They Live! The Counter-Culture Must-See Holiday Movie

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A Christmas present from my coworkers…

A few months ago some folks at work overheard me talking about how much I love the movie They Live.  Bless their little souls, yesterday they gave me the DVD as a Christmas present.  I watched it as soon as I got home last night.

Let me now explain to you why you must see it, and why the holiday season is the perfect time to do so.

The movie is based on a story by Ray Nelson called “Eight O-clock in the Morning.”  Ray is now 83 years old and is remembered primarily as the inventor of the airplane propeller beanie.  But he could just as well be famous for teaming up with Michael Moorcock to smuggle banned books out of Paris, for teaming up with Philip Dick to write The Ganymede Takeover, or for being friends with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.  If you know anything about the wacko, counter-culture, Beat Generation friends that Ray cultivated, you now have an idea what to expect from this tale.

Carpenter’s version of the story isn’t perfect.  The tone is mixed, switching from comedic to creepy at the drop of a hat, and the effects are rather uneven (some of them are quite good by 1988 standards, others are just plain awful).  It’s a low budget production for sure, and there are times when you cringe at the sets.  The movie starts off a little slow.

But when the hero, played by pro wrestler Roddy Piper, puts on the sunglasses and utters one of the best movie lines in movie history, you better hold on to your seats.  “I am here to chew bubble gum and kick ass,” Piper says.  “And I am all out of bubble gum.”

They Live is a scathing critique of commercialism, advertising, greed, and our entire society, but it manages to get it done without preachiness or pretense.  Is it perfect?  No.  But watching this movie is like finding a diamond ring in your Velveeta, and when you’re done you may not look at your TV, your boss, or your congressman the same way again.  You may even feel pretty stupid about the credit card bills you racked up to put presents under the Christmas tree.

A surprisingly good performance from “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and a great job by journeyman actor Keith David.  Directed by John Carpenter, the genius behind Halloween, Escape from New York, and Big Trouble in Little China. Dozens of memorable lines of dialogue.  One of the best fight scenes in the history of cinema.  Great premise.

It all comes together to make pure, B-movie magic.

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