destroyed in a raid, Nada manages to find a leftover box the cops didn’t get to and discovers that all it contains is a bunch of sunglasses. At first, Nada’s pissed off that he wasted his time believing in Gilbert’s nonsense — until he puts on the sunglasses and discovers that they make the wearer see through the signal. Billboards, signage on cars and trucks, and magazines all have words like “OBEY”, “CONSUME”, “MARRY AND REPRODUCE”, and “COMPLY” — and, worse yet, the glasses also show that some of the people in the city are really alien beings.

WHAT DID CRITICS THINK?: Reviews for “They Live” were initially mixed with some critics enjoying the brilliance of the premise — but noting that the screenplay really wasn’t as deep as the filmmakers believed. The film found its audience on television and on home video with several critics calling it a sci-fi classic.

they live

WHAT DID I THINK?: It’s been years since I’ve seen “They Live”. I was a huge wrestling fan when I first saw the film on TV in the mid-1990’s. Even then, I wasn’t holding out hope for anything special, given that wrestlers don’t usually make great actors. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Roddy Piper was perfect in the film. I mean, he wasn’t the consumate actor, but you can buy him in the role of a homeless man, down on his luck, trying to find his way in life.

Carpenter is a huge fan of Westerns and the way he introduces Nada is reminiscent of an old drifter coming into a poor, dusty town on his horse. It’s beautifully completed by a slow, bluesy, guitar-based score, typical of Carpenter, and garnished with a nice 80’s sax lick. At once, Piper is the last of the cowboys, a vigilante, and an anti-hero. None of those characters is an issue for Piper since his wrestling ring persona has seen him give us elements of all three of those characters.

Keith David is always good no matter what role he’s in and he’s perfect here as Frank, a man who is so driven to be part of a society that has no interest in him, that he initially shuns Nada’s attempts to get him involved in the fight for mankind. By the way, the six-minute WWE-style fight scene (there’s actually two suplexes and the winner makes the other wear sunglasses, heh) the two have before Nada finally convinces him is BONKERS, so much so, Rotten Tomatoes actually voted it #7 in their “Top 20 Fight Scenes of All-Time”.

The only thing which weighs down the film is a feeling of hopelessness and a downer of ending, which leaves everything far too open-ended, almost as if Carpenter didn’t know how to finish it all off.

Still, “They Live” is science-fiction bliss, even though it’s gritty and rough around the edges.


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