A Fuel-Injected Suicide Machine: John Carpenter’s CHRISTINE
“Let me tell you a little something about love, Dennis. It has a voracious appetite. It eats everything. Friendship. Family. It kills me how much it eats. But I'll tell you something else. You feed it right, and it can be a beautiful thing…”
There’s a moment in everyone’s adolescence when time stops and everything just makes sense. For Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon), it was when he first saw Christine – a beat up, cherry red ’58 Plymouth Fury. The car was sitting on the property of George LeBay (Roberts Blossom) – a cooky old coot who has no problem selling the hunk o’ junk to Arnie for $250. Despite protests from his only friend, Dennis (John Stockwell), Arnie makes Christine his own. It’s love at first sight; a boy ready to give himself over to a girl he never even knew could love him back.
Christine is one of the greatest cinematic Stephen King adaptations, mainly due to the fact that John Carpenter takes his bloated, booze and coke-fueled tome and makes it his own. Published in ’83, Christinewas King’s second longest novel to date (following the abridged edition of The Stand); inspired by the Ford Pinto he bought with the Doubleday hardcover advance received for Carrie (which, not coincidentally, also inspired the claustrophobic vehicular prison in Cujo). “Wouldn’t it be funny,” King recalls in his own notes, “if the little numbers on the odometer started to run backwards, and when they ran backwards the car would get younger? That would make a funny short story.”
Toss in several six-packs and eight balls later and a short story transmuted into a 526-page pulp behemoth. Unlike the editors who refused to trim the Maine horror wunderkind’s unwieldy text, Carpenter (with the aid of screenwriter Bill Phillips), streamlines the story while still keeping the essence of electric youth King’s blown out brain was getting at intact. At its core, Carpenter’s take on Christineis a shiny and chrome parable about the transformative (and highly destructive) power of first love. Only the Horror Master layers on his usual 2.35 fetishism; the camera swooning over the car’s body the same way Brian De Palma’s would around one of his beloved Hitchcock Blondes. The director makes the laborious text pop by swirling light over the exterior of an American classic until the viewer is blind with the same burning Arnie feels in his loins.
To be frank, Christine is not a scary film. For many, this instantly marks the movie as an abject horror failure. After all, how can one hold a motion picture in high regard if it doesn’t meet the most basic requirement of its own genre? However, where the movie fails to deliver the stalk n’ slash goods Carpenter made his bones on with Halloween (despite staging numerous creepy car set pieces with lens flare aplomb), it more than atones for in its portraits of teen angst and atypical body horror. The story of Arnie Cunningham is one of undeniable change, as Keith Gordon morphs the nebbish dweeb into a coiled, black-eyed, borderline maniacal presence by the picture’s end. Young lust will drive a man mad and, in turn, his haunted lover becomes his protector, seeking out those who bully the bespectacled nerd.
Keith Gordon’s early acting resume reads like a dream come true. On top of making his big screen debut in Jaws 2 (which is a pretty damn good slasher movie in its own right), Gordon not only played young Bob Fosse (excuse me, Joe Gideon) in All That Jazz, but also the fictional representation of Brian De Palma in both Home Movies and Dressed to Kill. Gordon would go on to become an avatar for the good-looking '80s outcast, portraying the ultimate cinematic representation of awkward film students: Lloyd Muldaur in The Legend of Billie Jean. Nevertheless, Carpenter gets what is arguably the best performance of Gordon’s career in Arnie Cunningham, allowing the young man to literally shed an archetype and embrace his natural handsomeness. “I don’t think Arnie is Arnie anymore,” Dennis says in the film’s final act, and he’s right. By the last reel, Gordon has completed his metamorphosis from lovesick boy into stone cold man.
Arnie’s mechanical counterpart takes on the same obsessive tendencies as its keeper. As if psychically linked to the boy, the Fury knows who the couple’s true enemies are: chief of all, Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul), the prettiest girl in school and Arnie’s new flesh suit of a human companion. Sensing it’s lover’s distance, the car traps Leigh inside of itself while the two are on a drive-in date, locking Arnie out in the rain before serenading the girl with AM Gold as she slowly begins to choke. The green radio dial glows, illuminating the interior with an ectoplasmic haze. It’s in these moments of supernatural terror that Carpenter’s movie truly comes alive as a tale of vengeful lovers. Only in Christine, the jealous woman comes complete with her own cage, ready to ensnare any who vie for the queen’s throne.
Christine is also keen to destroy Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander) and the legion of goons who terrorize Arnie. But once Carpenter’s take turns into “Michael Myers as a car,” he does well to let DP Donald Morgan (who would also shoot Starman for the director the following year) create a metallic dream plane for the movie to exist in. Yes, the “slasher” elements of Christine aren’t thrilling or chilling in any sort of visceral sense, but there’s bizarre nightmare logic at play that adds an icy, detached air to the proceedings. Reason takes a backseat (why doesn’t anybody just go inside and run upstairs where the car can’t get them?), replaced with a dismay that permeates our worst anxiety dreams. No matter how fast you run, Christine becomes the inescapable element you always dread when your head hits the pillow at night. Duck into an alley and the car will change its own shape, just so it can shimmy to the end and pin you against a brick wall. Fight back and set the vehicle on fire and it becomes a bat out of Hell, flames licking the darkness that envelops your soul. It’s some of the most beautifully surreal work in the entirety of the Carpenter oeuvre.
Perhaps the deftest move Carpenter pulls when adapting King’s work is filling the supporting roles with memorably lumpy everymen. It’s fitting that a book by an author so invested in bringing blue collar Maine to life would be acted out by the likes of Robert Prosky and Harry Dean Stanton, both of whom turn in delightfully colorful roles. Prosky is especially great as Will Darnell, namesake of the DIY garage where Arnie keeps Christine after his parents refuse to garage the Fury at home. Prosky is the profane, literally spitting image of a quintessential King character; foul mouthed yet soft when it comes to respecting the elbow grease put into making something great. Stanton, on the other hand, is having a ball as Detective Rudolph Jenkins, appearing like magic in order to hound Arnie after his lover’s bodies start piling up. Since he couldn’t do The Shining with Stanley Kubrick*, HDS makes up for lost time, playfully pestering Gordon’s character like a bloodhound who’s caught a scent.
John Carpenter often refers to Christine as his least favorite project. That’s both understandable and a true shame. Sure, the Horror Master was licking his wounds from the box office and critical shellacking he took on The Thing, but he was able to wrangle a lean, outlandish bit of gorgeous celluloid from an author whose work had proven to be adaptation-proof in the past (there’s no denying subpar King films vastly outnumber the ones that are worth a shit). Christine is certainly not the best John Carpenter movie, but it’s certainly one of his top tier efforts, almost through sheer visual acumen and performances alone. He even translates King’s penchant for classic rock and roll tunes, ending the movie with Danny and The Juniors’ “Rock ‘N’ Roll is Here to Stay”. So while he may not have enjoyed taking the movie on as an undeserved refuge from personal whippings, Carpenter was still able to craft yet another widescreen descent into the unknown, providing the audience with one hell of a seat in which to sit shotgun.
*Stanton was originally supposed to play Overlook bartender, Lloyd, but scheduling conflicted with Alien, forcing him to drop out of the project.