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DVD Review

DVD cover

They Live (1988)
(2018 4K Restoration)


Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David and Meg Foster
Distributor: StudioCanal
Certificate: 15
Release Date: 29 October 2018

John Nada is a homeless and jobless drifter who comes to town looking for labouring work. He finds refuge with a large destitute homeless community, but it is soon mysteriously attacked and destroyed by riot police. Most of the individuals are taken away. When Nada witnesses a similar raid on a nearby building, he waits it out before entering to look for clues as to what the purpose of the raid was. Inside he finds a pair of sunglasses which changes everything around him when he puts them on. A percentage of the population actually consists of aliens with skeletal faces, and just as importantly all advertising and media is subversive brainwashing aimed to instruct the populace with messages such as Consume, Procreate, Submit, Obey, No Independent Thought, and on the money, This Is Your God. When Nada meets Frank he has a hard time convincing him, but a scrawled message, They Live - We Sleep, convinces them that there are others who know the truth. The problem is how does this small band of rebels open the eyes of the world...?

John Carpenter has always had an inherent dislike of authority; this comes across in some of his films (such as the anti-hero Snake Plisskin in Escape From New York), but none more so than in They Live. This was his comment on Regan-era USA, with money, consumerism, capitalism and middle-class "Yuppies", not to mention the plight of the forgotten homeless (the name Nada means 'nothing'). He believed at the time that everything we see is designed to sell us something, that the only thing society wants to do is to take our money.

Carpenter adapted and scripted a short story by Ray Faraday called 8 O'clock in the Morning, which was published in a magazine in the 1960s. Under the pen name Frank Armitage (a character in The Dunwich Horror by H. P. Lovecraft) Carpenter added plenty of social commentary and found that a lot of humour was creeping into the story. In fact, it's this dark, knowing irony and satire which makes the film stand out so prominently as original and entertaining. One such example is when two TV icons are revealed to be aliens while they are criticising Carpenter and George Romero films for being too violent.

As with Prince of Darkness, the budget was only $3 million and the shooting schedule 8 weeks. For the part of Nada, Carpenter recruited experienced wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, whom he had seen at a Wrestlemania event. Taking a chance paid off, because Piper brings much more than brawn to the part. Keith David (who had appeared in The Thing) was alongside him with Meg Foster. Mind you, Piper's profession did help when Carpenter scripted-in a seven minute alleyway brawl because he wanted to out-do The Quiet Man as the longest on-screen fight.

As with his previous film, Carpenter composed another excellent mood-enhancing music score. Releasing the film just prior to the 1988 elections was either inspired or a very lucky happenstance, because it proved to be a hit at the box office - seemingly the only Carpenter film that audiences 'got' straight away. An inherent message in the film about not selling-out for big financial success was not lost on Carpenter fans, who know that he has never been close to doing so. There was talk of a sequel to They Live, titled Hypnowar, but it was never made.

They Live has always existed as an unsung hero, both as an individual film and part of the Carpenter collective. It’s often overlooked and seldom named when people list his most popular projects. However, other Carpenter fans, like myself, will reveal the truth of the matter: that it is another classic in the Carpenter movie arsenal. The main appeal is that it is different. A political statement on consumerism disguised as entertainment, yes. But it’s not just a veil; there is so much to enjoy here. The science fiction element of aliens living among us, the humorous but somewhat creepy alien reveal (when they realise they can be seen as they really are) and the plethora of one-liners ("I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass... and I'm all out of bubblegum."), and there is the action which hardly lets-up and introduces one of the greatest pairings in film history.

The movie is at times uncanny, darkly comic, intriguing and character-driven. Ideal popcorn entertainment – even though it’s making a statement on society. Subsequent films, such as The Matrix, have borrowed heavily from this concept of a false life we are leading behind a sinister secret.

They Live is one of three 4-disc box set releases – the others being The Fog and Escape From New York. These incorporate a 4K version, a Blu-ray, a full disc of old and new extras, and the Carpenter soundtrack. There is also a 2-disc Blu-ray of Prince of Darkness. As with The Fog, I have only received the DVD for review. However, the clean-up and upgrading from the original film negatives – even on the DVD – is phenomenally crisp and bright, with vibrant colours. I urge any true Carpenter fan to invest in the 4-disc sets, which include newly-commissioned artwork, art cards and poster.

For those curious film lovers new to the many worlds of John Carpenter, begin with the newly-upgraded DVD versions. You won’t be sorry… Well, not unless you’re expecting lots of extras. The one John Carpenter commentary is worth its weight in gold.


Ty Power

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