Friday, September 25, 2009

They Live (1988; John Carpenter)

When I am asked to sum up my opinion of cinema from the 1980's I always use the same two word answer. While it is a very biased answer, many people still agree with me that it seems to fit the mood of the genres it touched. Those words?

John Carpenter

A drifter finds his way into work and a temporary home while, well, drifting. While there he notices some mysterious activity that leads him into a whole new world of truth.

They Live continues a tradition that many other horror directors started years before. The political commentary in it is so obvious, yet unlike Romero, it never feels too forced or pushed down our throats. It very much feels natural with the flow of the rest of the film and our attention never waivers from the action at hand.

They Live also marks the end of Carpenter's fantastic eighties career and in a way feels like an appropriate summary of his previous works before falling into his downhill slide in the nineties (with the exception of In the Mouth of Madness). However, after all of this introduction, where does it leave the film itself?

The character Carpenter places before us are absurd. We focus around a drifter whom we know nothing about who is thrust into a terrifying situation and instead of panicking he pulls out some guns and some cheesy one-liners. He meets friends by beating them or holding guns to them. The point I am trying to make here is that this film is awesome. This movie continues the enjoyment we all had when we first watched Escape From New York years earlier.

If you have never seen Escape From New York, then there really is no way to convince you that the description above is more than just ridiculous garbage. I am not a proponent of saying that trash cinema is actually high quality in disguise, but with Carpenter's works it really is. Everything was sculpted to their degrees on purpose. It is obvious with pieces such as The Thing and Halloween that Carpenter is no stranger to serious cinema and this idea helps solidify that he wanted these movies to look this way for a reason.

They reflect the absurdity of the political ideas that the films are commenting on. The genius behind such a tool is that not only does it further drive the commentary home, it also gives what would have been a more "normal" piece a life of its own.

I suppose I should briefly touch on the more concrete elements. The camera is well instrumented here and the black & white actually adds to the feeling that we are trying to be controlled as if our artistic minds are being suppressed by the lack of color. The score is typical of eighties Carpenter with very simple melodies being effectively used. The drawbacks are that while it is an undeniably strong film, you can't help but feel some of his spark fade on all aspects of the piece. It is like asking a landscape artist to do a portrait. The portrait will look good, yes, but it will still lack some of the genius that pushes his landscapes past the point of good.

Score: 4.5/5

Notes: Obey this review. Consume Carpenter's products.

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