Horror Ideology: They Live (1988) and Society (1989)

No one can doubt that 80s nostalgia is on the rise these days, especially this year; in new ways like Stranger Things 3 and Glow, or in re-vamps like Child’s Play and period pieces like It. The weird thing about it to me is the extent to which the era is glorified, unselfconsciously and without criticism. This was an era that spawned legitimate fears, like the repression of the AIDS crisis and art censorship in the USA under Reagan and the fear of fascism in the recession-era Thatcher regime in the UK. Instead, we get loving imagery of malls and carefully-curated costumes (with oh so many scrunchies). Much like the recent zombie craze, these feel increasingly like empty exercises in visual fetishism.

If we return back to the era itself, we can see savage social criticism in horror movies and now, when we reduce things down to heavy-handed 80s visuals for laughs, we lose the sense of the times. Heck, even Chopping Mall (1986) has more of a critique. As it happens, my favourite local theatre was showing Society (1989), presented by Rue Morgue, which I had never seen and had a lot of buzz as an openly anti-capitalist piece. I first became interested when it was mentioned in passing on Red Letter Media, which basically said to go see it without any preparation.

Many squishy noises ensue.

Of course, having to convince my partner to go, I needed supporting evidence (if you want to follow RLM’s advice, however, I see no problem with that). Noted critic Mark Kermode provided this, describing it as “A cult favourite amongst the horror cognoscenti, Yuzna’s directorial debut boasted eye popping rubbery mutations courtesy of an eccentric Japanese FX whizz who went by the somewhat self-explanatory name of ‘Screaming Mad George'” (p. 92, The Good The Bad and The Multiplex). Society is, essentially an FX masterpiece which still holds up to modern scrutiny. The social commentary is obvious, the subtext Freudian, and the acting horrible. Upper classes are bad, sexy, and gross. Right out of the gate, we know that the grotesquerie of the film is real. It’s disappointing, really, because if this idea were developed slowly as a mental breakdown in the protagonist it might have been an interesting film. Nope. Instead, we see a quivering mass of copulating flesh in the opening credits. Also, it’s framed up as a comedy, with flat comedy music cues, odd editing, and bizarre performances. As a result, this is a disgusting, sometimes unintentionally funny, film that encapsulates a society ill at ease with sexuality and a culture of excess. Still, it has some memorable imagery.

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A piece of subtle symbolism in this film.

Along the same lines, we have They Live (1988), a middle-period John Carpenter film, before the 90s seemed to burn him out creatively. This film is arguably lesser-known, as compared to more-beloved blockbuster/cult features like Escape From New York (1981) or The Thing (1982). I was first exposed to this film in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012), in the form of over-explained clips. It is a testament to the film’s own charms that I sought it out to watch in full. Carpenter take a basic, paranoid we-are-secretly-being-invaded-by-aliens plot, and jazzes it up with the idea that they are intentionally poisoning our culture, and the dominant 80s culture is really theirs. There is, of course, a valiant underclass fighting them in secret. Through the rather obvious gimmick of special sunglasses, the hero sees the truth. We see gross skull monsters in high 80s fashion, selling out the Earth to invaders bent on destruction. Again, the social commentary is very much on-the-nose, but the protagonist remains iconic.

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In closing, I want you to think about how 80s nostalgia can be harmful. It de-fangs a complicated era that prized ostentatious wealth and suppressed anyone who disagreed with those in power. It was an era of fear, when the nuclear threat remained palpable and increasing censorship was repressing sexuality and dissenting voices. Both of these films imagine an external threat, and draw on the horror of inhuman bodies living off of our culture like parasites to examine the increasing divisions of class. In all of its silly 80s trappings, what does Stranger Things have to say about 80s culture OR about our culture today? I would argue that it speaks to a culture artistically bankrupt, desperate to mine the resources another time period and capitalize on nostalgia. When not making direct remakes, our most popular media is still all about an imaginary past which is reduced to visual cues and easy to laugh at. Scrunchies for everybody; we’re doomed.