They Live (1988) – Analysis

John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) is one of the greatest conspiratorial science-fiction movies in existence. Following a vagabond, John Nada (based on the comic of the same name) played by Roddy Piper, we explore the deepest corners of society and I’ll be damned if a movie that’s 30 years old still doesn’t hold up today. Joining a secret cult of sorts, John learns of the true secrets of life around us and it pushes him just a tad bit over the edge. The rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer, all while the skull-faced-aliens laugh about it and hold secret meetings. They live, we sleep.

After watching the Blu-ray released by Shout Factory, I thought it would be fun to dig a little deeper into the special features and I stumbled across Carpenter’s development of the film and what the film meant to him in a social-political sense. He basically was equating the society in the film, to Reagan’s society in the age the movie was released. To him, America seemed to relish in the division being created between the upper and lower classes, with the president, who came from a rich background, being in on some sort of shitty joke. The ‘aliens’ (which presumably are Republican) took control of all of politics and wealth distribution and in turn, crafted a society built to serve themselves.

Obviously, the film isn’t just a hive mind of democratic ideologies throughout. I mean, it’s John Carpenter for god’s sake. So obviously, there is a massive element of apocalypse woven into the film as well as a fight scene that is six minutes long. I do think we can draw allegories to the political climate of then and now though, and though the movie is self-fulfilling in it’s message, there may be some more nuanced messages that could pass by the average viewer.

The skull-faced aliens are definitely human. I know, they look like aliens and are literally from another planet, but that’s only because our world in their view is somewhat of a third-world. They take advantage of those beneath them and create a slave class, as seen in the film, whilst promoting themselves to higher positions in the social hierarchy and capitalist complex. This is comparative to Reaganomics at the time, where the conservative initiative was to give more money to the rich ‘hoping’ it would trickle down to the poor. Taxes were cut, the military boomed, and markets were deregulated.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Unfortunately, this is still the case in todays society. That is not the only message that Carpenter is trying to get across though. It’s obvious that he thinks we are a slave to the system in itself as well, not just the socio-economic aspect. Obey, Stay Asleep, and similar signage is seen throughout the sunglasses imagery in the film, and I think by this Carpenter is making a connection to what predicament we have put ourselves in. We don’t allow ourselves to live outside of normalcy and when someone breaks through those barriers, they are still trapped in the society in which they helped create.

Though John Nada is a drifter at the start of the film, and he obviously isn’t conforming to the normal nine-to-five lifestyle, he still has to make ends meet just like the rest of us. Later in the film, when Nada is trying to help others see the things that he has been seeing for the majority of the runtime, they deny any pushes he makes in that direction. The six-minute fight scene previously spoken about is a direct conflict that arises from Nada trying to get his former coworker to see what he sees through his sunglasses. In this way, it seems as if Carpenter is showing a deliberate struggle that he is going through to get people to open their eyes, and even when the information is as easy as putting on a pair of sunglasses to swallow, people are still going to fight their hearts out to stay enslaved to a broken system.  

In a simple story, Carpenter is trying to say a lot. It never comes across as forced though or unintelligible. Carpenter does an excellent job through both theme and imagery to set the tone of what this movie is about and in any case, succeeds to convey what he was trying to convey from the beginning of the movie. To the average person, I believe this movie can provide an interesting perspective of what the world is like and allow us to see through a lens, though they may be UV-protected and tinted, that we may not have normally been destined to look through. At the time of release, the movie is criticizing Reagan’s administration, but I think, allegorically, we can also use the film to criticize Trump’s. There is an otherworldly obsession with greed and power in this country, and unfortunately, a lot of people don’t want, or refuse to recognize it.  

They Live may not be the best acted or most engaging film of all time, but it does draw a lot of attention for its beautiful imagery and amazing dialogue. “I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of gum” may very well be the best line every uttered in a film, and unbeknownst to me, it’s actually an improve by Roddy Piper as well. Whether revealing a new layer of society to us, or simply entertaining us with street-brawls and gun fights, They Live has a place in my heart, and it should hold some weight in yours too, regardless of political ideologies. We all live on the same planet, and we all learn the same lessons, some more important than others.

