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

A few years ago, I visited Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (aka MoPOP). The initial reason I checked it out was that the building looks it’s designed by/for a modern day Willie Wonka. However, to my surprise, they also happened to be running an exhibit on horror movies filled with a LOT of crazy stuff. Iconic horror props, behind-the-scenes footage, life-size replicas of your favorite serial killers, etc, etc. It was basically horror-junkie heaven, albeit mostly because of its close resemblance to hell.

But even with all the glitz and glam and gore, there was one thing in the exhibit which stuck with me above all the rest. It was a moment in an interview with the legendary horror director John Carpenter where he lays out what may be the most concise theory of the horror genre 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 right here. It’s one of us.” The next time you watch a horror movie, you owe it to yourself to try and test Carpenter’s theory. It’s pretty damn fun to think about.

I mention that quote because it’s now impossible for me to watch a Carpenter film without thinking about how his theory may have influenced his filmmaking and how, like all artists who are very familiar with the “rules” of the craft, Carpenter is incredibly deft at breaking them.

The prime example of this is what I (and many others) would argue is his masterpiece, The Thing (1982). His shapeshifting creature is the perfect example of Carpenter blurring the lines between his “two stories,” since the monster both is and isn’t one of us. Thus the story focuses not only on an alien tearing its way through a group of frostbitten protagonists; but also on how quickly people will turn into monsters themselves when given the opportunity. Paranoia, distrust, and disregard for one another’s (admittedly questionable) humanity are all just as scary as the “Thing” itself.

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.

While The Thing stands as a testament to Carpenter’s affinity for subtlety and nuance, his 1988 film They Live is neither subtle nor suggests that Carpenter is capable of a single nuanced creative thought. Honestly, watching the film can feel a lot like getting beat over the head with a two-by-four. Despite this, I do think They Live is just as complex and fascinating a horror story as its 1982 predecessor, it just provides a significantly more aggressive (and satirical) take on those themes.

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 connected, the aliens’ nefarious endgame being mind-control through mass propaganda. it’s only with the help of the glasses that Nada can see the real underlying motives, which range from MARRY AND REPRODUCE to the significantly more succinct OBEY.

Jeez, I wonder if they’re trying to deliver some social commentary here.

They Live actually hits on many of the same themes as The Thing, but with a few more exciting twists and bucketload of one-liners. Just like in The Thing there are the 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. There is no war left to be fought, and resistance seems almost comically futile (but not impossible). Carpenter’s intent with this trick is to deliver a hefty helping capitalist-critique that would have Marx himself weeping for joy.

The surprising thing about They Live is hardly even the aliens, who are seen going about their routine daily lives just like the rest of us. They’re in at line in the bank and sorting through produce at the grocery store. The true horror lies in the humans, the genuine earthlings, who are more than happy to sell out their own kind to their new capitalist overlords.

In contrast to this “capitalist pigs” metaphor, the good guys are a resistance group consisting of heavily armed hippies who live a blissful, collectivist life together. Again, the messaging here is hardly subtle.

As the story goes the film was made as Carpenter’s strongly-worded response to the so-called “advertisement age” and, as he saw it, the degradation of 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. Weird.

If you haven’t seen They Live and are concerned that it’s going to be a stuffy, politically-motivated bore-fest, then worry not! While They Live is popular in nerdy academic circles for its philosophical overtone, most of the movie is essentially a sci-fi/horror self-parody. The movie spends minimal time exploring the seedy undercurrents of everyday life and quickly becomes an alien shoot ’em up with the occasional break for a good, old-fashioned alley brawl.

As a parody, it works pretty darn well. It’s chock-full of one-liners and well choreographed violence that’ll keep your inner-adolescent jumping for joy. For the big-time horror/sci-fi fans, Carpenter also executes a few wonderful subversions of the “alien-invaders” trope. My personal favorite being that when John Nada and his ally Frank Armitage (Keith David) infiltrate the alien’s underground base, they accidentally stumble upon a self-congratulatory dinner party in a fancy ballroom attended by both aliens and complicit humans. There are no master control rooms or alien queens to blow up, just an utterly self-interested ruling class reveling in their triumph over an easily-indoctrinated proletariat.

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

While They Live is eminently watchable even if you’re disinterested in its political message, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t prepared to receive a serious mainlining of liberalism. While the film intentionally makes this message as overt as possible and wraps it in a highly digestible package (i.e., via 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 alien invasion finally happened, we welcomed it with open arms. 

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