**Beware: Here be spoilers For They Live.**
The 2016 Presidential Election is finally and mercifully drawing to a close. Regardless of political affiliations, it seems like the whole country reels from the drawn-out election cycle, temporarily traumatized by the mudslinging and grandstanding and pettiness. But this election has been one for the ages. I know everyone always complains that every succeeding election is worse than the one before, but this one was really, really nasty.
We are all overwhelmed by this election, a terrible yet fitting end to an exhausting year. Myself, I try to stay as politically connected as possible. I read the news, follow Congress’s lawmaking progress (or lack thereof), watch the President’s speeches, and read all the Supreme Court opinions I can reasonably fit into my life. So for this election, I gritted my teeth and surrendered to the vicious news cycle. I listened to stump speeches and watched the debates and did my research. It was draining. When I cast my early voting ballot, I was relieved because I thought I could stop caring for a while, until the next election cycle starts back up.
I threw myself into Halloween and friends and blogging. I tried and failed to distract myself. Not only was the election impossible to avoid, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I watched my horror movies and read my scary short stories and couldn’t help but ask myself, How will we express what this election has wrought? What art will come out of this election?
Which brings me to John Carpenter’s political sci-fi-horror B-Movie classic, They Live.
They Live is one of the best political horror movies, but has been largely pushed aside in today’s pop culture. Maybe that’s because it’s pretty hard-hitting in its satire, or maybe because it’s not director/writer John Carpenter’s best film. Regardless, it’s an important film, and I think it’s especially relevant to our current political climate.
They Live was, in many ways, ahead of its time, capturing a sharp cynicism that makes the film feel modern even though it’s close to 30 years old. It is a great example how horror movies use artistry to make difficult truths digestible.
They Live tells the story of an unnamed everyman (billed as John Nada and played by Roddy Piper) upon his arrives in Los Angeles. Based on the short “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, the movie follows Nada as he searches for work. Though he seems battered by life, he’s full of optimism and faith in the American Way. He eventually finds work and a friend in Frank (Keith David), another man just as down on his luck as Nada. Frank and John stay at a nearby shanty town where a local church cares for the scores of people there. But Nada soon discovers that the church really isn’t a church; It’s a front for a resistance movement that believes aliens have infiltrated the upper echelons of society. Nada stumbles upon the movement’s secret weapon—sunglasses that enable the viewer to see the world as it really is: stark black and white, teeming with consumerist and authoritarian subliminal messages, and populated by freaky aliens masquerading as the Los Angeles elite. Nada and Frank go on the run, desperate to find a way to disrupt the signal the aliens use to control and blind humanity to their presence.
First, as an initial reaction to its mechanics as a movie, They Live is a serviceable science-fiction action film and political thriller with horror elements. And it’s one of the most 80s movies I’ve ever seen, in ways both good and bad. Like, stunningly 80s. The clothes, the sunglasses, the Reaganisms. And the dialogue is uneven like only a campy 80s movie’s dialogue can be, veering from laughably bad to surprisingly insightful without warning. Save the innovative core premise, the movie doesn’t do much else expect devolve into standard action movie fare, which was disappointing.
While ex-wrestler Roddy Piper was better than I expected, he wasn’t a very good actor. Honestly, I’ve never missed Kurt Russell as much as I did while watching They Live. I kept wishing he would magically replace Roddy Piper halfway through, especially since Kurt Russell and Keith David were awesome together in The Thing.
The action scenes are pretty good, and the scenes in which Nada confronts the aliens is really well done. And of course, there is that epic, famous 5-and-half-minute long alley brawl. But it’s a little slow for a thriller, despite what countless reviewers claim. There are parts of this movie where I definitely checked my watch and wondered how much longer until another shoot-out was going to happen. Those were the best parts of the film, and John Carpenter knows a thing or two about awesome action sequences (see the original Assault on Precinct 13).
As for the horror elements, They Live is not really scary. Rather, it favors an intellectual flavor of horror. This film asks, wouldn’t it be terrifying if aliens controlled us this way? Wouldn’t it be devastating if this was the truth? And while that question doesn’t elicit any jumps or terrified squeals, it burrows under your skin and stay there, eventually working its way into your brain, where it knocks around and refuses to be ignored.
It was the way the disenfranchised working class man was depicted, just as frustrated and looking for work in the 1980s as he is now. The way the scenes of heavily armed police clearing out and demolishing the shanty town reminded me of the Ferguson and Baltimore riots. The way the legendary “OBEY” ad has gone from anti-consumerist graffiti to shilling over-priced clothing at Urban Outfitters. The disconcerting way a lone vigilante decided to start shooting up a bank. It was like bad déjà vu—the bail-out of steel mills, a huge and violent police presence, wealth disparity, talk of a shrinking middle class, and mass shootings.
This is the same kind of horror that I feel from reading H.P. Lovecraft. While I don’t feel frightened while reading his stories, they disturb me, lingering long after I’ve finished. I find myself turning the story over and over in my head. I can’t stop thinking about it and the bleak, terrifying implications of his stories.
