They Live (1988)

Unemployed builder Nada (professional wrestling legend Roddy Piper) goes to LA looking for work and ends up staying in a shanty town where he begins to suspect that something Just Isn’t Right.  There’s a weird preacher, television hackers and Strange Goings On at the local church before things take a sinister turn when The Man raids the shanty town, leaving it in ruins.  Nada makes off with a box of contraband, finding that it’s full of gnarly looking sunglasses.  Then he puts a pair on and the film goes mental with ensuing skull-faced aliens, epic fisticuffs, a heavy dose of satire and Meg Foster out of Cagney and Lacey.

Although They Live features one of John Carpenter’s least effective self-composed (with Alan Howarth) scores, his direction remains masterful.  The film is first and foremost a science fiction thriller but serves just as effectively as action movie and satire. Carpenter’s patented nods to other filmmakers are in full effect here too, with a ’50s B-movie vibe to the sci-fi elements and a fight scene which pays tribute to the epic punch-up between John Wayne and Victor McLaglin (also an ex-wrestler) in John Ford’s The Quiet Man.  Interestingly, the VHS’ 4:3 cropping seems to have done no harm.  The framing looks fine for most of the movie including the action scenes, so it seems likely Carpenter was working with the two aspect ratios in mind.  Of course, it does looks great in widescreen too.

That fight, between Piper and Keith David, is a classic – one of the great onscreen brawls and not a stunt double in sight.  A straight five minutes of wince-inducing punishment via old school brawling and some pro wrestling moves (stunt coordinator Jeff Imada would go on to handle the celebrated fight choreography for the second two Bourne movies), it’s made all the more enjoyable by the ridiculousness of the situation; the fight is all over a pair of sunglasses.    

The sunglasses are the McGuffin which leads us squarely into satire-heavy sci-fi territory, setting the pace for the rest of the film.  If you haven’t seen the movie, skip this paragraph as it’s entirely spoilery.  The glasses in question have been developed by a rebel underground to expose a surreptitious alien invasion of Earth.  Put the shades on and you can see not only the real, skull-like faces of the aliens among us, but the true nature of the society they have built and influenced.  Consumer advertising reads: “OBEY”, “STAY ASLEEP”, “CONFORM” and “NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT”.  Paper money bears only the legend “THIS IS YOUR GOD”.  The truth is exposed in monochrome (as in “it’s all right there in black and white”).  It’s all kind of brilliant.

I was prompted to revisit this one after Roddy Piper’s death last month at the way-too-young age of 61. Here, at the height of his wrestling career, he turns in a solid, likeable performance which should have seen him go on to actual movie stardom, although he did amass quite a catalogue of B-movie credits over the years.  He even improvised the film’s most quotable line: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass.  And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

They Live was a modest, low budget box office success on its release.  Given its premise it seems inevitable that it would go on to develop a strong cult reputation – and not just in the world of film fans.  A cursory YouTube search will show that conspiracy theorists and such-like – David Icke amongst them – have long adopted it as proof of a reptile illuminati alien shadow government, or whatever.  In any case, They Live is one of John Carpenter’s best, and I don’t say that lightly.

TAPES FOR MY VCR THEY LIVE

Big box ex-rental, online purchase @ £3.00.

TAPES FOR MY VCR THEY LIVE ALT COVER

Feel that ’80s marketing! Flip the cover for an alternative version, to suit the schlock-levels of your video store.

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AC/DC: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976)

I’m pretty certain that every vinyl collection, no matter how modest, contains at least one copy of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. I know mine does – at least I know now, after noticing it last night. Unnecessary cassette purchase number 33 and-a-third, then. Oh well; as good an excuse as any to revisit a classic.  The tape is another with a rejigged running order and it seems odd on first listen that it doesn’t kick off with the mighty Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap itself (instead it’s the big finish). However, there are various versions of the album with differing tracks on other formats anyway, so it’s pointless being precious about the sequencing. Clearly the band wasn’t. Regardless, it all adds up to nine tracks with exactly the right kind of no-nonsense production.

AC/DC, during the Bon Scott years, was the perfect rock band. Pure rock and roll, unadulterated and uncompromising. The rhythm section was gnat’s-chuff tight and, in Angus Young, they had one of the great firebrands of lead guitar. As if that wasn’t enough, the lyrics, delivered in Scott’s demented schoolboy snarl, were often several cuts above average. The Chuck Berry archetype of storytelling on a girls-and-cars template viewed through a dissipated alcohol-fuelled haze.

