Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Robert Prosky, Harry Dean Stanton
Screenplay: Bill Phillips
110 mins. Rated R.
I’m not sure how many times I can say it, but here I go again. I love John Carpenter (The Thing, Halloween). He’s my favorite horror director. Also, I love Stephen King. He’s my favorite writer. Naturally, when I realized at a young age that John Carpenter had directed an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, I lost my fragile little mind. Then, I rode my bike to the video store to rent a copy. Let’s talk about this incredibly strange movie about a killer car and its love of a human.
Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon, All That Jazz, Dressed to Kill) is a loser. It’s his senior year, and his best friend, jock Dennis (John Stockwell, Top Gun, Eddie and the Cruisers) is doing his best to protect him from bullies like Buddy Repperton. Arnie needs something to give his life meaning, and when he comes across a 1958 Plymouth Fury that seems to call out to him. Arnie buys the beat-up bucket of bolts and begins fixing it up, seeing it as the first thing in his life that is uglier than he us, but at least he can do something about the car, which he names Christine. With Christine, Arnie finds a newfound confidence, but something isn’t right with the Plymouth, or Arnie. Dennis begins to see his friend change before him, and Arnie’s enemies are being picked off one-by-one. Christine loves her owner, perhaps a little too much.
The film adaptation was being prepped before the book was officially published. Producers had given a copy of the novel to Bill Phillips (Physical Evidence, Fire With Fire), who found himself taken by the “killer car” story and began working on the script. Carpenter had been working on a possible adaptation of another King novel, Firestarter, and when that didn’t work out, he took on Christine. Later in his career, Carpenter admitted that he didn’t really want to make Christine at the time, but it was good for his career, and I think that showcases how great of a filmmaker Carpenter is. If he doesn’t love the idea of making this movie but still churns out a top quality product like Christine, it’s a testament to his abilities.
Christine is amazing. I identified with Arnie’s struggles (I was never really as unpopular as he was, but I think a lot of us deal with confidence issues in high school). He’s obviously suffering with his place in the world. He doesn’t have a particularly strong relationship with his parents, he’s lonely, he needs direction, and Christine offers him some. His transformation is very much like possession or drug addiction in that the power he gains from his interactions with the car make him vengeful against all those that have wronged him in life. In fact, you can see that Arnie’s clothing choices regress to an older time period as his entanglement with Christine intensifies. It’s a great transformative performance that doesn’t get the love it deserves.
Without the chemistry between Gordon’s Arnie and Stockwell’s Dennis, though, the film wouldn’t work. These are two characters who have been lifelong friends now getting to a place where they are going in different directions in life, one a geek and the other a jock. Their commonalities are dwindling, and it’s a tough thing to accurately portray. These two do a tremendous job of reaching across that divide. Stockwell doesn’t get a ton to do early on in the film but watch and take note of Arnie’s changes, but he’s effective when he needs to be, and elements of his strain with Arnie broke my damn heart.
The other important character in the film is, of course, Christine herself. Now, the car doesn’t talk, and it doesn’t send out evil brain waves or mind control or anything that silly, but it’s still a killer car movie, so care needs to be given to make the car seem frightening. I think the screenplay in the very capable hands of an auteur like Carpenter works very well here. Through the use of older music and a very physically restrained performance where the Fury is given screen time to actually exist without just being a mindless murder device is why Christine is probably the best killer car movie, even compared to other King adaptations like Maximum Overdrive or Trucks. The car is convincing and scary. There, I said it.
Lastly, when you get a Carpenter direction, you almost always get a Carpenter score. Now, this time around the director worked with Alan Howarth on crafting the haunting bells of Christine, but I still vividly remember the score staying with me after each viewing (I’ve also seen this score performed live and it is breathtaking). The music has moments of sadness and longing on the part of Arnie, and a haunting synth predatory flavor when Christine is on the prowl. It’s a terrific score, one of Carpenter’s best.
Christine gets overlooked a lot in the oeuvre of Carpenter’s best films, and it’s too bad. It’s an effective horror movie that translates King’s lengthy novel quite well, saving the meat and cutting the fat where needed. Christine is aided by two standout leading performances and a creepy car prop that pops onscreen (seriously, who is Christine’s agent?). It’s tough to pick favorites for Carpenter when he’s done so many single films that many go to Halloween, The Thing, or Escape from New York, but Christine deserves to be in the conversation, if only for the tremendous feat of making a murder car work so damn well, and conveying that murder car’s emotion. Bravo.
-Kyle A. Goethe
- For my review of John Carpenter’s Halloween, click here.
- For my review of John Carpenter’s The Fog, click here.
- For my review of John Carpenter’s The Thing, click here.
- For my review of John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper’s Body Bags, click here.
- For my review of John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, click here.
- For my review of John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned, click here.