Review | John Carpenter’s genius is distilled in this classic horror comedy

“They Live” is one of few so-called “message films” that stands the test of time.


Tomia Teague

CW / Tomia Teague

John Carpenter made his first movie while he was still a film student at the University of Southern California at the age of 26, with a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon (who also acted in the film and would go on to write Ridley Scott’s original “Alien”). That film, entitled “Dark Star” (1974) was a science-fiction comedy telling a story of blue collar scientists on a mission to destroy far away planets. Though “Dark Star” is a fun little film, it does little to reveal how large the impact of its director would go on to be. Carpenter would go on to direct such classic genre films as “Halloween” (1979), “The Thing” (1982), “Big Trouble in Little China” (1986), “Escape from New York” (1981), “Assault on Precinct 13” (1976), and a dozen other classics.

His work has spawned franchises, been remade on several occasions, and burrowed its way into the heads of generations of film goers and filmmakers. His influence can today be seen in tv shows such as “Stranger Things,” and horror franchises such as “It.” Carpenter might be the most successful horror filmmaker since Alfred Hitchcock, and like Hitchcock he is a man with ruthless technical ability, but he is also possessed of a unique worldview, one which was unusually sympathetic to working class Americans, and skeptical of government entities, capitalism and entertainment itself. 

These attitudes are on display in each of his films, but nowhere do they come across more strongly than in 1988’s “They Live.

Rarely is a high concept film such as “They Live” so streamlined, with almost no extraneous scenes, and less exposition than one might see on a television episode half its length. The plot follows a homeless drifter—played by WWE star Roddy Piper—who finds himself in possession of a pair of special sunglasses which show him the true nature of the world. 

With the glasses off, everything looks normal enough in downtown Los Angeles, but once he puts them on he sees that the rich and powerful elites of the world are actually alien beings in disguise as human beings, and that they are able to maintain power by subliminal messaging hidden in all forms of media—think suntan lotion advertisements that actually say “MARRY AND PROCREATE,” and money adorned with the catchy slogan “THIS IS YOUR GOD.” Piper wastes no time in joining an underground resistance movement to destroy humanity’s overlords and regain control of the planet.

Part of the genius of “They Live” is in its simplicity. Not only is the plot stripped of any extraneous material, but Carpenter’s framing of scenes is borderline Chaplinesque in its striking starkness. The bare-bones production design is genius. Carpenter had employed complex special effects before—“The Thing” in particular remains a high watermark for practical horror effects—but here the design of the aliens are comically simple.

My earlier comparison to Chaplin is not, I think, unearned. Viewers of “They Live” might find themselves wondering, “Am I supposed to laugh at this?” The answer is yes, Carpenter is certainly smart enough to know that many of the moments in this film are ridiculous, and he plays more for laughter than horror. But that is not to say that he doesn’t take the story seriously, and he certainly takes the film’s message seriously.

“They Live” was made towards the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and Carpenter has stated that the film was made as a reaction towards America’s embrace of greed and uncontrolled capitalism. Carpenter has said that “the [‘80s] never ended; the Reagan revolution never ended.”

Many parts of “They Live” seem incredibly prescient. An early scene wherein a police squadron raids a homeless shelter is one of the scenes in the film that’s unmistakably not meant to be laughed at. The skill of the film is that it is simultaneously a grim commentary on American values and a gleefully entertaining action-comedy. It can be enjoyed on both levels. 

Most Hollywood “message” films are tedious Oscar-bait watched by no one and forgotten within a few years time, but Carpenter is able to make a “message” film which is just as intense and exciting in 2021 as it was the day it was released. How many movies can give us a line like, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.” while critiquing Reaganomics?

I would have to guess they can be counted on one hand, and “They Live” is certainly one of them.