Film: They Live!
Ok, there are bad directors, there are good directors, there are bad directors who sometimes manage to hit the good film like blind chicken hits the grain, and there are good directors who get involved in Hollywood-style system so much, that they don’t get enough creative freedom so produce something that’s not mediocre; And then there is a very frustrating case of John Carpenter, evidently talented director, who has been consistently producing half-baked and predictable films for decades now.
Carpenter, best known for starting a perpetual money-bringing franchise “Halloween”, is now a household item. His name is enough to guarantee good theatres visit, so it regularly gets attached to distribution titles of his movies, like: “John Carpenter’s Vampires” or “John Carpenter’s Escape from
Even though “Dark Star” was a success, he didn’t get any big budget deal after he finished the school. Instead, he got open hands but a very modest budget. Result was a little exploitation masterpiece, siege film “Assault on precinct 13”. Tensed, stripped off from unnecessary subplots that would burden what Carpenter imagined as a simple premise, “Assault” was shot in a very small number of locations (mostly one building, playing a police precinct, small cast of actors playing people kept under siege, and a lot of statists who were mostly volunteers among Carpenter’s friends from film school – playing zombie-like gang members trying to get into the building. One of gang members got an Oscar – but much later, for the sound engineering. One of qualities of the film was a play with genres: this film, although nominally neither of those, was substantially a western (loosely inspired by “Rio Bravo” in which John Wayne, Dean Martin and the crew are in similar situation) and a horror (drugged-up appearance of gang members heavily resembles Romero’s zombies).
But the main quality was cheapness of the film; Made obviously with limited budget, film was a firework of resourcefulness, achieving a lot with a very little means; Carpenter thus continued a tradition of small-budget films who became blockbusters – started with Romero’s “The night of living dead”. For a fan of extreme-low-budget filmmaking like me, “Assault” is as much a textbook example and a first-class delight.
“Halloween”, third film, launched him into an orbit, even though it was started as a clever in-joke – Carpenter wanted to make a horror film of that name, wondering how comes noone before him thought of such obvious idea. Carpenter consistently made himself minimalist, menacing soundtracks for his films, and soundtrack from “Haloween” is one of the best known film tunes.
Where did it all go wrong then? When did Carpenter give up minimalist precision in favor of flashy special effects? The fact that he did, very disappointing, shows that minimalism of “Assault” wasn’t so much a thing of poetics or style, as it was forced by budget. Thus Carpenter hasn’t got much in common with masters of (relatively) low budgets, such are Jim Jarmush or Aki Kaurismaki.
But we can see the pattern here: he’s not the only director whose early low-budget horror became extremely popular and launched him right to
What followed is a string of films, sometimes actions (“Escape from New York”), sometimes fantasies (“Big trouble in little China”) but mostly special-effect-driven horrors; From those, I’d single out 82’s “The Thing”, for it’s menacing atmosphere and puzzling open ending; “Christine” was initially good (and why not, based on Stephen King’s novel with obligatory satirical edge) but half-baked; On the other hand, films like “Escape from L.A.” and “In the mouth of madness” are disastrously bad films.
And yet – there is a hint of something in them that shows Carpenter’s potential buried somewhere. Take, for instance, the very beginning of “In the mouth of madness”: John Trent (played by Sam Nail) is an insurance agent hired to find a missing writer. Writer, an affectionate parody of Stephen King, is so popular that people will start a mob or get insane, to get to his book. In a particular scene, Neil is sitting in a cafe, involved in a conversation, while through the window glass, we see a mob demolishing a book store. One figure singles out of the mob and runs right to the cafe with an axe and breaks into the window, in attempt to kill
I suspect this: Carpenter is overwhelmed by special effects and technology; He loves them; He makes films just to vehicle special effects and slick production, so he forgets why he makes films in the first place. His main problem is, having consistently big budgets. And the proof is there:
The proof is “They Live!”, ever underappreciated 88’ies film, that finds Carpenter in an unexpectedly cheap environment for that period. So, he returns to the simple yet effective storytelling and, in lack of effects that would make SF premise scary (masks of aliens were rather bad anyway) he turns to satire and to carefully built eerie atmosphere.
