Extrapolation

The Mysteries of Los Angeles; or, They Live, "Eight O'Clock in the Morning," City Mysteries, and the Apotheosis of the Mechanic Hero

Extrapolation (2014), 55, (2), 173–197.

Abstract

John Carpenter's 1988 film They Live has a well-deserved reputation for being, as Slavoj Žižek has noted, the "true neglected masterpiece of the Hollywood Left." While this reputation is primarily based on the films depiction of a working-class hero's slaughter of yuppie scum who were actually aliens attempting to take over the world, Carpenter's narrative resonates with popular American narratives championing the working class at the expense of urban professionals that were being produced long before the 1980s. This essay clarifies the historical sweep of They Live's populist assault by tracing two important antecedents of Carpenter's film: the nineteenth century's city mysteries genre and Ray Nelson's 1963 short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning." Investigating these antecedents illuminates They Live's relationship to previous fictive critiques of capitalism while at the same time demonstrating that elements of once-popular narratives have what could be considered a cultural half-life in which they are available for creative retelling, and that They Live can be profitably read as such a creative retelling.

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Decker, Mark