John Carpenter’s They Live is the rare B-movie with a serious message.

With They Live, John Carpenter Hid Political Commentary in a Campy B-Movie

With They Live, John Carpenter Hid Political Commentary in a Campy B-Movie

Politics and Paranoia at the Movies
Aug. 3 2017 12:24 PM

The B-Movie With a Message

With They Live, filmmaker John Carpenter balanced camp with social commentary. Not all critics liked the tactic.

They Live
Critics were polarized over They Live, loving or hating the film for its overt B-movie badness.

Universal Pictures

This article supplements Slate’s Conspiracy Thrillers Movie Club. To learn more and to join, visit Slate.com/thrillers.

The first part of They Live is set in Justiceville, a shantytown encampment situated on the periphery of downtown Los Angeles. Nada, the film’s narrator, squats here with an eclectic group of other homeless people. The elegant skyscrapers of the cityscape loom over Nada and his cohorts in blight, accentuating the disparity between downtown wealth and fringe poverty. Carpenter worked closely with his crew to create an air of grim reality around They Live. Standing on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles at the Justiceville location, it is easy to imagine how shut out the real homeless must feel: The dramatic backdrop of high-rise office towers, freeway lights and air traffic contrast sharply with the shadowy hovels on the set.

Director John Carpenter, according to his official website, filmed They Live “on locations that bore the closest possible resemblances to the settings in the film; no studio set was used to create Justiceville or the old church or the flophouse on Skid Row.” He did this to convey the greatest degree of verisimilitude not only for the physical landscape but for the class divisions it signified. Much of the film was shot at night, which required Gary Kibbe, director of photography, to highlight the drama of each scene while working with a limited supply of light.

They Live foregrounds the perspective of the homeless. This is essential to its narrative constitution and stems directly from Carpenter’s personal experience. “We went into the dirtiest alleys we could find,” Carpenter recalls. “The environment was very familiar to me. When I first came to California—lo these 20 years ago—to attend the USC film school, I lived in the ghetto. I went to downtown Los Angeles to go to all-night grindhouse movie theaters, where the winos slept. So, I knew about the pain and poverty of the homeless. But when I went back to downtown L.A. to shoot They Live, I was shocked to see how many more people live on the streets now. The problem has grown to unbelievable proportions.”

A sense of realism probably had something to do with They Live’s success among audiences. Critics were polarized, loving or hating the film for its overt B-movie badness. Pro-Carpenter critics acknowledged a clear meta-referential quality, an inherent filmic awareness and celebration of its own badness. Detractors rebuked Carpenter and his actors for being incompetent as well as trying (and failing) to make social commentary. In a London Times review, Sheila Johnston discusses the film with enthusiasm for its “cheerfully cheesy” special effects and ode to cinematic kitsch. “They Live takes its tone from the Z-budget sci-fi of the 1950s, in which monsters were tracked down with a truly McCarthyite fervor. The dystopian sequences, shot in black-and-white, have a deliberately dated, Orwellian feel, with their authoritarian slogans and the old chestnut of subliminal conditioning.” The Washington Post’s Richard Harrington, however, denounces the film for similar reasons:

Even for sci-fi, the creatures-walk-among-us plot of They Live is so old it ought to be carbon-dated. Oh, sure, director John Carpenter trots out the heavy artillery of sociological context and political implication, but you don’t have to get deep down to realize he hasn’t a clue what to do with it, or the talent to bring it to life. It’s much like the Carpenter-written music for They Live—a boring, bare- bones two-note bass riff masquerading as a soundtrack without ever approaching a resonant chord.

A certifiable Carpenter-hater, Harrington accuses the director of being clichéd, whereas Johnston applauds him for it. The difference is Johnston suggests he uses clichés for a calculated and successfully rendered purpose, as opposed to mere reckless idiocy. Put simply, she thinks Carpenter knows what he’s doing and does it well.

In the end, the politics of They Live ensured modest success with viewers given the social climate of the year of its release; the film premiered shortly after Election Day in 1988, when George Bush Sr. and Dan Quayle were elected. They Live still mostly spoke to the former administration, though: Was Reagan an alien? As a movie star and symbolic “cowboy” (i.e., conqueror of the American West as depicted in cinema), Reagan belonged to the dream factory of Los Angeles culture, and his emergence as bourgeois father figure, patriarch, savior, and puppetmaster harmonizes with the institution of the film’s collective, covert antagonism. In this capacity, Carpenter’s “reel politik” works most efficiently, coercing Americans to face the fears and desires evoked by the forces of a dubious hypercapitalist government. The film expresses what a lot of people were thinking but were afraid to say.

They Live did not meet with immediate commercial success. But it raked in $4.8 million over its opening weekend, almost $2 million more than it cost to make, and its final gross in the United States was $13 million. The film is an unequivocal cult articulation, and it’s difficult to believe that Carpenter might have expected better returns. Prior to the release of They Live, he admitted treading precarious waters. Carpenter told a sci-fi magazine: “I recognize the danger … People who go to the movies in vast numbers these days don’t want to be enlightened. My editor leaned over to me at a screening of They Live, and very softly said, ‘This is different from your other films. This is a message movie.’ I whispered back, ‘Yeah, but don’t tell anyone.’ ”

The few critics of They Live knock it for the usual reasons: poor execution, crummy special effects, bad acting, mindless and excessive violence, etc. Most reviewers, however, applaud Carpenter for his capacity for fusion—the way he integrates comedy and drama, action and intellect, the old and the new, the cool and the barmy. They more or less agree that They Live is a “junk movie” but one with style, ingenuity, and self-awareness. New, younger audiences who see the film for the first time are generally oblivious to the historical and political context that made it a success. What attracts them to They Live, and what makes it a cult phenomenon, is what attracts viewers to professional wrestling, now and in the past: misogyny, violence, absurdity, political incorrectness—and a jouissance visible in the execution of these traits that extends from the body of the film to the psyche of the audience.

Excerpted from They Live by D. Harlan Wilson. Copyright (c) 2015 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.