Based on the short story, "Eight O'clock In The Morning", by Ray Nelson, They Live is a blend of sci-fi, action and horror that tells the tale of a drifter (played by Roddy Piper, the character is never named in the film, but listed as Nada in the end credits, ) who arrives in a city and just wants to get himself a job and then some money in his pocket. He ends up working on a building site with Frank (Keith David) and Frank then shows him a place where he can get a meal and rest his head at night. Times are hard for a lot of people so the kindness is much appreciated. While things start to look up for our lead character it's not long until a complication arises in the form of a pair of sunglasses. Not just any sunglasses. These sunglasses are made from a special material that allows anyone wearing them to see the awful truth. Humans are being kept docile and compliant by an alien race. They use subliminal messages to keep people in their place and the only way to get things back to normal is to find out where the main signal originates from and destroy the source. Thankfully for the human race, our hero is willing to give it a go, but not without some help from a woman named Holly (Meg Foster) and, of course, Frank.
As well as directing and adapting the story for the screen, John Carpenter also supplies another cracking synth score (this time with the help of Alan Howarth) and once again shows how to make the most of every dollar of a film budget. I'm not saying that the movie looks like a blockbuster, or that it's even perfect, but the visuals do a fine job of showing what needs to be shown and giving a sense of the all-encompassing nature of the alien infiltration, thanks to some canny work from the art department and special effects team.
Ex-wrestler 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper does a solid job in the main role. He's not going to get any Shakespearean roles, but he's able to convincingly chew bubblegum and/or kick ass. Keith David is always great and in this movie . . . . . . he's great. Meg Foster has one of the more thankless roles, but she makes quite an impression and holds her own in amongst all the testosterone. Speaking of testosterone, this is the film that has a brawl between Piper and David that seems to go on for half the movie. It starts off as good fun, then gets boring, then gets into thorough overkill territory and then keeps going for so much longer that it becomes good fun again.
As relevant today as it was back in the late '80s, They Live is a film that will always resonate with those who despair at the ever-increasing gap between the poorest sections of society and the richest. The fact that it has supporting turns from Peter Jason, George 'Buck' Flower and Raymond St. Jaques (who may not be as instantly recognisable as the other two, but who gives a great performance) and one of the greatest one-liners in sci-fi horror history just adds to its ability to hit the sweet spot for genre fans.