This comparison is appropriate, since John Carpenter himself is and always has been a huge Lovecraft fan, as demonstrated in The Thing’s distinctly Lovecraftian edge and Carpenter’s Lovecraft homage In the Mouth of Madness.
And, according to Carpenter, “Lovecraft wrote about the hidden world, the ‘world underneath’. His stories were about gods who are repressed, who were once on Earth and are now coming back. The world underneath has a great deal to do with They Live.”
Carpenter identifies many repressed and hidden “gods” in They Live, but really focuses on consumerism and selfishness. In They Live, the aliens/yuppie elite are not the old gods of Lovecraftian lore; they are a death cult trying to harness the Great Old Ones for their own purposes. The aliens use our human instincts and flaws against us—our biological drive to mate, our learned preference of security over independence, and our tendency to easily fall into place within a rigid hierarchy.
That he tied these to the contemporary political scene elevates the film beyond the anti-materialism concerns of the 60s and 70s cultural movements. Carpenter’s argument is not simply that corporations are exploiting us, but that they have been given a political carte blanche to do so. And that political mandate has enlisted the powerful tools of television and consumer culture to accomplish its nefarious goal.
Consider the damning satire of Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” campaign ad. That ad, part of President Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, featured idyllic images of America and promised a rosy picture of a country moving forward, meeting its potential. In Reagan’s America, people could be happy as long as they were good and hardworking Americans, as long as they voted for President Reagan.
Here is a transcript of the ad:
“It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”
Now contrast that with the alien politician’s speech from They Live:
“The feeling is definitely there. It’s a new morning in America… fresh, vital. The old cynicism is gone. We have faith in our leaders. We’re optimistic as to what becomes of it all. It really boils down to our ability to accept. We don’t need pessimism. There are no limits.”
That parody set within a story about American’s getting the shaft while alien overlords rig the system with the help of human traitors? Damn John Carpenter. Tell us how you really feel! He’s not pulling any punches here by claiming that Reagan and the establishment completely ignored the valid concerns of huge portions of the country. All for their own gain. Sure, they had to make some concessions in order to truly secure power by creating a “power alliance” with the “human power elite” (cough-Southern-Strategy-cough), but at the end of the day, it was a worthwhile and easy investment.
In his own words, Carpenter claims that, “By the end of the ’70s there was a backlash against everything in the ’60s, and that’s what the ’80s were, and Ronald Reagan became president, and Reaganomics came in. So a lot of the ideals that I grew up with were under assault, and something called a yuppie came into existence, and they just wanted money. And so by the late ’80s, I’d had enough, and I decided I had to make a statement, as stupid and banal as it is, but I made one, and that’s ‘They Live.’ … I just love that it was giving the finger to Reagan when nobody else would.”
This is the theme that resonates with me in the current political climate. I don’t need to go on and on about it since we’ve all experienced it, but things are more divisive and acrimonious than ever before. People on both sides of the aisle are angry, frustrated, maybe even hopeless. All four of our candidates are disappointing to many voters, which has created an unprecedented distrust in the political system even as diehard supporters shout their allegiance from the cable news rooftops. People feel that no politician can be trusted to do what’s right by the people. Despite their speeches and promises and ads parroting the same talking points over and over, countless Americans feel as though they aren’t being listened to. There is no conversation, no dialogue. There is only the powerful dictating the how the powerless live.
In an incredible piece for The New Yorker entitled “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” George Saunders makes the following observation about many Trump supporters:
“Something is wrong, the common person feels, correctly: she works too hard and gets too little; a dulling disconnect exists between her actual day-to-day interests and (1) the way her leaders act and speak, and (2) the way our mass media mistell or fail entirely to tell her story. What does she want? Someone to notice her over here, having her troubles.”
I do not think this is a sentiment unique to Trump supporters.
On the whole, They Live may fall short of being a truly great movie, especially when it comes to plot and execution, but it deserves major points for being audacious and honest. Especially now. I can’t think of another horror film that did such a good job linking the county’s political system and our insatiable consumerism to growing discontent. They Live is a product of its era, but it’s message about feeling manipulated and helpless is timeless. As Carpenter put it, “The ’80s never went away… That’s what makes They Live look so fresh – it’s a document of greed and insanity. It’s about life in the United States then and now. If anything, things have gotten worse.”
His pessimism extends to the film’s ending, which *spoiler* ends when Nada successfully destroys the aliens’ signal and exposes the aliens for who they truly are. But They Live is not a guide for the revolution. It only depicts the beginning, a moment of lucidity, and fails to show us where to go from there.
In this way, I found They Live to be ironically pessimistic. We cannot afford to be like John Nada, naively blind to reality only to be shocked into flailing, violent action that ultimately doesn’t fix the myriad of problems we face.
I still believe in the American people. I believe we can come together, honestly share our grievances, promote unity and empathy, and work towards much-needed solutions. It will be hard, it will take a long time, and there will be many people who try to impede progress. But it can be done. It should be done. Apathy may be easy, but it’s the wrong approach. We need to become engaged in the political process. We need to vote.