Stomping Around in the Dark: “They Live”

Posted: October 8, 2009 in Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , , ,

they live 1There is a fantastic short horror story built into the first third of They Live. From the start, there’s the sense that something’s Not Quite Right. There’s the everyday misery that is a depressed economy (and man, ain’t it sad that the film itself really hasn’t aged that much). The moment where cops start attacking protesting poor people in churches, you know things are worse than they should be. And then, there’s the capper. When the everyman who Believes in America (that is an actual line of dialogue) learns just what America has really become.

In fact, I could actually recommend it without reservations, so long as you simply stop the movie at this point, after you see the word “OBEY” a few times and embrace it not as the end of the first act, but as the mean little twist that makes for good horror.

Actually – it’s probably a very good “Twilight Zone” episode…that just HAPPENS to star Rowdy Roddy Piper.

However, I won’t hold it against you if you want to soldier on past that to see Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David beat the shit out of each other for five full minutes over a pair of sunglasses.

It really depends on what you want out of a movie.

Now, if you couldn’t have guessed – though of course you did guess, probably around the time I said “starring Rowdy Roddy Piper” – They Live is not a horror movie. It is a broad sci-fi comedy. And in that sense, it may also be the most effective John Carpenter movie I’ve ever seen.

Carpenter can certainly direct a scene, but he’s not so great at setting a mood. Everything hethey live 2 does feels like a really, really good episode of “The A-Team” or something. So every time he tries at out-and-out scariness – like The Thing or In the Mouth of Madness – he doesn’t quite know how to frame a shot to add menace or dread. Because he wants the audience to see everything. Which is not a bad thing, in and of itself. I’d be proud of how neat the monsters look and want it all on display, too. But because of that desire to clarify everything, he shoots himself in the foot whenever he aspires to something more classically “scary.”

With They Live, he seems to recognize his limitations, and make up for them with some broad comedy, and, as said, five minutes of Roddy Piper and Keith David just pummeling the living hell out of each other. Again – over a pair of sunglasses.

Unfortunately, even at 90 minutes, it feels a bit long, and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper isn’t exactly what you’d call a dynamic screen presence, but…I don’t not recommend it, you get me? You might have fun.

Or I can just offer this, and you can figure out if you want to know what led to it.

  1. Hsiang says:

    Wow, those are some really ugly sunglasses.

  2. Moff says:

    It’s kind of a letdown that it cuts out as soon as he gets the glasses on him, after all that.

  3. Dave says:

    Meg Foster’s eyes are the scariest thing about that film.

  4. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Just look at that first frame/still: If that isn’t the picture many people see in their minds when they hear “America” or “USA”, than some other version also includes apple pie, a trucker hat and about 50 more pounds of padding, behind that strip of ammo. You have to hand it to 80’s cheeseball directors, though; they were certainly skilled at leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination. Kings and queens of the obvious.

  5. Lisa says:

    Totally unrelated – I met Roddy Piper in 2004 while working at Borders – he is an extremely nice guy who continues to suffer serious back pain after a really bad accident that nearly killed him. He gave me a free signed copy of his book because I called a friend (a spine surgeon) who came & took a look at him and helped him out.

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