This weekend, the Coolidge Corner Theatre is playing host to a two-night midnight feature by one of our greatest living genre filmmakers and synth musicians, John Carpenter. You’ve got three choices here: One the one hand, you can go and see his brilliant siege 1976 siege movie Assault on Precinct 13, and enjoy the oodles of thrills to be found in its scant 91 minutes; on the other, you could go see They Live. On the mysterious third hand, you can just go see both of them because they’re classics, and really, you shouldn’t miss They Live anytime it’s screening in front of a game crowd at a packed midnight showing.
It’s a true delight, and we highly recommend you go to it.
The most boring way to talk about They Live is to talk about its relevance to the social and political climates of today, as we all know that’s true of any enduring work of art. Let’s instead focus on how much of a goddamn pleasure it is to watch these characters in this world. Roddy Piper was never better than he was in this film (even in the ring), and his reactions to all of the weird shit going on around him single-handedly make the movie.
He’s too earnest to be a wise-ass like other Carpenter protagonists, and it’s hard to think of another actor who’d work well dealing with the material. Keith David, a longtime Carpenter collaborator, provides a much needed stabilization agent to Piper’s wackiness, and they have a great chemistry. The script is endlessly quotable, and we bet, even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ll probably recognize at least three quarters of the dialogue, especially right around the time Piper announces he’s going to kick ass and chew bubblegum. It has one of the greatest fight scenes of all time, which we’ve written about previously; one so captivating that, even while writing this article, we’ve had to stop and watch it twice during the completion of this sentence. The design and aesthetic of the film is, to put it frankly, perfect, not to mention that this movie was also the best thing to happen to Wayfarer sunglasses since Risky Business.
The overworld/underworld duality may never be better represented on film than what Carpenter did with this movie, at least not in a way so utterly fitting for its era but yet timeless all in its own. The black and white “real world” is fantastically done — the stark signs with their pointed and commanding messages to “reproduce” and “consume” are absolutely iconic, and the design of the aliens are as well (oh man, did they scare the everloving shit out of us when we were 12 and watching this movie on AMC).
It’s all a logical extension of the anti-ad messaging found in other punk/subversive movies from the era, like the items that stock the grocery story shelves in Alex Cox’s Repo Man, but it hit the mainstream in ways that filmmakers like Cox could only dream about (imagine if Walker had really found itself an audience like this did). Artists like Shepard Fairey appropriated aspects of the work for their own purposes (and, years later, he’d come full circle by creating a poster for Mondo for the film itself), but free of the macho weirdness and context that this movie gives those images, they partially lose their impact. It’s why you need Roddy Piper in there, mullet and all, telling you to put on the glasses, or to start eating that trash can; they’re congruous. He’s a populist hero at the heart of a film about destroying the all-persistent system keeping him down, and that resonates.
For a period in the late-’70s and early-’80s, Carpenter was a master genre stylist on the level of his more artistically-revered contemporaries, and it’s perhaps his populist tendencies that prevented him from being praised in a similar fashion. The long-reaching effects of his influence on action filmmaking are still being felt today: Any time you see steadicam in an action sequence, thank John Carpenter. Any time you see Kurt Russell in an action movie, thank John Carpenter. Any time you enjoy a Metal Gear Solid sequel, thank John Carpenter. And really, he should be on the tip of your tongue when you start citing the greatest genre filmmakers of all time, even if he hasn’t made a good movie since 1995. Neither has Francis Ford Coppola. And it’s possible to argue that his work is close to that master’s, anyway.
Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing is a reinvention far better than Cronenberg’s The Fly would ever be, and the deeply disturbing creature effects in the former film put Brundlefly to shame. Another Russell-led classic, Big Trouble in Little China, is a work of wit and imagination on par with any Amblin effort of the era, and, like many of Carpenter’s movies nowadays, is under threat to be remade by some money-grubbing studio in need of a quick cash fix.
In the early aughts, Carpenter’s early horror efforts were remade with varying degrees of quality, from the passable (2003’s Assault on Precinct 13 had a pretty decent reception for a film that absolutely no one expected to be good), to the terrible (the 2005 Fog remake, starring Tom Welling, was an absolute failure), to the legendarily infamous (Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween, the content of which made it nearly impossible to wade through an Ain’t It Cool News comment section without reading the words “take a shit mask”). And, of course, Escape From New York has always been up for adaptation, though that’s a little less egregious, considering that Carpenter himself poisoned the well with a terrible sequel.
Yet no one came close to taking on They Live, though the occasional half-hearted overture was made in its direction, and that’s for the best. Could you imagine what a early-aughts remake would have looked like? A self-serious, gritty They Live would never be a substitute for the blissful camp that fills its every frame. And thank god we haven’t gotten it yet. So put on the glasses yourself and see it this weekend.