The Parkedale Cinema in Brockville, Ontario was one of those small, independent theaters that today is a rare beast if not already extinct. The 90s and early 2000s killed many of the independents. When the bigger chains like AMC and Regal in the US, Famous Players and Cineplex Odeon in Canada consolidated and built new movie palaces boasting surround sound, stadium seating, and twelve dollar bags of popcorn the little guys just couldn’t compete. In my case once my friends and I reached driving range and had access to a car we’d choose make the trek to nearby Kingston forty-five minutes down the highway to see a movie at the Cataraqui Town Center or Princess Street Cinema rather than at the Parkedale. The seats were more comfortable, the sound was state of the art, and we had much greater selection than a single cinema with two screens could veer offer us.
But despite its remoteness the Parkedale was somewhat tuned into the movie going scene, doing their best to grab new releases whenever they came out, and especially if they were teen oriented. Some movies arrived there on opening day, like A Nightmare on Elm Street Part IV: The Dream Warriors, which I saw twice that weekend, not because it was any good but because, and let’s be honest here, there wasn’t much else going on that weekend. Others like Top Gun, Crocodile Dundee, and much later on, Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgement Day arrived well after me and my other friends had driven to Kingston and the good theaters to see both. Some I desperately wanted to see, like Robocop, Do The Right Thing, Wild At Heart, and Drugstore Cowboy, never arrived at all. And if you missed it in the theater you had no choice but to wait for the video release six-to-nine months later.
The Parkedale was, as they say, a crap-shoot. You never knew what would be playing there until the Thursday edition of The Brockville Recorder & Times arrived and you could read the listings. If it was something good or at least interesting you made your plans. And so it was on November 4, 1988 when my high school pal Casey said “there’s a Roddy Piper movie playing at the Parkdale and we’re going.”
The movie, of course, was They Live. “John Carpenter’s They Live” to be more precise, as Carpenter directed and wrote the film (the latter role under the pseudonym “Frank Armitage”) based on a 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock In The Morning” by Ray Nelson. And while my assorted group of friends who took our seats at the Parkedale was likely there for WWF legend Rowdy Roddy Piper whooping’ ass, for me They Live was all about the man behind the camera. And the movie that unfolded before our amazed eyes was far from the “dumb sci-fi film” critics then accused it of being, and even our fifteen year-old brains could see that – even without the sunglasses.
I was of course all-in because it was Carpenter and I was well-versed in his films by that point. They Live wasn’t the first John Carpenter movie I ever saw; that would have been Starman in 1984, followed by The Thing, which I caught a surprisingly unedited version of on a “free HBO weekend” in 1986. I certainly knew his name, thanks to many newspaper and TV ads dubbing a film as being “from the mind of John Carpenter.” And frankly, it must be said that few filmmakers have ever had as impressive a run of films as Carpenter. I would certainly put his ten years’ filmography beginning with 1978’s Halloween and ending with 1988’s They Live up against any other filmmaker’s oeuvre. I caught all of his movies on video, and Carpenter, like David Cronenberg is one of those filmmakers I fell in love with because of video because I could watch The Fog and The Brood, Prince of Darkness and The Dead Zone over and over again. Home video opened up the world of film to a kid born too late and growing up too young to experience these darker, edgier films in the theater. Home video was my real education in film and filmmaking as it was for my entire generation.
To dismiss Carpenter as an overrated yet undeniably talented journeyman would mean to dismiss The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, and Prince of Darkness among those two landmarks. And who in their right mind could do that? Carpenter was one of those names that stirred the loins of the sci-fi-fantasy-horror fan so much so when someone just said “Carpenter, Craven, and Cronenberg” we knew they meant John, Wes, and David. Carpenter’s work remains a singular experience; tense, terse suspenseful, action-punctuated but never driven works that reflect his highly unique world-view.
The French consider Carpenter one of the great auteurs of cinema, and they’re not wrong. Just look at a Carpenter film and you’ll be able to tell who was behind the camera. His stately widescreen compositions, distinctive electronic scores, his reparatory company of familiar faces from Kurt Russell, Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance, to character actors like Peter Jason, Darwin Jostin, Nancy Loomis and, of course, the incomparable George “Buck” Flower. Carpenter’s characters all perform the impressive feat of being actual people, and not archetypes. People who drink, smoke, curse, and belch. Ones who don’t observe and comment on what they are facing with post-modern ironic detachment. A Carpenter world is one where the system is broken, where the rules no longer apply, where we truly are on our own.
