Written by: Stephen King (novel), Bill Phillips (screenplay)
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, and Alexandra Paul
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You know, when someone believes in you, man, you can do anything, any fucking thing in the entire universe. And when you believe right back in that someone, then watch out world, because nobody can stop you then, nobody! Ever!"
Stephen King’s work sometimes finds horrors in the latent darkness of childhood: consider how works like It and “The Body” take what should be an idyllic, fondly remembered time in one’s life and twist it into a nightmarish realization about the terrors that lurk in the world, just waiting to swallow your wide-eyed idealism. That stark contrast is both achingly potent and poignant, bent out of King’s impulse to undercut rose-tinted nostalgia by imagining the world childhood nightmares imaginable. In Christine, that impulse is channeled towards the teenage years, a time that’s admittedly more ripe for horror, what with all the physical and emotional changes it entails. Amidst the epic sprawl of King’s novel is a teenage dream turned into a nightmare, as it twists adolescent touchstones of first love and cars into a bleak embellishment of wasted youth. When tasked with adapting King’s novel, John Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Phillips primarily retained this essential preoccupation, in the process crafting something of a counterpoint to nostalgia-tinted teen movies.
That approach is obvious immediately, as Christine opens on the blown-out, sepia-tinted 50s car factory, where an assortment of Plymouth Furies roll through the assembly line. Carpenter’s lens—accompanied by the crunching strains of “Bad to the Bone”—gazes upon a particularly eye-catching scarlet red variation, with sex and rock-and-roll practically lingering throughout the frame. When an unsuspecting worker has his hands slammed into the hood, it seems innocuous enough; however, the mysterious death of another worker who collapses inside the car just minutes later is downright troubling. Within minutes, Carpenter upends the alluring nostalgia of this scene, planting the seeds of something sinister that will infect the entire film.
Cut to a couple of decades later, specifically to 1978 Southern California, and those seeds have taken root, as that same car—now a dilapidated, ramshackle antique—is collecting rust in an old codger’s (Roberts Blossom) yard. Despite her condition, however, the car—now christened Christine, according to the old man—catches the eye of Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon), a nerdy high school senior who manages to get into an altercation with bullies on the first day of school. In Christine, though, he sees the promise of a better self, and his attraction to the car is almost preternatural. After buying it right there on the spot, Arnie becomes obsessed with the car, dedicating all of his time after school to toiling away in a local garage to fix her up. When his friends and family become concerned (especially after learning of the car’s grisly history), Arnie simply burrows deeper into his obsession, practically becoming a different person along the way.
Therein rests the true existential horror at the heart of Christine. Yes, it’s a movie about a sentient car that becomes homicidally jealous and protective of its owner, but Carpenter mutes the schlock impulses inherent in the premise, choosing instead to focus on Arnie’s transformation from hapless dweeb to brooding obsessive. The typical “zero-to-hero” arc from teen movies is thoroughly twisted here, with Arnie essentially feeling like a darker riff on Charles Martin Smith’s Toad from American Graffiti. Just like that character (if not most teenagers), Arnie senses the transformative power of a car, that ultimate status symbol capable of working wonders for one’s social life. Why should Arnie’s case be any different?
Well, in most cases, said automobile isn’t a supernatural killer capable of warping teenage infatuation into an unhealthy, almost preternatural mania. Her introduction says all you need to know about Christine: she’s simply born bad to the bone, having already victimized her previous owner by killing his entire family, a vicious act that still wasn’t enough to let her go. Where King’s novel provides a bit more insight to her history (it’s revealed she’s haunted by the former owner’s spirit), here she’s rendered an inexplicable evil that picks out unfortunate souls, returning their infatuation with her own strain of supernatural possessiveness. Christine is impossibly bursting with personality, mostly through her wry use of the radio to convey her thoughts, which gives these classic rock and doo-wop teenage standards a sinister tenor. The same sort of music that once memorialized a golden era in American Graffiti become anthems of doomed youth once Christine begins to assert herself on Arnie.
