Last week’s Cult Film Review – Hell Comes To Frogtown – soon acquired a sad and coincidental significance. Late last Friday, pro-wrestling legend and star of said movie ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper died from a heart attack at the age of 61.
The former WWE Intercontinental champion who also picked up a slew of titles in the NWA’s various incarnations had a sideline in acting. While the majority of his output didn’t really capture a spark his film legacy will stand tall thanks to the subject of this week’s spotlight: They Live.
John Carpenter’s 1988 dystopian study is a representation of a paranoid horror that has occupied ever-increasing numbers of people for the longest time; that is, humanity has been unwittingly enslaved by a secret cabal of extra-terrestial and/or all-powerful entities.
These concepts raise their head in the modern age through intricate and long-held conspiratorial beliefs such as the New World Order and the Illuminati. It’s one of the offshoot theories – one of the more fringe patterns of thought, shall we say – that provides the foundation upon which They Live is built.
The idea that some form of Reptilian bloodline infects our own is always treated with disdain. The idea that Bill Clinton, Queen Elizabeth II and… oh, I dunno… Bryan Adams are just three proponents of a scaly domination machine is fun alright, but the implications are just too much to handle. Even if they *were*… what would you do exactly? Best to just give them a hot rock to lie on and feed them a live goat every once in a while. Appeasement is the only way when you’re squaring up to giant, head-popping elite lizards.
Anyway, They Live posits that Earth has been infiltrated by humanoid aliens with pretty disgusting and blotchy skull faces. Piper plays the seemingly hastily-named John Nada, a drifting laborer who stumbles across a group of scientists holed up in a church who are trying to alert the world to their grisly discovery.
The secret weapon of the human resistance are sunglasses. This isn’t about looking awesome though, or getting ready to his the surf. The shades actually shed light; the wearer can see the world for what it really it. Adverts, headlines, banners, TV shows – they are all subliminal ways of telling us to OBEY, CONFORM and CONSUME. It’s an anti-capitalist’s nightmare, and some would say – barring the alien-skeleton death beasts, possibly – it’s a world not far removed from our own.
As you’d expect, Nada gets nada reaction when he tells one of his working pals about the underlay of society. But it grants us one of the greatest fight scenes in history. Pro-wrestlers aren’t athletes you say? Pah, let’s see somebody try and better this for action, choreography and just painful-looking exchanges. I’m not much of a fighter as it is, but just ONE punch like this would lay me out and have me crying home to my mommy.
They Live stands the test of time because of its roughshod mix of angles, approaches and genres. It’s 50s schlock with a big American muscle man icon leading the way. It’s an age-old, gnawing fear running parallel with the 80s fetish for ear-piercing synths and mullets. Oh, the hair is bad here. Believe.
Carpenter’s satire is as sharp as ever this time around, albeit sliding its crosshairs onto an easy target. Romero riffed on the ‘plague’ of consumerism in Dawn Of The Dead (1978) and the shots fired at this obvious target are as subtle as a dancing walrus. But there’s plenty in Carpenter’s Los Angeles backdrop that resonates with what we see on the streets and in the news every day: a growing, militarized police presence, in-your-face poverty and a cavalcade of doomsday prophets shouting from street corner soapboxes with a collar and dream.
“The venom of snakes is under their lips. Their mouths are full of bitterness and curses. And in their paths, nothing but ruin and misery. And the fear of God is not before their eyes!” bellows the blind preacher who serves as the narrative’s blustering megaphone.
They have taken the hearts and minds of our leaders. They have recruited the rich and powerful, and they have blinded us to the truth! And our human spirit is corrupted. Why do we worship greed? Because outside the limit of our sight, feeding off us, perched on top of us from birth to death are our owners. Our owners — they have us. They control us. They are our masters. Wake up. They’re all about you, all around you!”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Except instead of the busy streets we can see similar remarks all over the forums and message boards of the internet.
Perhaps we do need to be more aware after all. They live. We sleep. Wake up!