The Screening Skull, Vol. 001: They Live
Coolidge Corner Theater
If you’re visiting Hockomock Press, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with the works of John Carpenter.
The influence of his films throughout the seventies and eighties continue to reverberate throughout pop culture even today, particularly while nostalgia for that era of filmmaking is suffocating. The film that has most benefited from a second-look in recent years is Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing-- a remake of 1951’s The Thing From Another World, which sees a group of researchers in the Arctic coming face-to-face with a shape-shifting alien hellbent on consumption and assimilation. Though initially dismissed upon release, Carpenter’s The Thing has since cemented its status as a horror classic, accentuated locally by a three-weekend stint at the Coolidge’s After Midnite series this January.
However, another unsung Carpenter classic is hitting the Coolidge at the end of the month: 1988’s They Live, starring Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David. The less said about the plot the better, but it revolves around Piper’s character coming across a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the upper-class for what they are-- hideous, skeletal aliens, subliminally feeding the lower classes messages of submission and obedience.
Though neither critically lauded or necessarily derided upon arrival, They Live came and went relatively quickly from theaters. Critics and audiences found Carpenter’s film to be heavy-handed in its disdain for the Reagan Revolution, which so many were happy to take part in its nosedive capitalism. However, as the sheen of the eighties began to rub off, They Live has gradually been given a closer look. The film has made its way back into the cultural lexicon, (whether that be in poor taste homages, or ironically enough, as a commercialized “counter-culture” staple) but has failed to have its collective “a-ha” moment. Like the invaders in the film, They Live has re-entered the world relatively unnoticed.
And maybe that’s fair. Replete with a more incisive brand of Carpenter’s sardonic sense of humor present in the likes of Big Trouble in Little China, coupled with the throwback eeriness of works like The Fog, there is no film quite as incisive of its own time period as They Live. It doesn’t reach the heights of the best of either of Carpenter’s modes, but manages to combine both for a thrilling, thought-provoking, funny flick. It may never be reappraised quite the way The Thing has, but They Live has earned its place amidst the annals of great midnight movies, and as Carpenter’s last truly great film.*
The Screening Skull aims to bring attention to an upcoming must-see cinema experience happening within the Triangle’s reach.
*Apologies to the In the Mouth of Madness die-hards.