What a great time to be a John Carpenter fan, or indeed be John Carpenter. The successful revival of Halloween – a stylish, reverential 40th anniversary sequel to the cheapskate but chilling 1978 original – has reminded the world that the rakish, cackling, hippie-haired 70-year-old essentially invented the slasher movie. He recently completed another sellout tour of the UK with his youthful band, presenting powerhouse versions of his retro-synth soundtracks for films both real and imagined. And over the next month, four early films from the Carpenter canon are being rereleased in cinemas as a prelude to some lavish Blu-ray offerings. They include his ominous ghost-pirate fable The Fog (1980), the hardboiled sci-fi doomscape of Escape From New York (1981) and the under-appreciated satanic thriller Prince Of Darkness (1987).
Devised to entertain late-night drive-in crowds, all these movies still pack a lurid punch, and after years of being discovered and shared on fuzzy VHS tapes have surely earned their return to the big screen in pin-sharp 4K. But the John Carpenter re-release that seems most attuned to the wild times of 2018 is his two-fisted satire They Live (1988), and not just because having your worldview forcibly adjusted is central to its rollicking plot. What looked a little rough and ready three decades ago now seems terrifyingly prescient, presenting a stratified America where a rapacious, uncaring elite conspires to subdue and exploit a sprawling underclass. The media is spiked with subliminal messages that brainwash the masses and stealthy floating drones patrol the streets to identify rabble-rousers. This plan is masterminded by skull-faced, boggle-eyed aliens straight out of Mars Attacks! but their eventual reveal almost feels like overkill; you could easily believe the one per cent came up with this insidious weaponised capitalism all by themselves.
If there was a certain critical snootiness around They Live when it was originally released, it was perhaps because Carpenter built his movie around ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, a Canadian pro wrestler whose larger-than-life in-ring gimmicks included a boisterous, finger-jabbing blue-collar persona and a fondness for wearing kilts. As flannel-shirted drifter John Nada, Piper is a burly, broiling presence so dumped on by an uncaring world that he seems destined to snap even before he discovers the shadow conspiracy keeping him and the rest of the proletariat down.
What looked a little rough and ready three decades ago now seems terrifyingly prescient
Carpenter’s long-standing leading man Kurt Russell might have delivered a more soulful performance in the early scenes of hard-luck striving but Piper is perfect for the movie’s crucial pivot point. After discovering a pair of sunglasses that reveal the insidious nature of the alien-controlled world, a place where ubiquitous advertising billboards simply say OBEY and dollar bills are marked THIS IS YOUR GOD, he wanders around downtown LA in a panto daze, as if recovering from being bashed over the head with a stepladder at WrestleMania.
What follows is a procession of enjoyably daft one-liners, a rightfully celebrated back-alley brawl with the formidable Keith David that still stands as one of cinema’s greatest fight scenes and a cathartic shoot-em-up climax where the invaders and their well-heeled collaborators get some righteous payback. As paranoid invasion movies go, They Live is a clamorous, mob-handed, unashamed riot, even if Carpenter – a canny hustler who knows a thing or two about street fighting – keeps a sly stiletto of an ending in reserve.