Welcome to The A-Z of Horror – an alphabetical window into the horror genre. Over the course of 26 days, I’ll be taking a look at horror in all its facets and forms, offering up suggestions of what to watch, should you be in the mood for a real good scare.

Today: J is for John Carpenter

Ah, where to even begin with John Carpenter? If you want horror – real horror – then look to the work of John Carpenter. Whether it’s Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), The Thing (1982), Christine (1983) or The Prince of Darkness (1987), Carpenter’s movies are packed with social commentary, iconic moments and genuine scares.

Any self-respecting A-Z of Horror would use this opportunity to talk endlessly about Halloween, one of the all-time great horror movies – and rightly so. But who said It’s A Stampede! was a self-respecting blog?

No, today I’m going to use this opportunity to talk about They Live (1988) – one of the most underrated John Carpenter horror films of them all.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, many, many, many people adore They Live, but the movie never quite gets the attention of some of Carpenter’s other work, so today I want to correct this oversight.

For those new to They Live, the movie is effectively a politically charged B-movie, which mixes horror with science-fiction. The movie tells the story of a drifter – played by former wrestler Roddy Piper – who accidentally uncovers an alien invasion, designed to make humanity consume, conform and obey.

Some may argue that They Live is more sci-fi than horror – and that’s a fair point. However, as mentioned during my discussion on Threads, sometimes true horror can be found in just how closely a situation mirrors real-life, and that’s where They Live excels.

They Live

Image: Universal Pictures

Below are eight facts about They Live. Each fact should give you an insight into the movie, filling in a few details you might not be aware of.

  • They Live is based on the Ray Nelson short story, ‘Eight O’clock in the Morning’, which originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1963). The movie took inspiration from sci-fi movies of the 1950s sci-fi movies – specifically Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – as well as the social and economic developments that arose during the Reagan administration (1981 – 1989).
  • They Live was shot on a budget of around $3 million and was filmed in just eight weeks, with the majority of the shoot taking place in downtown LA.
  • Roddy Piper’s character in They Live is never named on screen; instead, he is a simply viewed as a nameless drifter. During the closing credits, the character is identified as Nada – i.e. nothing.
  • The aliens that appear in They Live – the ones with the terrifying skull-like faces – were designed by Sandy King, an associate producer on the film. King is now the wife of director John Carpenter.
  • The biggest expense on They Live was the supermarket scene – a moment in the movie where Nada sees a collection of aliens masquerading as humans. This scene proved the most expensive as the crew needed to construct a fake supermarket, as a real supermarket proved ineffective for the scene.
  • While wearing a pair of sunglasses, Nada sees the aliens in black and white – a stark contrast to the colour that is seen in the rest of the movie. The black and white shading is seen as a metaphor for seeing the truth, which is being coloured by lies.
  • The film’s most iconic line, “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum,” takes place 41 minutes and 31 seconds into the movie. The line – delivered by Nada – was made up by Roddy Piper. Speaking on the documentary Independent Thoughts with John Carpenter, the director said: “Very early on, whilst I was finishing up the script, Roddy said ‘Look, for these interviews I do, when I wrestle somebody, I have a lot of things that I make up – and here’s a bunch of them.’ He had written and scrawled them down and there it was. And I thought, ‘that’s a great line’ so I put it in there. I was just the typist, that was his line. Completely his line.”
  • In contrast to many Hollywood films, They Live has a bleak ending, something which John Carpenter was adamant to maintain. Although the aliens are eventually exposed to the world, the heroes – including Nada – are killed. The true horror here is that in order to win, you sometimes have to lose.

If you’ve never seen They Live, then get hold of a copy and dive right in. If you’re more than familiar with the film, then gift the experience to someone who is yet to see it.

And should you want more from John Carpenter, then of course check out Halloween and The Fog – both excellent examples of why he is such a good director.

As part of this ongoing A-Z of Horror, I’m going to add an awesome John Carpenter music video to The Video Vault. It’ll be on the blog momentarily, so check it out.

Tomorrow: K is for…