Cheap thrills and dark glasses
By Sheila Johnston
They were bright, thrusting, cine-literate, with an encyclopedic knowledge of film and an enthusiasm firmly rooted in the American popular cinema. More importantly, as the Seventies waned and the studio system continued to crumble, young turks like Spielberg, Coppola, and Lucas were poised to carve themselves a niche in Hollywood. The buzzword for them was the Movie Brats, and two sharp observers of the scene, Michael Pye and Linda Myles, detailed their rising careers in a book of that name.
But they omitted the figure who, in retrospect, was the most archetypical. John Carpenter's curriculum vitae could almost be a blueprint for bratdom - a portfolio of Super 8mm featurettes made as a moviestruck nipper; a stint at the University of Southern California cinema department in the late Sixties, where he sat at the feet of Hollywood's finest (but dropped out and failed to graduate); a student project, the sci-fi tribute/parody, DARK STAR, which mutated into a full-scale feature (budget: $60,000) and became a sleeper hit, as did his second film, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13.
It was HALLOWEEN (1978), a simple but devastatingly efficient boo-movie, that established his bankability; it cost $300,000 and grossed more than $50 million, at that time the most successful independent film ever made. His next, the $1 million THE FOG, was written in eight days and shot in 10. In retrospect, however, it seems as if Carpenter peaked early: as his budgets soared, the profits dwindled: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) cost $7.5 million; THE THING (1982) $15 million, as did BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, an expensive flop. Despite a decent success with STARMAN, his work at the studios clearly made him uncomfortable.
With THEY LIVE, he returns to the bargain basement ($3 million), and to his long-standing fondness for horror and fantasy. Little of the budget was spent on stars: the hero is played by a professional wrestler, Rowdy Roddy Piper, whom Carpenter apparently met at Wrestlemania III. The special effects, too, are cheerfully cheesy; the chief one, a pair of sun-glasses allowing the wearer to detect invaders from outer space, and to read the messages they have implanted in the media, is on an approximate par with the monster in DARK STAR, which was ably impersonated by an inflated rubber beach-ball.
There was scant chance of topping up the kitty with a spot of judicious product placement: sponsors were oddly reluctant to be associated with subliminal slogans ordering consumers: Submit, Stay Asleep, Do Not Question Authority. Nor was Rolex keen to be associated with the other main gizmo, a wrist watch used by the aliens as a two-way radio. "We tried to use real advertisements; I wish I could get a little of that," Carpenter says. "But it's a film that's anti-advertising; no one wanted to give their permission."
THEY LIVE takes its tone from the Z-budget sci-fi of the Fifties, in which monsters were tracked down with a truly McCarthyite fervour. 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. "It was a big deal in the Fifties. I actually tried inserting a frame into one of my films on an editing machine - the problem was, I could see it. I do think, though, that advertising still uses colour, mood and tone to create similar effects."
Carpenter's paranoid fantasy, however, has an anti-Reaganite spin. In it, the enemies are humans who have concluded a Faustian pact with alien invaders, allowing them to colonise the planet in return for untold wealth and success. It is a surprisingly political film, in the context of both of the late Eighties, and of Carpenter's work as a whole.
"I've become so disgusted by how far to the right this country has gone that I wanted to make a statement about it," he says. "I felt that THEY LIVE could be an INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS for today; rather than Communists-under-the-beds, the monsters would be unrestrained capitalists. The Other, meaning the creatures, are yuppies, and I don't think they've been portrayed that way before; they've been shown [in films like AFTER HOURS or SOMETHING WILD] as a kind of goofball part of us, but never as inhuman.
"In the US, the middle class is slowly disappearing: there are more poor people and more rich. I think THEY LIVE will be looked back on as one of the few voices of outrage at a time when everyone wanted two things: to win, and to make money; all other considerations were secondary. If you had a pair of those sun-glasses, you might want to watch out for your Prime Minister.
"So it's about seeing the world in two different ways - normally and through the sun-glasses, which show the truth. We shot every scene twice, which was time consuming; dressing a whole street of billboards with subliminal messages was a pain in the ass. Strangely, though, most people didn't notice, which was also frightening. Especially the newsstand display, where the magazine covers were plastered with slogans, they passed right by without paying any attention at all."
Of the brat generation, Carpenter has probably been the least adept at infiltrating the industry mainstream: THEY LIVE, like his last film, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, is part of a four-picture deal with Universal - just extended to six - in which, despairing of ever being able to make adventurous pictures with studio strings attached, he has sacrificed budget to creative control. Nor - at a time when the independent producers who prospered in the early Eighties are finding themselves increasingly under siege - is he sanguine about the future for young film-makers as a whole.
"When I started out, we were all the right age at the right time. Studying cinema was a joyous thing - a lot of barriers were being broken and adventurous films were being made. The people who came to lecture at my classes included Orson Welles, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks. From them, I learned a passion that was more than working just from nine to five, and the importance of having a point of view on the world.
"The business has changed so much since I got into it. Then there was a lot more independent activity; today there are opportunities for new directors, but they don't have the same freedom - projects are mainly controlled by the studios and producers. We've seen the collapse of the auteur theory: the director is no longer an artist; he's a journeyman now."