John Carpenter’s Theory of Horror: They Live (1988)

A few years ago, I visited Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (aka MoPOP). Honestly, the main reason I checked it out was that the building looks like it was designed by/for a modern day Willie Wonka. However, to my pleasant surprise, they happened to be running a temporary exhibit on horror movies. They had a LOT of fantastic stuff on display: iconic horror props, behind-the-scenes footage, lifesize replicants of your various favorite serial murderers, etc. But, out of the whole exhibit, the main thing which stuck with me was a short video clip from an interview with the legendary horror director John Carpenter. In it, Carpenter explains what is essentially the most concise, systematic theory of horror I’ve ever heard, read, or been able to formulate on my own. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this: There are only two horror stories. One is the person at the campfire pointing out into the dark surrounding woods and saying, “there is a monster somewhere out there.” The second story is the person at the campfire pointing at the others gathered around and saying, “the monster is here. It’s one of us.” The next time you watch a horror movie, I’d implore you to ask yourself which of these two stories it best fits into. It’s a fun and enlightening exercise, trust me.

I bring up that story because it’s now impossible for me to watch a Carpenter film without thinking of this insight. I’d also say that I think it’s interesting that even though he was the one who actually laid down these “rules” for horror, he may also be the one who’s the best at breaking them. The prime example is what I (and many others) would argue is his masterpiece, The Thing (1982), where the monster both is and isn’t one of us. That is to say that the monster undeniably alien but is mainly horrifying because it is almost completely unrecognizable as a monster. Thus the story focuses not only on a horrific force of nature murdering our group of isolated protagonists; but also on the horrors of human nature. The paranoia, distrust, and disregard for one another’s (questionable) humanity are all just as scary as the “Thing” itself. The film is infinitely subtle, nuanced and is by turns either wonderfully restrained or wonderfully over-the-top. 

Fun fact time: They Live is the origin of the line “I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum and I’m all out of bubblegum” which was then popularized by (and often miscredited to) video game badass Duke Nukem.

Carpenter’s 1988 film The Live is neither subtle nor suggests a director who even has an inkling of the definition of “restrained”; nevertheless, it is just as complex and fascinating a horror story as its 1982 predecessor. The plot is pretty straightforward: A homeless drifter, John Nada (played by pro-wrestling hunk Roddy Piper), stumbles upon a pair of scientifically engineered sunglasses, which allow him to see the hidden messages underlying the images of the world. What’s more, the glasses also reveal the true form of an alien race which has assimilated itself with human society, unbeknownst to the masses. Needless to say, these two revelations are indeed connected, the alien’s plan being a kind of mind-control through mass propaganda, and it’s only through the glasses that Nada can see the real underlying motives, which range from MARRY AND REPRODUCE to the more succinct OBEY.

I think they’re trying to tell me something here…

In doing this, They Live is basically hitting many the same themes as The Thing, but with a couple of exciting twists. Yes, there are real monsters from “out there,” and yes, they are also among us, but in They Live, the “main event” has already occurred. The invasion has taken place. It’s over; the monsters have already won. I love this. The film’s starting point is happening decades after the end of some other sci-fi/horror movie like The Thing or Ex Machina. Carpenter’s intent with this is clearly to help leverage a hefty political statement that would make Marx himself shed a tear of pride. The surprising thing about The Live is hardly even the aliens, who are seen going about their routine daily lives just like the rest of us, blending in at line in the bank and the grocery store. The real horror lies in the humans, genuine earthlings, who are more than happy to sell out their own kind to their new capitalist overlords. By contrast, the good guys are the resistance group Nada joins who live a blissful, collectivist existence. Again, the messaging here is hardly subtle.

Apparently, the film was made as Carpenter’s harsh response to the advertisement age and, as he saw it, the degradation of culture and society in a post-Reaganomics world. In more recent times, the film has found a place in the academic sphere as a leftist post-modern critique of capitalism, ideology, and conservatism. In the documentary A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012), philosopher Slavoj Žižek even steps inside They Live to deliver a short lecture on the film’s deconstruction of ideology (seen below).

This shot confirms that Žižek is in fact not an alien. I know, I was surprised too.

If you haven’t seen the film and are concerned that it’s going to be a stuffy, politically-motivated bore-fest, then fret not! While They Live maintains a critical philosophical overtone, most of the movie is essentially a sci-fi/horror self-parody. The film spends minimal time exploring the seedy undercurrents of everyday life. It quickly becomes an alien shoot ’em up with the occasional break for a good, old-fashioned alley brawl. (If I were to voice one major criticism for They Live, it’s that I wish the movie spent more time exploring its central premise before Nada picks up a shotgun to start purging aliens.) As a parody, it works pretty well, chock-full of one-liners and highly choreographed violence. Carpenter also executes a few wonderful subversions of the “alien-invaders” sub-genre, which I particularly loved. The main one being that when John Nada and his compadre Frank Armitage (Keith David) infiltrate the alien’s underground base, what they stumble upon is just a black-tie dinner. A self-congratulatory event in a fancy ballroom attended by both aliens and complicit humans. No master control rooms, no alien queens, only an utterly self-interested ruling class reveling their own triumph.

He was so concerned with getting his bow tie right that he forgot to put on a face. How embarrassing.

While They Live is eminently watchable even if you’re not interested in its political message, I don’t think I can fully recommend it to anyone who isn’t ready to receive a hefty mainlining of liberalism. While the film intentionally makes this message as overt as possible and wraps it in a highly digestible package (i.e., With plenty of humor and action), it still falls into the nigh-unavoidable pitfall of art with an agenda; namely that it feels a bit preachy. Whether or not you agree with the film’s agenda is beside the point. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a movie is just a way to kill 90 minutes. Consider that my fair warning of what you’re getting into with this film. 

Despite the film being generally classified as a sci-fi/horror, it tends to sacrifice traditional scares to deliver a broader message about modern society’s inspired and eroded nature. It wants to show us how far gone we really are, how horribly compromised. Ultimately, They Live is a movie that tells both a story of the monsters out there in the woods and the monsters that are among us; and how when the invasion happened, we unknowingly welcomed it with open arms. 

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