Halloween (1978) – Analysis

Halloween is the godfather to all modern slasher flicks, specifically the ones in which a group of teenagers fall victim to a weapon-wielding psychopath who hacks and slashes his way through them. The teenagers who have sex die, and the one’s who don’t live. That’s the formula, and John Carpenter concocted it all with the release of Halloween. Though many have attempted to recreate the magic, only a select few have reached the heights that Halloween has through both visuals and sensibility. The movie begins with one of the most spellbinding scores I can think of in cinema, and it pierces you right to the bone. The stabs of synth and piano are hinting at so much, and in combination with the first shots of Michael Myers, our antagonist, the tone of the movie is set right from the beginning. Although the movie may lead you to believe that the film is going to be through Michael’s eyes, since that is how it is depicted at first with a single take from the six-year-olds point of view, the movie that will take place is vehemently opposite. Showcasing a technique that has become a staple of the horror genre, Carpenter structures shots from behind objects, only to reveal what is unseen beyond that object by moving the camera. This is first seen when we see Michael’s home, the first of many reveals.

            Although the movie begins with Michael’s escapades of murdering his family, coincidentally on the night of Halloween, the focus of the story shifts to Laurie Strode, and instead of falling into the ditch where most other slashers reside, Halloween makes a name for itself by focusing on the psychology of our protagonist, Laurie. Laurie lives in the same location as Michael Myers’ family’s murders, some 15 years later after the fact. On Halloween, she has to babysit whilst her friends are trying to scheme and come up with ways to meet with their boyfriends. This is opposite of our protagonist, as she seems to be withholding those impulses, though it is known she does have a crush on one of her classmates. Jamie Lee Curtis, or Laurie, seems to have skipped the entire phase of teenage rebellion, and gone straight to the maternal and more logical qualities that we see with maturity, or perhaps with anxiety. With that in mind, it makes the actual murders and sexual punishments of Michael’s much less significant when comparing them to the overarching themes that are Laurie’s anxious nightmares, embodied by Michael’s doings. It is important to note that we do get more background on Michael, specifically from his doctor or psychiatrist, but the devices used to convey these messages are unnatural and forced, and the film may as well lose them all together. I believe it is a much more interesting story to visualize Michael as the personification of what Laurie fears most, and that’s the anxiety and struggles that come with being a stereotypical teenager.

            This works well with how Michael is perceived in the movie, thanks to Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey. Michael is merely a conjectural or imaginary presence in a very real world. Once Michael begins stalking Laurie, some scenes point to this theory, such as him standing outside in the middle of the day wearing his infamous mask and boiler suit. It gives the impression that maybe only Laurie can see him, or if not, does not care whether or not others can see him at all. Its also important to note his resilience to pain and his magical ability to disappear almost as soon as he appeared. With credence to the aforementioned theories, I think it’s important to discuss the ending of the film, which can seem almost embarrassing. Several times we see Michael attempt to stab or slice Laurie and miss completely; Laurie also throws her knife away before making sure Michael is dead and even turns her back on him several times. I think it’s unrealistic to think that Carpenter has suddenly lost his affection for the “blocking shots” used in the beginning of the film for the third act. Perhaps this is intentional, allowing us to see everything going on because what we are seeing may in fact be taking place internally. After all, the film does end with Michael disappearing yet again, allowing us to fight our demons, win sometimes, but inevitably, have to face them again sometime down the road.

Super Fly (1972) – Analysis

As opposed to what you may believe, Super Fly has an enormous amount of emotional tone and political nuance. When normally discussed, moviegoers seem to focus on the cars, clothes, and drugs depicted within the film, but the film has much more to offer than the decorative full-length jackets that lead star Ron O’Neal is depicted in. Super Fly, in a way, depicts the tragedies and despair that hold a person inside a societal prison, where their criminal initiatives are just another form of enslavement. If these qualities were lost in blaxploitation films made down the line, that’s not at fault of this film. Gordon Parks Jr., son of Gordon Parks, who directed Shaft a year prior, may put on a charade that this movie is donning a colorful and pleasurable story, but the truth is, the story that we follow is much more grief-stricken. Just like the soundtrack, composed by legendary soul singer Curtis Mayfield, Super Fly and “Pusherman” share one thing in common, being that “there is no happiness”.

The same chord as “Pusherman” is struck with our lead, Priest, a New York City cocaine dealer with a lot on his shoulders and a lot in his pockets. While not necessarily guilt, the thing on our main character’s mind is what money can’t buy him, and that’s his independence and freedom from the drug trade.  He even speaks to someone, in one of the films many reflective dialogues, where he states he just “wants to be free”. Our character is driven by relentless frustration, and even though he has many sexual feats and masculine overtones, he seems to be distressed and uses the drugs he sells in order to garner confidence from within. The movie begins with Priest running down some people who have mugged him, and sets the stage for the rest of the film. Despite all his accomplishments and material success, whether moral or not, Priest is a man struggling to live in a world he is seemingly thriving in.