Carpenter’s best films are all about that breakdown in order, from with the decrepit, malfunctioning starship Dark Star, the under-assault Precinct 13, and Haddonfield, Illinois on Halloween night. We see that world-view continue through the spectral, vengeful visitors of The Fog, the apocalyptic winner-takes-all landscape of Escape From New York, and the demonic force residing at the heart of Prince of Darkness. Even the comical Big Trouble In Little China portrays a world of magic residing alongside normal everyday San Francisco. In Carpenter Land the police and government are your enemy, money is your god, and you will not be saved.
As They Live began to a percussive strum of music by Carpenter and collaborator Alan Howarth, we meet John Nada (Piper), drifting into Los Angeles with a backpack slung over his shoulder, seeking work. Far from the promised land, the California of Los Angeles recalls that of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”; a place of dreams and not much else. This is certainly by design, as the laconic, taciturn Nada shares more than a few similarities with the soft-spoken Tom Joad. He’s a working man. A laborer. Someone who came from a nice middle-class world, with a job, and presumably a family at some point. Then Reagan happened, and you will not find a more scathing indictment of Reagan America this side of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street not to mention the actual street. The America of They Live uncannily resembles the America of today, with homeless addicts wandering the streets, with tent cities springing up at the edges of gleaming metropolises, with legions of working poor and homeless putting in a hard day of labor and returning home to their cars and trucks, if they’re so lucky to even have wheels. You can call it “Nightmerica” but it is very real, and already with us, like we’ve been living in the sequel They Live never received.
The creeping dread of life in the 80s of Reagan America for many was certainly obfuscated by the Cold War rhetoric. As hard as life was for the less than affluent, at least it wasn’t the Soviet Union, we were told. “Go to Russia if you don’t like it” we were also told. Bruce Springsteen may have been onto something when he sang Born In the USA; a “patriotic” song that, if you pay attention to the lyrics, is anything but. And Reagan up and co-opted it for his 1984 campaign for re-election.
Like Predator the enemy of They Live is at first unseen, but we all know it’s there. We can’t avoid it in the trash-strewn streets, the homeless camps being bulldozed, the LAPD kitted out in riot gear and helmets making them recall the Stormtroopers of Star Wars. Perhaps the biggest kick in the reveal that this world is being run by Alien Yuppies, essentially, is our reaction of “of course it is!” But Carpenter doesn’t let us off that easily. Yes, these unnamed aliens are here to terraform our planet, producing greenhouse gasses to make our world into one of theirs, and make money along the way. But they couldn’t do it without human cooperation and collaborators. George “Buck” Flower’s unnamed drifter and Meg Foster’s TV news executive Holly willingly aid the aliens for personal gain, but so too do the possibly unknowing police, government officials, and everyday citizens, turning a blind eye to the injustices all around them as long as their 401K remains solid and the values of their suburban homes appreciate. Even in “Commie-fornia” cash is king and wealth rules all.
They Live remains prophetic especially in an early scene where Nada and Frank (Keith David) are talking after work, reminiscing of how life used to be. They know something is rotten in the state of California because it’s rotten everywhere. Frank has family in Detroit; Nada has been riding the rails ever-westward all the way to Los Angeles and finds there’s no more America to go to. This is the wandering class of Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland wrapped up in the guise of a “dumb” sci-fi film that’s anything but. The two sit there at the edge of the encampment housing many of the working poor and gaze out on the glittering skyline of downtown Los Angeles. Frank is skeptical; as a black man from the mean streets of Detroit he can’t afford Nada’s laconic optimism.
“The whole deal’s like some kind of crazy game,” he tells Nada. “They put you at the starting line; the name of the game is ‘Make it through life.’ Only everybody is out for themselves and looking to do you in at the same time.”
But Nada still has hope. He still if he works hard, keeps his head down, that his fortunes will turn. “I believe in America,” he says, “I follow the rules. Everybody has got their own hard times these days.” To Nada the American Dream still holds merit. That it still holds promise. That you just need to get off your butt and do something. And we want to believe him. The movies have long taught us the American Dream is the gift afforded all who draw breath on American – and Canadian – soil. The two countries are so intertwined culturally that to grow up Canadian meant also to grow up on American television and music and music videos. Canada’s motto of “Peace, Order, and Good Government” doesn’t have the same ring as “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” but they both speak to the same truth that yes these things are possible, but not necessarily for everyone.
