CULT CORNER: Christine (1983)

John Carpenter makes the most of one of the lesser Stephen King titles in this killer car opus.

Who made it?: John Carpenter (Director), Bill Phillips (Writer), Richard Kobritz, Larry J. Franco (Producers), Columbia Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Robert Prosky, Harry Dean Stanton, Roberts Blossom.

Tagline: “Body by Plymouth. Soul by Satan.”

IMDb rating: 6.5/10.

Christine is silly.

We should make that clear from the off. I don’t think anyone would consider Stephen King’s 1983 novel to be an unheralded classic, especially when the film adaptation landed in the same year! This rather peculiar tale of one man’s love for a possessed automobile is so ridiculous that it shouldn’t work at all, but then King’s genius is the ability to make high concept dross “terrifying.” It also prefigures the post-Millennial car worship that has seen the likes of Top Gear and The Fast and the Furious become media staples. Christine has some charms that I’m only recently beginning to appreciate. You could say this is anti-car porn.

The blood trails begin in 1957 Detroit, where a brand spankin’ new Plymouth Fury rolls off the production line. In a twist on King’s original source material, the vehicle isn’t possessed by the spirit of a previous owner but is birthed into a malevolent killer from the get-go. One of the workers even dies mysteriously in the front seat before it even has a chance to hit the tarmac.

Over twenty years later, the former red and white beauty falls into the hands of troubled teenager Arnold “Arnie” Cunningham (Keith Gordon), who buys the now-faded Plymouth for $250 from old hermit George LeBay (Roberts Blossom). This is against the pleading of his friend, popular jock Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell), who watches as Arnie becomes increasingly fascinated with his new set of wheels. He even dubs the car “Christine,” who is soon restored to full splendour in the garage of crusty owner Will Darnell (Robert Prosky). With his new babe magnet at the ready, Arnie becomes more confident and lands the prettiest girl in school, Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul). But something is seriously wrong with Christine, and when bully Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander) and his gang set their sights on Arnie’s most prized possession, Christine will do anything to please her man…

Lauded director John Carpenter’s adaptation of Christine, like the book, isn’t scary at all and many will laugh along with its gallows humour, but damn if it doesn’t make a ludicrous premise enjoyable. We get the impression that Carpenter is very much in on the joke, even though the material is treated somewhat seriously. It should be taken first and foremost as a character study, and there’s some real pathos to be found in the pitiful Arnie; an archetypal nebbish with huge glasses who is hopelessly dependant on his ride for social status. He’s almost like a male spin on King’s Carrie White, complete with overprotective parents and problems with bullies. The clever twist here is that everyone around him is right. It isn’t hard to sympathise with Arnie, and the real pain comes from the way Christine slowly turns him into a monster. Seriously, he spends more time with the car than he does with Leigh, and we get the impression that Carpenter is more interested in this strange screen love affair than the main hook of a sadistic car mowing people down. It gives this particular film a singular energy.

The cast are our way into the bonkers proceedings and commit 100% to the material. Gordon is ideally-suited to the geeky Arnie, and he maps the character’s gradual development from put-upon nerd to unwitting killer as well as can be expected. He also shines against Stockwell, who plays a jock against type as a good-natured hero and the one true person we can root for. Their friendship wields some unexpected scenes of real drama, especially when Dennis is forced to turn on his long-time pal. But the young stars are naturally overshadowed by the veterans, with the great Harry Dean Stanton doing a lot with very little as a detective, and Prosky outright stealing the show as Darnell. He’s foul-mouthed, ill-tempered, and absolutely a walking corpse just waiting for his moment with relish. The fine ensemble makes a batshit synopsis almost credible.

As for Carpenter, he was a natural at this point in his career, having already directed Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape from New York and The Thing. Christine isn’t as impressive as any of those efforts but is nevertheless a beautifully-made movie. There are a few memorable sequences including the one where Christine tries to suffocate poor Leigh at a drive-in doused by pounding rain, or when the car, having been destroyed by Buddy and his miscreants, rebuilds itself before Arnie’s eyes. Though it’s obvious how the latter effect was achieved, it is still a moment pulled off with real cinematic craftsmanship. Christine is an unremarkable effort in the broad strokes but it absolutely goes for broke with its premise, pulling off scene after scene without making you guffaw at the ridiculousness of it all. That’s really something.

Over three decades later, Carpenter’s adaptation remains surprisingly watchable, and there’s little doubt that it does Stephen King’s work justice. You shouldn’t speed out to see it, but in the pile of King adaptations, it sits comfortably in the middle-ground between great and “What the fuck did I just watch?” If you want something different to old slashers next Halloween, you could do worse than give Christine a spin…

Best Scene

Admit it, every man wants a car like Christine…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Stephen King’s popularity was such at the time that the film went into production before the book was even published.
  • The license plate of Christine reads begins with “CQB” which is an acronym for “Close Quarters Battle.”
  • According to screenwriter Bill Phillips on the DVD Documentary, the movie technically didn’t have enough violence to justify an R-rating. But they were afraid that if the movie went out with a PG rating (PG-13 didn’t exist yet) nobody would go to see it. So he purposely inserted the word “fuck” and its derivatives in order to get the R-rating. He then recalls that they were criticized at the time for their use of the word.
  • To simulate the car regenerating itself, hydraulic pumps were installed on the inside of some of the film’s numerous Plymouth Fury “stunt doubles”, a mock-up in plastic that looked more like metal on camera than actual metal as it bent and deformed. These pumps were attached to cables, which were in turn attached to the cars’ bodywork and when they compressed, they would “suck” the panelling inwards. Footage of the inward crumpling body was then reversed, giving the appearance of the car spontaneously retaking form.
  • King suffered a near fatal car collision in 1999. In an example of life imitating art, King hoped to bash the van with a baseball bat or a pickaxe once he healed. Unfortunately, his lawyer had bought the van and sent it to be demolished before he got the chance to do this.

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Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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