Christine - King's Corner Review
Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.
On a random walk home back in the late 70's Stephen King began to think about his Ford Pinto, a car that meant a great deal to him but it is also a car he realized was on its last legs. It was the car he had bought with the hardcover advance he got for ‘Carrie’ and was pivotal in his development of ‘Cujo’ as it was the model of car Donna Trenton and her son took shelter in from the rabies ridden St. Bernard. Lamenting life without this car, an idea for a short story began to formulate in his head. The basic idea was about a car that would get younger as its odometer ran backwards. He began writing it with the intention of it being a comedy but the more he wrote the more sinister it became turning it into a dark story of love, friendship and obsession which would become ‘Christine’.
Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Robert Prosky
Written by: Bill Philips
Produced by: Richard Kobritz
Cinematography by: Donald M. Morgan
Original Score by: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
A nerdish boy buys a strange car with an evil mind of its own and his nature starts to change to reflect it.
Whilst working on the successful mini series adaptation of 'Salem's Lot' producer, Richard Kobritz developed a rapport with King to the point where King contacted Kobritz offering him the chance to adapt two unreleased manuscripts, ‘Cujo’ and ‘Christine’. According to the documentary ‘Christine: Ignition’ Kobritz opted to adapt ‘Christine’ as he was attracted to the novel's, "celebration of America's obsession with the motorcar".
Top of Kobritz's list to direct an adaptation of the novel was John Carpenter who originally couldn't do it as he was in line to direct ‘Firestarter’ but after the studio got cold feet due to the reception of ‘The Thing’ he was replaced by Mark L. Lester freeing him to take the wheel of ‘Christine’. Carpenter felt that he was a director for hire on the film as it was just a job for him rather than being a passion project but a lot of his auteur touches can be seen throughout the film.
In the documentary ‘Christine: Ignition’ Kobritz made it abundantly clear that, "the car was the star". This sentiment was also shared by Carpenter as you can see right from the opening of the film on the car assembly line. A 1958 Plymouth Fury, Christine approaches the end of the assembly line getting a once over as George Thorogood & The Destroyers ‘Bad to the Bone’ not so subtly blares over the soundtrack. There is a seductive quality to the way Carpenter shoots the car in this scene (and throughout the film) as Anna Powell in the book ‘Notes from The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror’ states, "Carpenter fetishises the car's design with slow, lingering shots of her gleaning chrome and flamboyant tail fins". This makes it clear that Christine attracts unsuspecting prey (usually men) to her before she attacks. In this scene alone she injures one man and kills another. In short she is a motorized siren calling out to a lost soul with a roar of her engine.
In the film this lost soul is none other than Arnie Cunningham (played by Keith Gordon in a role originally offered to Kevin Bacon), a shy high schooler with zero confidence and a controlling family. When we first meet him he speaks with his unlikely (and only) friend Dennis (played by John Stockwell) on the way to school about how hard it is for him to get a girlfriend (in the crudest way possible). At school he has an unsavory encounter with quintessential King bully, Buddy (played by William Ostrander that Nicolas Cage had auditioned for) who threatens him with a knife. Deflated on the drive home he spots a car wreck of something that was once beautiful, something with potential, he sees himself when he sees Christine for the first time which was writer Bill Phillips intention as he states in the documentary ‘Christine: Ignition’, "what Arnie gets from Christine is that he can make himself beautiful by making her beautiful". This quest for beauty comes at a price with the purchase coming across like a pseudo-Faustian pact.
With his purchasing of the car, Arnie starts the change as his obsession and love grows for the car. Suzie Young in the book ‘The Technique of Terror’ writes, "Christine transfigures Arnie from nervous underdog to foul-mouthed tough guy". This persona comes from alienating himself from his friends and getting into fights with his parents in pursuit of becoming closer to Christine. His transformation is physical too as he stops wearing his thick rimmed glasses,he slicks back his hair and walks around dressed like James Dean from ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ with a devil may care attitude.