It’s about this: in the age of poverty, presumably nearby future, a stranger played by Roddy Piper arrives into town. Piper’s appearance, cheesy 80ies haircut, necklace and buffed-up, just adds to the cheap feeling of a film. He’s an unlikely hero for an A Hollywood production, but not for B-production action flicks that are part of Carpenter’s film erudition. He finds a scrappy job as a worker on a building, gets a friend, and then hears something he shouldn’t have, which leads him right in the middle of underground organization. Before he manages to find out or understand anything, the underground is out of the game, and he’s stuck with a box full of sunglasses that was in his hands when he started running for his life.
Naturally, he puts one pair of glasses on. And he is stunned as glasses penetrate through the level of illusion right into true messages that panels and newspapers send, and real faces of some people, with alienish ugliness. This illusion doesn’t reside on level of metaphor as later in the film, explanation of this phenomenon comes with a mind-controlling device placed at the top of the TV tower. But the infiltration of aliens in our rows is deep, every mean of public informing is transmitting some generic message like “Eat”, “Breed”, “Obey”, and aliens are everywhere among humans, covered by power of mind-controlling device. Of course, it’s not real aliens Carpenter has in mind, he’s using them as a clever metaphor for certain humans beings, just like Alexander Grin did with rats. Parole of 50ies xenophobic SF’s was “watch the sky”. Carpenter seems to be telling here “watch among ourselves”. Not very sharp or direct, but nonetheless clever metaphor, accented at the end of the film by portrays of human who gave in being corrupted by aliens.
But let’s return to the moment where Roddie Piper finds out that the society is illusion. Carpenter knows that there isn’t easy way to get this news. The entire sequence is very slow and lasts very long: Piper looks around him, disoriented; Observes, and finally starts to learn. We see a lot of various manipulation methods through his eyes. Carpenter takes his time with this scene, he knows that it has a premise worthy building upon. It’s long, and I enjoy every minute of it.
Now, the interesting thing, and what makes this film doesn’t look like just any other, is this slow tempo. Film has plenty of long sequences, it even sacrifices finer points of story structure to them. Besides the one I just described, there is another one, where Piper decided to make hit friend wear glasses even if he has to beat him up for that. Then the beating starts: Fight is rather clumsy, with actors getting carried away and then apologizing to each other. It is also absurd, as the fight is about some thing as trivial as wearing some glasses – and the longer it lasts the bigger the absurd. But the fight is also about making him see the truth, the man who doesn’t want to wear the glasses – not for sheer stubbornness, but because he doesn’t want to know the truth – it’s easier that way.
There’s another notable scene in the film. Of course, there is a romantic interest. But due to Carpenter, things never happen the way we expect. Yes, he does kidnap a girl (Meg Foster) during the getaway, and yes, he fancies her, but it all ends up with her knocking him over the head with the bottle and him falling out of her apartment through the window. Later, he meets her in an underground lair, as she became aware of underground movement meanwhile as well. And then, there is this soft, nearly-kiss scene, that is abruptly interrupted by a noisy explosion in the backgrounds, just like a mad far unexpectedly run on Sam Neil through the window in “in the mouth of madness”. That’s a kind of powerful things that Carpenter does. Once in a while.
What happens next is some low key action, and a lot of things that don’t go on as expected. Ending is, happy-sad ending, as Piper manages to blow up the mind-controlling transmitter moments before he is shot down. He is dying, transmitter is dying too, and humans are slowly starting to be aware of alien’s presence. And that’s where the film finishes, further reaction on aliens is not of it’s concern. It’s a sad ending, a happy ending and an open ending, all in one.
Incidentally, this is considered one of Carpenter’s worst films. In extensive articles about him, it usually isn’t granted no more than one sentence. The reason, probably cheap production but let me tell you, it's a trash classic. Which is still a classic.