One of the quirkiest films of all time, starring one of the greatest legends of all time…
In honor of the fact that legendary pro wrestler and actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper passed away at the fairly young age of 61 on July 31st, 2015, I thought it would be a good time to do an article on a John Carpenter film. Particularly, the Carpenter film that Roddy Piper famously starred in in the late 80s, called “They Live“. I was going to get around to doing an article on it someday anyway, but now is as good a time as any. It seems that we’ve lost so many famous people in the last couple months, from Piper, to actress Mary Ellen Trainor, to wrestler Dusty Rhodes, to famous game programmer and late Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata, and as my last article covered, the last great horror icon, Sir Christopher Lee. I honestly thought about doing a retrospective on the career of Iwata as well, seeing as he created one of my top five favorite games of all time, Kirby’s Adventure (with designer Masahiro Sakurai), but Christopher Lee died right around the same time, and I didn’t want to fill up my blog with a series of obituary pieces. But with Roddy, because he starred in a great film by one of my all-time favorite directors, I figured I could make the article more about the movie, while also paying tribute to the man who made the movie such a classic. Two birds, one stone.
While not in any of my personal “top” lists, as John Carpenter made one of my Top 10 favorite films of all time (Big Trouble in Little China), and also probably my favorite modern horror film of all time (The Thing), They Live still stands out as one of Carpenter’s stronger works, especially because for him, at the time of it’s production, it was more of a passion project than anything. After the tragically low box office success of arguably his best work (Big Trouble), mainly due to big studio sabotaging of a sort, Carpenter decided he had had enough of dealing with bigger budget movies and big studios for a while, and decided to scale things back. For his next few films, he went for smaller budget, more “indie” style films, the kind that made him famous in the 70s. The first of which was a very dark, apocalyptic number called Prince of Darkness, which while okay, is hardly anywhere on even my Top 100 list. But then he set about making what would become They Live, and the rest is history.
Much as he had done with 1982’s The Thing, Mr. Carpenter decided to adapt something that had been based on both an older short story, as well as a comic book adaptation of said story. In this case, he took the 1963 short story by Ray Nelson, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”, which had also been adapted into an anthology piece in the sci-fi comic Alien Encounters, in a story called “Nada”. The basic gist of the story, and thus of the movie, is a man who “wakes up” to the reality that the world is not what we think it is, and that the society we think we’ve built all on our own, was actually the construct of alien overlords who herd and control us for their own gain. Hence the mantra “They Live, We Sleep”. Carpenter had featured far more subtle hints of satire and social commentary in previous films, especially his infamous cult hit Escape From New York, but by the time of the late 80s, it was obvious that he had reached a far more cynical place, personally, largely due to the frustrations he had endured with some of his 80s films and the headache of dealing with the big Hollywood machine. Because in They Live, all subtleties are purposefully dropped, and much like the nameless protagonist of the film, he just goes after our often shallow and absurd society, both barrels, guns blazing.
But to make such a film really work, you need one specific ingredient that even a great premise or great writing cannot help, and that is the specifically right lead actor to really bring the story to life. And there was no other “right” actor for this story, for this part, than Roddy Piper. Born Roderick Toombs in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1954, by the mid-80s, thanks to the media craze of Vince McMahon Jr.’s World Wrestling Federation, their hit event “Wrestlemania”, and the MTV-fueled “Rock n Wrestling” phenomenon (which paired icons like Hulk Hogan and Mr. T with pop stars like Cindi Lauper), Piper was at the height of his mainstream popularity. Meaning that if he was ever going to make the jump to film, there was no better time than the late 80s, to “strike while the iron was hot”. The fact was, Roddy was well known in the world of wrestling for his mouth, and more importantly his ability to just riff on people and go off the cuff, coming up with memorable lines. And that is precisely what John Carpenter got when he cast him, as he let Piper ad-lib many of his own lines, which led to some pure gold, including the line from the infamous scene pictured above: “I’ve come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum.” Co-Star Keith David and some of the supporting cast absolutely do their part to make this film memorable, but the film simply wouldn’t have WORKED the way it does, wouldn’t have the same feel or energy, without Piper in the lead role.
