Mutant Popcorn #17

Nick Lowe

They Live

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be dishing out each and every delicious portion.

The serving below – They Live, Deepstar Six, Paperhouse – appeared first in Interzone #31 (September/October 1989).

Elm Street is USA. Freddy is Hollywood. The lights go off and the sleeping adolescent’s conscious brain kicks out, and there we are eavesdropping on the most primitive cortical doodles, all the submerged fantasies and terrors of a mighty nation’s undefended psyche, marshalled for our sadistic pleasure by a leering child-molestor with a psychopathic sense of humour. It’s horrid, it’s hilarious, it’s infantile and witless and in the worst of imaginable taste, and we can no more leave it alone than we can wake at will from a nightmare. We’re watching America dream.

It’s no wonder we get so obsessed with their mythology. There’s nothing specially wrong with our own, particularly the pre-1918 vintage that’s so in evidence at the moment with Lawrence of ArabiaMountains of the Moon, and Indie’s Mungo Park dad. But the mesmerising thing about the matter of America, and perhaps the thing that keeps us sneaking back to all those frightful new-right space operas, is the thought that people live in it, even believe in it. With a distinctively British cocktail of smugness and envy, we think: yes, but just wait. Just wait till they all wake up.

Well, wait no more. Yuppies are ALIENS. Capitalism is a PLOT FROM OUTER SPACE. The American dream is a product of MASS HYPNOSIS and SUBLIMINAL MANIPULATION OF THE WORKING CLASS. The other half of John Carpenter’s title slogan They Live is ‘We Sleep’, because America is under the thumb of an INTERPLANETARY CONSPIRACY that keeps its human population submissive by beaming out messages of passivity that make us think the invaders’ grip of terror is simply the consequence of monetarist economics and a Republican administration.

It’s hard to remain temperate in an account of this glorious film’s plot. Our hero is an outrageously thewsome migrant labourer who stumbles on a box of unusual sunglasses that enable him to read subtexts. Specifically, they show a world infiltrated by business-suited aliens with pingpong eyes and wristwatch teleporters, and subliminal incantations (‘OBEY’, ‘MARRY AND REPRODUCE’, ‘NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT’ &c. &c.) behind every magazine and billboard. They also make him uncharacteristically hyper and prone to amusingly Rambotic public displays of physicality and firepower. Astounded, he tries to convince his building-site buddy of the invaders’ existence; but buddy is a macho working-class black and would rather bleed to death from the eyesockets than be seen in a pair of unfashionable shades, so the two bash it out in the most deliberately ludicrous and protracted fistfight in filmic memory. At last the pair track down the underground resistance movement that made the specs and is working at jamming the aliens’ hypnotic transmitter, and all’s set for a suitably invigorating blowaway finale.

If there seems lurking beneath this splendid tongue-in-cheek a curious classical purity of concept and imagination, it’s no doubt due in part to the screenplay’s acknowledged germ in a little-remembered F&SF short ‘Eight O’Clock in the Morning’ from Ray Nelson in the early sixties. (There’s a calculated sixties feel to much of the picture: the wrist radios, the black-and-white for the sunspec sequences, even the quaint alien makeup reminiscent of nothing so much as the readers’ photos in Famous Monsters of Filmland.) But the film draws equally on the rich golden-age heritage of Fortean we-are-property magazine fantasies reaching back to Russell’s Sinister Barrier in 1943. This lively subgenre, in which the alien takeover has already happened and we just don’t know it, was left conveniently untouched by the paranoia boom in sf movies of the fifties, and Carpenter’s film strikes a deft balance between pulp nostalgia and satirical update, flavouring the exotic cocktail with a dash of cod Marxism and a brace of airbrushed icecubes out of Wilson Bryan Key.

They Live is a great romp, with a classic minimal Carpenter score on a single bass riff throughout, a pointless skirt interest who looks like Charlotte Rampling and acts like Sonny Bono, and the expected beanfeast of knowing in-jokes and dialogue lines you can’t help loving. ‘They are eliminating the sleeping middle classes.’ ‘You have given us the entree we need in our quest for multidimensional expansion.’ And: ‘Oh, you can take off your sunglasses – we’re all human in here.’ The flick’s US release chimed with the Reagan-Bush handover, its UK arrival with ten years of Thatcher, and it stands rather well as a wry epitaph for the horrible eighties. True to theme, it’s a very blue-collar film, full of male bonding and firearm macho and workout physiques that leave Kurt Russell looking like Michael Keaton without the rubber pecs. I take it this is one of those jokes about class in America that Brits never properly get, part of the whole middle-class urban myth of Joe Bob Briggs and southern drive-in culture. The alternative, that it’s not a dream after all, is too awful to imagine.

