The legacy of John Carpenter’s 1988 film THEY LIVE seems to loom larger with every passing year. Maybe that’s why I’ve put off writing about it for so long. So much has been written about the film’s heightened relevance in the Trump era that, at this point, drawing specific connections seems as unnecessary as pointing out the film’s “hidden message.” You don’t need any special glasses to see this shit.
That said, it doesn’t feel right to simply write about THEY LIVE as a genre film. It’s something more… and something less. A few months ago, I took part in an online poll of professional horror geeks to name the best horror films of the 1980s. I was stunned when THEY LIVE beat out A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET for third place. (Carpenter’s THE THING took home the top prize, followed by David Cronenberg’s THE FLY.) I love THEY LIVE, but I wouldn’t even call it a horror movie, let alone a contender the best horror movie of the 80s. Nevermind that I prominently featured THEY LIVE prominently in my 2009 documentary about the best American horror movies… I still think THEY LIVE is science fiction. That’s how Carpenter himself described it to Starlog journalist Steve Swires in 1987—as a “science-fiction thriller.” Elsewhere, he has compared it directly to Don Siegel's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956). To be fair, the filmmaker has also described it as an “existential western” (to Cinefantastique’s Dennis Fischer in 1989). More recently, he has declared that the film is his version of THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1939). I understand the comparison, but there’s a hell of a tonal difference between THE GRAPES OF WRATH and THEY LIVE.
Until recently, I have always thought of THEY LIVE as a bit of a farce. This is, after all, the movie in which “Rowdy” Roddy Piper declares, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum”—right before blowing away a bunch of aliens. It’s a movie with a WWF-style street brawl that stops the story cold for a whopping six minutes. It’s a movie that ends abruptly with an alien sex scene. All I’m saying is that THEY LIVE doesn’t ask to be taken too seriously. And yet it deserves to be taken seriously.
Watching the film at The Egyptian theater in Hollywood a few nights ago, I was riveted by the first twenty minutes of the film—which are stark and gritty and seething with righteous anger. The long, slow rollout of the story is filled with haunting images of downtown Los Angeles at a time when Reaganomics was taking a visible toll on the city and its residents. (For anyone curious about the specific filming locations, Jared Cowan of Los Angeles Magazine recently compiled a then-and-now photo essay.) Skid Row appears here as a dystopian nightmare, America's purgatory full of hungry ghosts. Roddy Piper’s character John Nada manages to hold his head high among the wreckage, but his expressions of abiding faith in America sound naïve when police invade and raze the community to the ground.
The police raid is reminiscent of attacks on the Okies in THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and also illustrates President Ronald Reagan’s destruction of the New Deal that had lifted working-class Americans out of the Great Depression. What I didn't realize until recently is that the sequence is essentially a reenactment. In THEY LIVE, the homeless camp is called Justiceville, and its most vocal leader is a street preacher. In fact, there was a real Justiceville in downtown Los Angeles, organized by a street preacher named Ted Hayes. It was destroyed by police in 1985, and the story was told in a 1986 Discovery Channel documentary.
John Carpenter obviously had strong personal feelings about this injustice. And that’s what keeps THEY LIVE from becoming a farce. When John Nada puts on his shades and goes to war with yuppie aliens, he’s fighting a real war. His enemies may look like rejects from a 1950s monster movie, but the people he’s sticking up for are real. Carpenter cast real Skid Row residents as the citizens of Justiceville, and he seems to have made a genuine connection with them. In 1988 the director told Steve Swires, “I’ve realized that true success has nothing to do with how much money you make. It has to do with the principles by which you live. So, in that respect, I actually feel much safer among the street people in downtown Los Angeles than among the millionaires in Beverly Hills.”
In the end, the street-dwellers in THEY LIVE inaugurate a revolution in human consciousness; they “wake up” John Nada to a hidden reality. Carpenter says he always knew THEY LIVE would be a “hidden-reality” movie, but he only worked out the details after stumbling upon a comic book adaptation of Ray Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning.” The filmmaker told Nerdist’s Luke Thompson that in the source story, “humanity was hypnotized, almost as if you go up on stage and see a stage hypnotist, and I thought, ehh, that’s kinda corny, so I changed it to a radio frequency to disguise real reality.”
In an essay in the newly-released tome They Live: A Visual and Cultural Awakening, Roger Luckhurst suggests that Carpenter might have also drawn some additional inspiration from Philip K. Dick’s 1959 novel Time Out of Joint, another "hidden reality" story. (Certainly, Carpenter was familiar with Dick's work, as he had previously contemplated directing a film adaptation of the author's short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale").
I read Time Out of Joint for the first time last year, and it resonated for me in a startling way. The novel is about a middle-aged man named Ragle Gumm who one day reaches for a cord to turn on a light in his house… only to find that the cord isn’t there. It never has been there. So why does he remember it? This surreal experience causes Gumm to suspect that his reality has been altered.
The story gets weirder from there—and so did Dick’s novels. A few years after Time Out of Joint, he wrote The Man in the High Castle, about characters living in a reality where Germany and Japan won World War II. The story is set into motion when the characters discover evidence of an alternate reality—in which the Allies won the war. Which reality is the “real” one? Even the author wasn’t sure. Sometime after writing The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick theorized that he himself was living in an alternate reality. He claimed to have vivid memories of a timeline in which Nixon survived Watergate and turned America into a totalitarian state. “I’m not saying merely, ‘It can happen here,’” the author wrote, “but rather, ‘It did happen here. I remember…’”
You can probably see where I’m going with this. Philip K. Dick’s work resonated for me because, to a certain degree, I feel like we all slipped into an alternate reality when Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. Even today, it seems like an unbelievable turn of events. If President Trump had appeared in a work of fiction before 2016, you would have said the work was too farfetched. Emotionally, our reality in 2019 feels like Phildickian science fiction. Which brings me back to THEY LIVE.
In 2016, an interviewer asked John Carpenter if Americans should watch THEY LIVE before voting in the presidential election. Carpenter responded, “Nah. It’s just a movie.” Carpenter’s dismissive response reinforces his desire to “hide” his “message” for commercial reasons. In 1989 he acknowledged that “people who go to the movies in vast numbers these days don’t want to be enlightened,” only entertained. Should I point out the irony of the director diluting his “message movie” for commercial reasons? Nah. It’s just a movie.
In spite of his reluctance to talk about THEY LIVE's "message," Carpenter has been very vocal about his contempt for Ronald Reagan and the neoconservative movement in 1980s America, at one point calling the decade “a real bad time in America, a real Nazi time.” What must the director be thinking now? Maybe it’s time to dust off his idea for HYPNOWAR, the long-rumored sequel to THEY LIVE?
The trick, of course, would be once again making a film that is both culturally relevant and also fun. In 1988, Carpenter explained how he managed to pull this off the first time around. “I wasn’t quite sure how to tell the story,” he admitted. “One way was to make it scary, but this element of humor always kept creeping into it. I was at a loss as to how to bring it all together… until I met Roddy Piper at WRESTLEMANIA III.”
Perhaps the only worthy sequel to THEY LIVE is a conversation the two men had on the Piper’s Pit podcast in 2015. Carpenter and Piper didn’t talk much about the film and they certainly didn’t talk about politics; they talked about life—hard times and crushing insecurities, and the way that friendship and love helped them through these things. That’s a reality that everyone needs to wake up to.