Today’s recipe: Take the most prolific horror writer of the last hundred years or so; combine with one of the most renowned and beloved horror film directors alive. Add a pint of supernatural terror, four ounces of teen angst, and a shot of America’s love affair with the automobile. Shake well. Garnish with astute performances, sinister atmosphere, and the absolute creepiest use of 1950s pop tunes I’ve ever seen.
If you do this correctly, you’ll have John Carpenter’s 1983 film Christine, an adaptation of the book of the same name by Stephen King.
Dennis Guilder and Arnold “Arnie” Cunningham are an odd couple of high school pals; Dennis is the good-looking, popular jock, where poor Arnie is the bespectacled, skinny, picked-on nerd. The Cunninghams dote over their boy, and in a great many ways keep him down, promoting study over socialization, placing him in the cage that his fellow students poke sticks through; he considered it a major victory when they grudgingly acquiesced to his taking of mechanic courses in school along with his academic classes, but this didn’t stop the bullying and name-calling of the other students. Then one day, riding home with Dennis, Arnie spots a decrepit, rotting 1958 Plymouth Fury, sitting crookedly on an equally decrepit lawn with a crude “for sale” sign sitting on it. After talking to the really weird old fart selling the car (who informs the pair that the car has a name, “Christine“), Dennis tries his best to dissuade Arnie from dropping the asked two-hundred bucks on the heap, but Arnie will have none of it. “She can be tough“, he smiles, planning to do the restoration work himself. Of course, his folks explode at the whole idea; not only did he purchase a car without their permission, but there’s no way in hell that pile of junk is going to sit on their lawn!
Unfazed, Arnie rents out a berth in a do-it-yourself garage ran by local junk man (and all-around shady ol’ bastard) Darnell, who curses Arnie and his “unpolished turd” around his cigar stump every chance he gets. As his nerdy friend makes progress (pretty damned quick progress) on the restoration of the old car, Dennis begins to notice changes in Arnie himself; his acne seems to disappear, he no longer wears his glasses, and his general demeanor is more confident, self-assured; he even begins dating the most beautiful girl in the school, Leigh. This would ordinarily be a good thing, but this confidence is somehow mean-spirited, cocksure…even cruel, and poor Leigh bears the brunt of it; Arnie’s obsessing over Christine always comes first. As is the way of things, once Arnie accomplishes his task of restoring the vehicle, the ubiquitous band of bullies led by tough-guy Buddy Repperton add some touches of their own to Arnie’s project, mostly with sledgehammers; the car is left a broken, ruined hulk. Dennis hears about the totaled vehicle, and hopes Arnie will go back to his old self, but within days the car is pristine once again…and those boys that did the damage all turn up dead; strangely all killed in un-witnessed, unexplained vehicular accidents, with Repperton himself ran down and left burning on the highway. Since Christine is clean and perfect, police can’t connect the car to the crimes…but Dennis and Leigh finally discern the truth about the old Plymouth, and begin to work together to find a way to both save Arnie and destroy the diabolical, jealous presence that dwells within the car…
The film is essentially a tale of obsession, jealousy, and emotional possessiveness, with the addition of supernatural possession; Arnie is dominated by the malevolent spirit within the Fury, and through this domination achieves that which he never would have alone; popularity, respect…and fear; all of this comes at a price, however, Christine demanding his devotion, his love…his very soul. Carpenter’s direction is smooth and filled with his trademark style, maximizing use of building suspense and shadow to keep we the viewers off-guard. The acting performances are impressive across the board, from Keith Gordon, Alexandra Paul, and John Stockwell as Arnie, Leigh, and Dennis, through Robert Prosky as Darnell and Christine Belford as Arnie’s mom, right down to the bit parts of the teachers in school and Harry Dean Stanton as a police detective; the film is populated with convincing, relatable characters. One of my favorite aspects is yet another signature of the director: the music. Carpenter’s deft musical cues blend with the soundtrack tunes of the 1950s that resound from Christine’s radio; clever timing of certain lyrics and the haunting lilt of some songs heard in darkened silence give an edge to the film that is uniquely it’s own. Fitting Carpenter’s modus operandi, there’s no gore to speak of; the film relies on implication and your own imagination to fill in the blanks. As always, Carpenter does this quite well, although hounds may be disappointed. That said, the effects of the car repairing itself are most impressive, and the use of such commonplace things as the sound of a car horn, engine revving and the glow of a dashboard become darkly sinister in this film; the overall effect is quite spooky, if you let yourself be drawn in.
Though it may be neither the best adaptation of one of King’s works nor Carpenter’s strongest film, Christine is still an enjoyable watch; it’s a nice twist on a “haunting”, throwing in slasher-type elements, all wrapped up in the timeless tale of teen-aged angst.
Worth checking out, folks.
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