When looking at the actual techniques and shots of the film Super Fly, scenes can vary from the outright shoddy and amateur to exciting and nerve-wracking. With that in mind, there are some pitfalls to the film, but they don’t usually last long enough to draw away from the overall film. A particular instance of this, is the cringe worthy bathtub sex scene, which thankfully and most likely purposefully, cuts to a violent street brawl. The movie’s piece de resistance would be the still-photo montage in which we see the process that the cocaine in the city goes through. From purchasing to packaging to sale, we see the drugs move throughout the ghetto of the city, while also making it’s way to the polar opposite side of town filled with upper-class clientele, who seem to be Priest’s main customer base.

Though the film, at times, seems to depict this life as deadly and decrepit, Super Fly does not lose it’s footing and doesn’t exactly represent a rigorous tale of morality and fatality. The movie transcends such matters, for the events that occur in the film are not just the problems of our main protagonist, but also overarching problems for society, specifically those systematically oppressed, at large. It’s a rotten game, but it’s the only one that man has left them to play. Nonetheless, Priest still attempts to complexly craft an exit out of the business, and though this plan involves selling copious amounts of drugs to do so, I think it contributes to the message we have been seeing throughout the film. This is an environment conducive to crime, and the only way out is to play along. Our protagonist’s decision to leave this life is world shattering and in doing so makes Super Fly a battle cry for rebelliousness and insubordination. The fact that the movie is entertaining and visually entertaining is just a plus.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) – Analysis

The Night of the Hunter is a manic fever dream, and that’s actually what makes the film so interesting. Weird and demented, it is almost hard to believe that the film was released in the 1950’s. With that in mind, it’s even harder to believe that this was British actor Charles Laughton’s first and only directorial film. The plot of the film focuses on a ‘false prophet’ who is, simultaneously, a religious man and a serial killer. At the beginning of the movie, with a trail of dead women in his wake, he puts his sights on a grieving widow and her two children after learning that the former ‘man of the house’ stashed $10,000 somewhere before his passing. Harry Powell, the killer, is willing to find this money by any means necessary. Powell is terrifying for a good chunk of the film, as we are only able to see his silhouette some of the times he is present, most notably on the widow’s children’s bedroom wall. Even as he charms those he comes in contact with, we still get the feeling of for his smarminess. The dominating aesthetic of the movie would have to reside in surrealism. When looking at the structure of the film though, it is definitely less cohesive. The Night of the Hunter seems a bit haphazard with technique, almost as though the director knew he would only make one film and decided to throw all his eggs in one basket.

            The film begins with a bizarre shot in itself, one of hovering disembodied heads tittering against a dark starry backdrop. Followed by aerial footage of the town here the film takes place, and lifelike location exteriors, we see many camera tricks from Laughton’s cinematographer, Stanley Cortez. The more notable tricks being those that showed Powell’s memories of a dancer through what seems to be a keyhole, that, and when Powell confronts the children through the front door of their home and the iris shot reveals them to be watching through the cellar window. This embodies the surrealism that takes hold of most of the tone and atmosphere of the film. Interior scenes, sharp and dramatic, seem almost horror like and almost evoke a sense of fear, whilst the scene where the children escape Powell by river seems to evoke a sense of fantasy and fairy tale due to the backgrounds and stage-like sets. All of these things are purposeful it seems, to instill somewhat of an hazy and impressionistic view upon the viewer. The movies star spectacle though, would have to be the ghastly shot of one of Powell’s victims, tied to the bottom of a car in the belly of the river. This scene is almost humorous, in that we see the victim’s hair, floating like the seaweed in concurrence with a fisherman’s hook floating nearby.

            Scenes like these are what make the film. Whether implemented by Cortez or Laughton, it’s hard to deny the talent that the film puts on display. Especially since the film itself doesn’t need visual cues such as these to reinforce the horror and thrill of what is happening on screen. The third act of the film, takes a sort of turn. The act focuses primarily upon the older Lillian Gish, who supports and takes care of ’exiled’ children. Those children include John and Pearl, the widow’s children, who come to her when their boat comes to break on her shore. Lillian is an actual woman of faith, and not the distorted and chauvinistic kind that Powell displays in the film. This is most particularly apparent when the two opposing forces perform an opposed duet to the tune of “Leaning on Everlasting Arms.” If you want to simplify it even further, Powell is evil, or hate, and Gish is love, or good. The Night of the Hunter uses these strengths as a vehicle to carry the philosophical message of the film, and does so excellently.

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