They Live is about finding out the American Dream is a lie. That we’re the ones dreaming of a better tomorrow that will not come. It takes strange television broadcasts in the realm of Brian O’Blivion’s in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome – a film that shares more than just a few similarities with Carpenter’s film – and a pair of sunglasses that allow the wearer to literally see the truth staring them in the face for Nada and us to finally wake up. Wandering awe-struck down a busy Los Angeles street he gazes at billboards with ominous messages like “Obey” and “Consume” and “Watch Television”. Radar dishes broadcast signals repeating the same word over again; “sleep.” And he sees aliens. Bug-eyed, blue-skinned skulls in yuppie suits. Going about their day browsing the news stand and shopping at the grocery store. Living their version of the American Dream. Now Nada can see them … and they can see him too.
They Live uses a simple genre story to expose a much darker truth. That the aliens are already here and they own stock. They exist purely to profit off the misery of the weak and powerless. Those “powerless” – the downtrodden, the homeless, the desperate – are ready now to fight back. But to do so they need others to see what they do. That the reality of their situation is not what it seems.
They Live’s most infamous sequence – that six minutes alleyway brawl between Nada and Frank over a pair of those sunglasses that allows the wearer to see – underlines that theme. The two men beat the living hell out of each other, battering each other near senseless until Nada’s victory comes only because he and Frank are too exhausted to fight any longer and he slips the glasses onto his opponent’s face. Nada, who used to believe if he worked hard that life would reward him, has seen the big lie that Frank wants to hide from. Despite all his cynicism deep down Frank believes in America and in its promise. But this is Carpenter Land and help is not coming for any of us.
The fight, as over-the-top as it is because when you have Roddy Piper and Keith David you go to Movie jail if you don’t use them effectively serves multiple purposes like any great scene does. It’s these two stubborn, ideologically opposed men – the cynic and the optimist – reversing roles and neither backing down as they tussle. It’s a turning point in the story but also in their character’s journeys. Nada believed in the American Dream before exposing its lie. Frank believed in the game being rigged from the starting line and now has to face the even more horrifying truth that he’s been right all along. That the game is rigged … so now what?
Naturally they join the underground rebellion to fight back. It’s a boilerplate Hollywood ramping up of the story. They arm themselves, they find allies, they are, to paraphrase Nada’s and They Live’s most quoted line, ready to chew bubblegum and kick ass … and they’re all out of bubblegum.” But this is a John Carpenter film. Hope is not in the cards. The rebellion is crushed, Nada and Frank infiltrate the aliens’ broadcast center and are both of them betrayed, but not before Nada destroys their transmitter, terminating the signal that obfuscates the aliens and their messages from an unsuspecting human populace, giving them and by extension the world a final, parting middle finger.
With the transmitter destroyed, the people emerge from their technologically induced dream-state and the movie ends with a final darkly funny joke which I won’t spoil here. But we don’t know what happens next. If it was a typical Hollywood ending the humans would rise up, and take their planet back in a rah-rah display of jingoism and might as right. But this is Carpenter Land and the more likely result would be “yes, aliens, but will overthrowing them affect my investments?”
They Live was a total romp for my friends and I; the perfect film for fifteen year-olds everywhere. On exiting the Parkedale a brisk hundred or so minutes later all of us thought we’d seen one of the great sci-fi films. They Live was a modest hit, earning $13 million off its $3 million budget and earning even more on home video and my friends and I likely contributed to that haul because when They Live hit home video the following year we rented it, made popcorn and gathered the troops to watch it, either for the first time or, like us, again.
We didn’t realize then that They Live would be Carpenter’s swan-song; not as a filmmaker but rather one finely attuned to what life in the 80s was rapidly becoming. Not that he stopped making movies until some time later; in the 21st century he made two more – Ghosts of Mars and The Ward and a couple of “Masters of Horror” TV episodes before calling it a day. But his post-They Live output felt less essential, less prescient as the 80s became the 1990s. Memoirs of an Invisible Man and his remake of Village of the Damned did not impress, and while I myself hold a very soft of spots In the Mouth of Madness and Vampires, given a choice I’d rather be watching The Fog or Escape From New York.
Yet again we cannot deny They Live’s power. It took thirty years or so for the world to open its eyes, to wake up and find ourselves living in the world John Carpenter warned us about; a world where we work longer hours for less pay and a future that looks increasingly bleak.