The foundation of the story, as the movie adaptation tells it, is that a small group of scientists accidentally discovered a TV signal that is being broadcast that makes us all blind to both the fact that there are rather ugly aliens (as seen above) living all about us, but also that our society is rife with subliminal messages and commands, from these very aliens, meant to influence and control us. The main character, called only “Nada” in the credits, but going entirely unnamed in the film itself, as portrayed by Roddy Piper, accidentally runs across these scientists and special sunglasses they’ve crafted, which allow people to see the truth that is being hidden from us all. A homeless drifter just looking for a chance at pay for an honest days work, “Nada” meets up with Keith David’s character, Frank, after getting a temporary job working on a construction site. Frank leads him back to a make-shift homeless community (never stated, but likely somewhere in Los Angeles), where he eventually snoops around in an abandoned church across the street and discovers the subversive group and their glasses. The camp and the church get mysteriously attacked by an extreme overkill police force, and Nada later comes across one lone remaining box of these glasses, and hides them, taking one pair for himself.
Putting them on, with no way of knowing what will occur, his whole world becomes shattered as he quickly discovers he can “see” things that are completely hidden from everyone else’s sight, such as the fact that our American paper money secretly bears the words “This Is Your God”. Realizing that everything he’s known and been told is largely a lie, he understandably goes a bit nuts, going on a rather mad, surreal escapade for awhile, that includes the semi-infamous scene where he enters the bank and spouts the pure gold line about ass-kicking and chewing gum.
One of the highlights of the movie, is a ridiculous, well rehearsed, but also highly ad-libbed nearly six minute fight scene between Nada and Frank, after Nada decides that he needs someone else to see what he sees, so he won’t be the only one, as for all he knows the scientists who created them might be dead. The fight isn’t some piece of Bruce Lee martial arts magic, but it IS highly entertaining, and the two actors really put their all into it. The humor and awesomeness of it, not to spoil too much, stems from the fact that the fight just…..keeps….going.
While drifting away from spoiling too much of the plot for folks who haven’t seen this gem, needless to say, shit gets even crazier the further the movie goes along. Which is exactly how you want a surreal story like this to go. Not only does Carpenter, as usual for him, maintain a nice pacing that ramps up gradually as the adventure builds momentum, but the “wise-cracking nutcase and grounded realist” duo of Piper and David really carry the movie along. Nobody would have worked for the lead role anywhere near as well as Roddy Piper, to be sure, but to give credit where it’s due, few people could have worked AS well as his “serious” counterbalance as Keith David does, with Carpenter having written the part specifically for him, wanting someone who could hold their own and not just be a run of the mill “sidekick”.
Not quite as scary or cerebral as his horror classics like Halloween, The Fog, or The Thing, nor quite as outright drenched in crazy and awesome as Big Trouble or the Escape movies, They Live still stands on it’s own as a great piece of work, and more importantly, stands on it’s own as a very unique type of film, not only a strong sci-fi/thriller, but also one of the most potent, while still quirky and entertaining, stabs at the absurdity and often outright awfulness of American corporate and pop culture. While Roddy featured in many more films during his life, They Live also stands alone as the best work he ever did in that medium, because it’s not just a “cult hit”, but a genuine classic.
As stated at the beginning of this article, Roddy Piper passed away in late July 2015, in his sleep from a heart attack. It was incredibly unfortunate all around, as he had survived a bout with cancer, and was survived by his wife, children, and grandchildren. He spent much of his time alone with that family, on his property near Portland, Oregon, where I myself was born. He loved that area, and by all reports loved his family even more. He accomplished a lot in his life, and was a lot of things to a lot of people, including a hero to his many fans. But to his closest friends and family, I’m sure he was something even more important: simply a good human being. He is another that “died too young”, and he surely will be missed. So if you’ve never seen They Live, then do yourselves a favor, fire it up, enjoy the fun, ridiculous ride it takes you on, and honor the memory of one of the most purely memorable entertainers to ever grace our screens.