Most of the songs here are classics in their own right. Squealer is gleefully mean-spirited, Ain’t No Fun Hangin’ Round to be a Millionaire lives up to the promise of its title, Rocker is a manic 12-bar gem and Problem Child is what I believe the young people nowadays would call “awesome”. The closest thing the album has to filler is There’s Gonna Be Some Rockin’, and I could handle a whole album of that. The only sour note struck is on Love at First Feel, its amorality writ large. Another great song title to be sure, but nearly forty years on in a post Operation Yewtree world, it’s hard not to wince at lines like “I didn’t know if you were legal tender but I spent you just the same”.

There are a couple of atypical standouts. Mellow blues Ride On is a surprisingly melancholy exercise in self-reflection (“Got another empty bottle/ And another empty bed/ Ain’t too young to admit it and I’m not too old to lie/ I’m just another empty head”). In contrast, wilful puerility and double entendres are the order of the day for Big Balls: “Some balls are held for charity and some for fancy dress/ But when they’re held for pleasure they’re the balls that I like best/ My balls are always bouncing to the left and to the right/ It’s my belief that my big balls should be held every night”. The fact that Frankie Howerd never covered that one still rankles with me. Life is often unjust.

Tapes For My Walkman Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap AC/DC

So. Classic album. Original tape, paper labels and all that, plays perfectly. £2 off the internet. Can’t complain.

Aftermath (1982)

A couple of astronauts return to Earth only to find they’ve missed the apocalypse.  Wandering the ruins of L.A., they encounter mutant-zombie things, a kindly museum curator, hot hippie chicks, a wee boy, radioactive storms and a crazed gang of murderous rapists.  Along the way, they somehow knock up a handy laser cannon out of spare parts.

Seemingly a vanity project by Steve Barkett (star, writer, director, producer, film editor), Aftermath is also a family affair, with several additional Barketts credited.  A low budget indie production, it’s nothing if not ambitious.  Shot when affordable digital technology was still decades off, here the film stock, impressive designs and use of glass/matte-painting add up to a visually more pleasing confection than the kind of thing regularly offered up today by the likes of the SyFy channel for the DTV/VOD markets.

Another plus point is the enthusiastic stunt work, firmly rooted in the school of “why walk when you can do a forward roll?”.  In this age of gym-bred bodybuilding protagonists, Barkett himself is perhaps a little unimposing, more like Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation than any other of today’s pop culture he-men.  He nonetheless proves capable in action scenes and appears to be doing most of his own stunts, leaving pretty much no element of any set or location unclimbed or un-jumped over by the end titles.  In one scene he is skipping between buildings at a fair old height just because, well, why not?  There’s a hint of the spirit of the silent movie era about it all, with stars risking life and limb for The Shot. 

Aftermath (also known, misleadingly, as Zombie Aftermath) draws liberally from the post-apocalyptic, dystopian sci-fi movies of the ’70s.  As it was reportedly shot in 1978, Aftermath actually predates the release of Mad Max but there are certainly echoes of Planet of the Apes, Logan’s RunThe Omega Man, A Boy and His Dog and Damnation Alley.  In the end, the vibe is actually more like an extended and unusually violent episode of The Twilight Zone.  That helps to lift the whole project, along with an orchestral score that sounds like it could have come straight from an old Flash Gordon serial and some canny B-movie casting.  Roger Corman veteran Dick Miller lends his voice as a broadcaster, while legendary science fiction superfan, B-actor and originator of the term “sci-fi” Forrest J. Ackerman is onboard as the museum curator.  Perennial TV heavy-of-the-week Sid Haig, who would go on to B-movie immortality as Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devils Rejects, makes a great OTT villain.

This is exactly the kind of movie I want to stumble across.  I’d never heard of it when I saw a copy of the original UK VHS on eBay.  It was the box art that initially drew me in, spread out across the insert like a gatefold album, highlighting the film’s matte painting design.  Sure, the film itself displays many of the flaws you’d expect from a low-budget sci-fi/horror release – stilted dialogue, acting performances that vary wildly in quality, awkward pacing, sound issues, unintended humour.  All present and correct.  It’s got something, though. 

What I appreciate most about low budget independent filmmaking is the way that creative solutions are needed to realise creative ideas, something largely absent from a franchise-focussed modern mainstream industry built around tent-pole releases, where exploding spaceships and collapsing skyscrapers are an expensively rubber-stamped keystroke away. The enthusiasm, commitment and sheer determination that must have been involved in Aftermath‘s production shine through.  I used the term “vanity project” earlier, but I suspect “passion project” would be closer to the mark.

tapesformyvcr - Aftermath

Original UK big box ex-rental, about £9 online.