This transformation is made all the more believable through Keith Gordon's fantastic leading performance. Even from the first time you see him you can see his frustrations and anxieties bubbling beneath his awkward demeanor. The more he is corrupted by Christine the more Gordon slowly releases the toxic aspects of his personality through his mannerisms, which works brilliantly. It reaches its peak when he talks to Dennis about the nature of love. Christine has him in an induced state as he stares at the road ahead with black rings under his eyes. He is under her spell as he talks about how he is empowered by her because he believed in her, by seeing something in her when she was a wreck firmly believing that, "...nobody can stop you". As Marie Mulvey-Roberts writes in ‘The Technique of Terror’, "...the borders between the animate and inanimate are broken down..." through Arnie's obsession with Christine. It pushes him past the point of no return.
In terms of the supporting cast, John Stockwell is solid in his role as Arnie's best friend Dennis whose concern for his friend is prevalent throughout. From the get go his chemistry with Gordon is clear to see and his loyalty to his friend shines through despite being in two wildly different social groups. Alexandra Paul's character as Arnie's unlikely girlfriend Leigh unfortunately feels more like a plot point than a character but she still makes the most of the role with her soft spoken and worried manner. The film also has some memorable performances from the likes of Harry Dean Stanton, Robert Prosky and Roberts Blossom whose small roles give an extra bit of heft to the drama.
After Christine's destruction at the hands of Buddy and his gang of bullies Arnie comes across her wreckage initially distraught but knowing what she is capable of these feelings turn from despair to arousal as he leers the famous line, "Show me!". This sets in motion a scene featuring some incredible practical special effects where Christine puts herself back together again. This was achieved by using hydraulic pumps inside the car that were attached to the sides of a plastic-paneled body double (which is just one of 28 versions of the car used in the film). The pumps sucked in the sides to create the damaged version of the car, and then the film was reversed to make it look like it was repairing itself.
This leads to Christine seeking revenge for herself and Arnie as she hunts down and kills each member of Buddy's gang like Michael Myers on wheels. lan Nathan in the book ‘Stephen King at the Movies’ sums this up this terrifying aspect to the car perfectly as he mentions that, "when Carpenter shoots the Fury by night, those glaring headlamps cut through the mist like the mesmerizing gaze of a serial killer." In her relentless hunt of Buddy she kills one of his friends by crashing into him in a garage causing the building to explode into flames. Christine speeds out of the flames (thanks to some stellar stunt work from Terry Leonard) with as much determination as ever to kill Buddy who has taken off on foot. As he runs away Christine stalks her prey completely oblivious to the fact she is on fire, with only murder on her mind as she leaves him as a flaming carcass in the middle of the road.
Carpenter's score (composed along with his regular collaborator Alan Howarth) is used subtly throughout but hits its peak during this scene as the monotone synth bass suggests there is no escape to a similar effect of John Williams two note structure in his main theme of ‘Jaws’. The main melody in this piece gets louder as Christine draws closer and closer to the kill before reaching its peak as she runs over Buddy.
With Arnie and Christine completely out of control, Dennis and Leigh hatch a plan to destroy Christine once and for all in a last ditch effort to save Arnie's soul. During their final confrontation Arnie dies after being flung through the windshield of Christine as she tries to run over Leigh but his devotion to her remains resolute to his final breath as he lays his hand on her grill before dying. He still believes in her even though you can see Christine's act of revenge as being somewhat of a betrayal. She tries to kill Leigh without taking into consideration Arnie's safety. In the end Dennis and Leigh destroy Christine with a bulldozer, squashing her into a cube, but the audience is teased with one last scare as the grill moves slightly keeping it in line with most horror films of the 80's.
As with a lot of King's stories, the premise for Christine is very B-Movie and feels like something you'd expect to be a feature on Joe Bob Briggs ‘The Last Drive-In’ as a Roger Corman production but what elevates it from this schlocky arena is how serious the source material is treated. The book alludes to the car being possessed by a vengeful spirit but in the film there is no real explanation as to how Christine does what she does. In that respect she is a near unstoppable killing machine like the Terminator but you buy into it thanks to the believable characters and the performances behind them, Carpenter's trademark cinematic look and shot composition and the themes of love and obsession brought which shine through Bill Phillips' script. In short it is a fine addition to the on screen adaptations of Stephen King stories and a fitting tribute to his old Ford Pinto.
- Joseph McElroy