John Carpenter is a respected giant in horror and sci-fi movie making. If he’d made only the classic HALLOWEEN, he would be considered a legend. Instead, though, over the course of his long and surprisingly eclectic career, Carpenter kept his filmmaking skills sharp by pushing against the walls of genre conventions and threading insightful messages into his productions. He’s responsible for the loopy environmentalism of DARK STAR (1974); critiquing safe suburban paradise in the first HALLOWEEN (1978); embracing anarchy with the ESCAPE FROM NY/LA flicks (1981/1996); and of course his exposition on paranoia and suspicion THE THING (1982), which takes some of the same themes found in THEY LIVE (1988) and cranks up the tension by isolating the cast and amplifying the horror elements through amazing practical special effects.
Despite an honest interest in doing more than just scaring people, Carpenter doesn’t really make “message movies,” but he doesn’t make them in the same way The Simpsons doesn’t mock the stale formula of sitcoms.
The worlds of THEY LIVE and Springfield have a lot in common. Both are populated with average joes, a handful of wealthy selfish overlords, horrid space monsters, and even a single omnipresent TV station. What they don’t share, however, is the One Man who’ll stand up and do what is right, sacrifice himself to save the planet.
THEY LIVE has Nada, Springfield has … ?
The investigation of an actual or imagined conspiracy makes for a great story, there’s sustained tension to keep you glued to the screen, and the central character is instantly sympathetic, giving the audience a hero to root for. There are two or three basic ways of spooling out a conspiracy-thriller: Usually the viewers will know the lead’s suspicions are on-target right from the start, even as the protagonist must work alone against overwhelming odds to prove themselves. The second variation usually puts the viewer in a learn as you go situation, seeing through the eyes of the actor and traveling along as they discover the horrible truth. We know nothing or little else before they do.
The Simpsons, in their first 10 seasons, have done a few stories in the classic thriller style: BART THE MURDERER (ep. 4, season 3) did a decent job of convincing the entire town–his dad included–not only that Bart had Principal Skinner whacked, but that a 10 year old boy was also the head of the Five Families of organized crime. KING-SIZED HOMER (ep 7, season 7, 1995) kind of turns into a lone man against the world story, Homer carried only by his certainty against an ignorant populous.
The third conspiracy variation needs an ensemble cast and a world of plausible suspects. Because getting to know a bunch of characters takes a long time this style tends to be found more in books, or on a soap opera such as Dallas or 90s cult classic Twin Peaks. WHO SHOT MR BURNS (pt 1 & 2) (ep. 25, season 6 & ep. 1, season 7) makes great use of audience sympathy and fan obsession to provide some tension in a “Murder on the Orient Express”-style mystery. The writers kept the entire nation on the edge of their seats, even if we know by sitcom convention that no one is really going to die or pay a price for their crime.
John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE is the “learn as you go” kind of unraveling. The movie is dressed up as a B-grade action flick complete with an uncomplicated everyman played by Roddy Piper, an iconic fight scene, and [spoiler] alien invaders bent on world domination. In THEY LIVE, the fiends are cheaply costumed aliens that look a lot like zombies. Behind the genre trappings and simple story of a Just Man saving the world, though, is a blunt parable, a warning about how the masses are invisibly manipulated every day, in every way of their life. The movie is a calmly told paranoid rant about America and the Haves and Have-Nots. Even a casual viewer won’t be able to miss the film’s plea to wake up and look critically at society.
Choosing a stand-in for Roddy Piper’s character wasn’t easy. Diana felt Homer just didn’t fit the bill, taking an “anybody but” stance, but despite some pretty good arguments, I just couldn’t be swayed her way. I don’t dislike her choice of Herman, but IMP, no one in Springfield–aside from maybe Kearny–has the “luggishness” of Roddy Piper’s Nada. Occasionally we just disagree in our role as dual casting directors.