The increasingly wacky Carpenter’s always been a nose ahead of the pack in sniffing out genre fashions, and has to carry some share of trailblazing responsibility for the serial slasher and fifties remake trends that are nowadays wearing so thin. It would be nice to think Chuck Russell’s The Blob was the last squelch of the latter, because it’s hard to see what more can be wrested from the remaining unrefried material. I’ve never seen the McQueen original, though I used to be able to hum the strange Burt Bacharach theme song, but this is still a depressingly familiar caper. After a mind-bonkingly terrible first half running through every teen horror cliche in the repertoire, things pick up acceptably once Donovan Leitch fils has got slimed and the military turn up to nuke their escaped glop and the whole of smalltown USA with it. But alas, the particular fifties nightmare of middle America under alien siege doesn’t seem to have much puff left for the eighties, maybe because it was born in an age which took both smalltown utopia and outside invasion with a much deeper investment of emotion and ideology. (Would Blue Velvet have been imaginable in the fifties?) The decision to spend high on effects was, with hindsight, a mistake: the undistinguished script, cast, and direction unhappily combine to override the spectacle with a beguiling illusion of cheapness. Like its protagonist, the film went straight down the sewer on its US release. Things sometimes happen differently here: we loved My Stepmother is an Alien, a legendary disaster in its homeland. But that had Tom Jones and the Mighty Sparrow on the soundtrack. I don’t hold much hope.

Grim prospects too, I fear, for the summer crop of splasher movies, heralded by Sean Cunningham’s perfectly competent Deepstar Six. Three in a row have now flopped in the US, leaving an unexpectedly clear field for James Cameron’s The Abyss to clean up as expected at end of season. It’s unusual for a film’s business to be adversely affected by a rival that hasn’t even finished production, but this does seem to have happened with DeepstarLeviathan, and Roger Corman’s Lords of the Deep, all of which barely broke surface before disappearing in a forlorn stream of bubbles. It’s not, of course, accidental (there are no true coincidences in Hollywood) that all these deep-sea claustro shockers went into simultaneous rival production, though the lawyers have been quiet amid the plaintive claims of priority. But glub-glub movies are such bastards to shoot that I suspect they all thought the rest would crack first. The accident is that at the end of the race there were still four horses left.

Well, Deepstar Six is a sound enough shot. We’ve got a good ensemble cast of naval scientists in an ocean-floor research station threatened by deadline and closure, who dislodge a monster crustacean from its seafloor cavern, and then cock things up totally by wrecking their own station. Cue dwindling band of survivors, shrinking air supply, reactor core going critical, radio out, life support systems knackered, indestructible horror from beyond time lurking somewhere on station, desperate escape plan threatened by looney on team cracking up under pressure. Who will be next? Will it be the looney? the ruthless boss with the European accent? the luscious research student in the sleeveless t-shirt and no bra? the one who used to chew toothpicks on Hill Street Blues? the blue-collar Navy man and the scientist girlfriend he doesn’t want to hold down by marrying? the kind-hearted medic who just wants to get back to her Kentucky farm and ‘smell the mountaineer’? (Could maybe have used a redub on that line.) Write down your selection and hold your breath. One thing, not one character in the entire film dies by drowning. I suppose this is because it’s so uncinematic – as opposed to death by explosive decompression, or the inventive thing the looney does to the… But I’m spoiling your fun, I know. Snorkels on, readers!

It seems strange to imagine Paperhouse being made in the same universe as any of the above; and depressing to reflect that a clutch of films notionally set in reality end up talking about nothing but a culture of infantile dreams, whereas the one film explicitly set in a small child’s dreams is the only one with anything to say about real-world experience. Of course, it’s not the same universe: it’s an independent British production, based on a British novel that’s been in the imaginative blood of a whole generation of this nation’s youth and must be, I should think, utterly unknown outside. This is a film from a universe where you’re allowed to be amateurish, pretentious, even dull in reasonable doses; where it’s okay to deal in something more complex than visceral primary emotions, and where consequently even an imperfect attempt can be vastly more memorable and infinitely more moving than anything in the mainstream of Hollywood entertainment.

Paperhouse derives from Catherine Storr’s 1958 children’s novel Marianne Dreams, in which a sick child builds up an eerie dream world from her daytime drawings: a strangely-furnished house, a boy imprisoned upstairs, a garden of boulders with voices and eyes, an unreachable lighthouse beyond. Convinced the boy is the dreamworld counterpart of a fellow invalid in her own world, she resolves to save his life and restore his health by escaping together from the paper house. The film respects this basic imaginative core, but opens it out with considerable intelligence and sensitivity, to overcome some of the more dated and limiting qualities of the novel and relaunch it as an essentially adult story. In this version, Anna is not Marianne’s happily-adjusted goodie-two-shoes who enjoys her Latin homework and reads all the right children’s books, but a lonely, troubled and rebellious prepubescent struggling to cope with a host of emotional uncertainties about illness, sex, and her ambivalent feelings towards her alcoholic, absentee father. The boy’s curable polio is replaced by the more contemporary, and incurable, muscular dystrophy. The sentient boulders stalking the paper house have sadly but wisely been dropped in favour of a very different menace; and the final third of the film (much the strongest) moves away from the novel into some unexpected and complicating directions.

Not all of this gels. There are frightful lapses: Glenn Headly’s performance as the mother is surprisingly weak (unless it’s just the ropey English dubbing), and there’s a regrettable and needless descent into clunking Freddyism from which the plot only barely recovers. But the little embarrassments fade as the reels proceed, and the final emotional squeeze is very strong. In the wake of Dream Demon and the whole grim recurrence of Nightmares, it was a difficult and possibly fatal time to film this story, and I can’t feel it was a brilliant idea to slap that line about ‘the thinking person’s Nightmare on Elm Street’ all over the ads. For my cash, They Live is a thinking person’s movie; this is one for feeling people, if there are any of the miserable creatures left out there. Sweet dreams, humanoids, and remember: no independent thought.

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

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