Truthfully, the only thing that sounds more absurd than a killer car is a relationship developing between said car and a teenage boy. Nonetheless, Christine feels like a completely authentic portrait of a teenage love affair destined to go out in a blaze of hormonal glory. Gordon delivers a stunning turn as poor Arnie, a soul born to be damned one way or the other, be it by his own awkwardness or a supernatural intrusion like Christine. He’s the epitome of someone who can’t win for losing: when we meet him, he’s the portrait of ineffectual teenage angst, full of pent-up rage at his lot in life. Sure, he’s a nice guy, but he’s a complete afterthought since he’s not as handsome as jock buddy Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell). Certainly, he’ll never get any girl, let alone Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul), the new girl turning everyone’s heads in the hallway.
But a strange thing happens, seemingly overnight: suddenly, there’s Arnie rolling up to a football game with a cool confidence, all but making out with Leigh on Christine’s hood. His new look still seems unnatural, like an ill-fitting suit, and it doesn’t take long for his insecurities to rear their head when Leigh and Dennis begin to question his unnatural devotion to Christine. They insist she’s just a car, but they simply don’t get it, and that insular mentality rings so authentic to anyone who remembers the pangs of adolescence.
It’s crucial in establishing the bizarre relationship that forms between Arnie and Christine: Gordon plunges headlong into this boy’s feverish headspace, completely losing himself in a fetishized car that reciprocates with unyielding devotion. A scene where Christine is totaled by Arnie’s school bullies is a heartbreaking moment, but also one that makes you realize just how invested and believable this bond is. By the time Christine reveals her supernatural restorative abilities, it has the feeling of a chilling consummation of an unhealthy relationship built on objectification and jealousy (which describes 99% of high school relationships if we’re being real).
When Carpenter dispatches Christine to deliver the horror goods expected of him, it’s of a decidedly different sort from his previous efforts, particularly Halloween. Where Michael Myers cuts a pierce, stark presence with his chalk-white mask, Christine feels more ethereal, her headlights casting a wraithlike glow. Likewise, Carpenter and co-composer Alan Howarth’s score here floats ephemerally, standing in sharp relief to the ever-present clanking in Halloween. If the night he came home is a lucid suburban nightmare, then Christine is a hazy, half-remembered dream, full of unreal images of a fiery Plymouth Fury barreling down a pitch-black road in pursuit of a school bully. Some of Carpenter’s most indelibly phantasmagoric moments are appropriately couched in a film that feels something like falling into a bad dream.
In many ways, Christine best functions as a jumbled up, misty recollection, especially since Phillips’s script is tasked with skimming through such a mammoth novel, resulting in an odd structure and a breezy pacing that flies through several months. Some beats—particularly Arnie’s overnight transformation—feel unnatural and rushed, and Dennis’s role feels less pertinent as the film rolls along. Of course, one could argue that’s exactly the point: after all, Christine is a parable about a teenager losing himself to his own obsession, completely disregarding everyone around him in the process. Arnie Cunningham is not the same person by the end of the film, having been thoroughly twisted into a desperate soul lost in the luster of headlights and chrome. All hope his lost, his teenage dream now thoroughly dissipated in the wake of a nightmarish ordeal. “God, I hate rock and roll,” one of the survivors utters, cementing Christine’s status as a warped coming-of-age tale about putting away childish things.
The always candid Carpenter has always insisted that his heart wasn’t really in this production. Looking for a hit following the drubbing he took for The Thing, he turned towards the ever-growing King adaptation craze, making it more of a gig than a passion project, I suppose. Admittedly, it has always felt like the odd one out among Carpenter’s horror outings, as it features none of his regular cast members outside of Harry Dean Stanton, appearing here is a persistent detective investigating the bloodshed trailing in Arnie’s wake. Of course, between the signature synth and the Panavision compositions, it’s most definitely his, and serves as a reminder that even a disengaged Carpenter was still capable of churning out a masterpiece.
Certainly, he’s one of the few filmmakers to earn a possessory credit on a Stephen King adaptation: as the opening titles insist, this is John Carpenter’s Christine, and the final product leaves no room for argument.
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