For the last four years, Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson has hosted a late-night horror movie celebration called Terror Tuesday and if you are a lover of horror, both esoterically brilliantly and obscurely awful, this night was invented just for you. The Terror Tuesday Report will dissect the movie shown as well as provide a barometer for the audience's reaction; as many of these films demand to be seen with an audience, this proves a vital component to the evening.
This week's film: They Live, directed by John Carpenter, 1988
They Live is the story of a wayward drifter looking for work in the wake of a collapsed national economy. I know this plot seems totally implausible to us, but try to suspend your disbelief for just one moment. He gets a job at a construction site where he meets another hard-luck shlub and something of a friendship is kindled. Trouble ensues when the homeless camp in which the drifter is residing is beset by the fascist police force and he decides to intervene. With the help of a pair of less-than-ordinary Ray-Bans, our hero is able to discover a horrible secret that had been beyond perception for years. Who is really in charge anymore? What is at the epicenter of this unjust society? What's up with this guy and bubblegum?
I absolutely love They Live. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a forgotten Carpenter film but it is most certainly one of his most overlooked. I've talked to many people who don't enjoy the film, and the unifying thread between them is that they are not major Carpenter nerds like me. There are a number of Carpenter films that are so good that their fandom transcends esoteric hero worship and crosses into more mainstream movie fans. The Thing and Halloween are probably the best examples of this. Whereas something like They Live finds tepid response from the mainstream, it is nothing short of bliss for Carpenterphiles like those in the theater that particular Tuesday.
There are so many things I love about this film that it's hard to narrow the scope of my crush. I loved wrestling as a kid and by far my favorite wrestler was Mr. Rowdy Roddy Piper. Though I won't pretend I ever had any inclination to see him in a film as a youngster, he is an entire barrel's worth of awesome in They Live. I actually think his effect is heightened by his lack of technical skill as an actor. His unrelenting regular Joe persona, when coupled with his WWF-honed reactions to taking punches, make his character that special, unrefined sort of entertaining. I'm not sure how some of the words on the page were intended to be voiced, but his reactions to the people in the supermarket are hilariously off base. Keith David, as the foil to Piper, is terrific. His cool, tough demeanor and almost musical cadence provides the perfect counter to Piper's loud-mouthed hotheadedness.
The story itself is so simple as to border on absurd. However, I think Carpenter is just as masterful a sci-fi storyteller as he is a horror storyteller and this is one of his finest. Stop laughing! I'm serious! Is it negotiating the same psychological depth and mind-altering special effects as The Thing? Hell no! But it takes a goofy, otherworldly concept and adds enough Carpenter touches and cheesy entertainment value to elevate what would otherwise be an unwatchable movie. In many ways, I think this film is a throwback, a tip of the hat, to the slew of bad sci-fi films that composed the dawn of Carpenter's career. The idea of aliens not only invading Earth but already existing among us is as classic an sci-fi trope as one can find. But the added commentary on the materialism of the 80's and the conformity of mass consumerism adds just enough intelligence to maintain the film's legitimacy.
It's impossible to talk about a Carpenter film without touching on the music. As one would expect, the task of scoring They Live once again found it's way into John's hands. All of the familiar strokes of the electric keyboard are present and doing their best to establish mood as well as cement the film within the decade. There is one major difference between most Carpenter scores and the music in They Live that truly allows the latter to stand out: the blues influence. Not only does the addition of the harmonica find perfect companionship with the cold tones of the Casio, but it eloquently underscores the experiences of two nomadic drifters with nothing but hard luck to occupy their minds. It's a subtle difference in composition but one that I think works phenomenally well.
And of course, what review of They Live would be complete without a discussion of the infamous fight scene. It has become film legend since being parodied, nay carbon copied, on South Park and while it occasionally wanders unavoidably into camp, I think the fist fight in They Live is still damned effective. I think what earns the sequence its distinction of goofy is the fact that two guys are beating the hell out of one another because one guy refuses to put on a pair of sunglasses. But to me, given the context of the story, it's a hardcore example of an actor "playing the stakes." Beyond the acting school rhetoric, the fight scene is just plain epic. It not only goes on for something like eight minutes but it is one the most honest depictions of two guys beating each other half to death that I have ever seen. Those two definitely leave it all on the pavement and we as an audience are left gasping.
They Live is all kinds of perfect for Terror Tuesday. While it isn't Carpenter's best film by a mile and a half, it is good enough to draw the fans and cheesy enough to make for a raucously good time. I was a bit surprised at how many people were able to get in on standby despite the show being sold out for over a week. Personally, it would take a meteor striking me directly in the brain to keep me from attending, but I am happy for those who waited and got lucky. By the time we got to the immortal, "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass" line, the roof damn near blew off the Alamo Drafthouse.