christine_poster_01

Available on Netflix Instant or iTunes Rental? The film is not available on Netflix Instant, but you can rent it on iTunes.

It’s a well known fact that Americans obsess over their cars. On any given summer day (especially in California where it does not rain in the summer), you will find at least one person on his driveway washing and waxing his beloved vehicle. In 1983, best-selling author Stephen King took this idea and wrote Christine, a novel about a 1958 red and white Plymouth Fury that is possessed by supernatural forces. I don’t count the book being among King’s best work, but its an entertaining read nonetheless. As is true with many of King’s novels, the book is written such that it’s practically intended to be adapted into a movie. Enter famed director John Carpenter. In 1982, Carpenter came out with The Thing, a now-classic sci-fi/horror film that was a big box office flop upon its initial theatrical release. Carpenter needed to bounce back with a hit and he was offered to take on Christine, which he did. Christine was also not a box office hit, but it was well liked by critics and like The Thing, Christine eventually turned into a cult hit that is now revered by film fans.

Set in 1978, Christine is about Arnie Cunningham (‘Cunt-ingham as the bullies like to call him), a high school nerd played by Keith Gordon (who also played the nerd in Back to School) who’s only friend seems to be his childhood buddy, Dennis (John Stockwell – ‘Cougar’ from Top Gun), a high school football jock. One day after school, Keith and Dennis spot a beat up 1958 red and white Plymouth Fury sitting in a dusty lot of a decrepit looking house. Despite his buddy’s advice to not buy the car, Keith immediately falls in love with the Plymouth and buys the clunker. Over the worry of his parents, Dennis and his new girlfriend, Leigh (Alexandra Paul – who played Stephanie Holden on Baywatch), Keith begins to obsess and spend all of his time with Christine (the car’s given name by its former, deceased owner), fixing her up and restoring her to her former glory. The more time Keith spends with his car, the more he changes as a person. At the same time, Christine becomes possessive of its owner and anyone who gets in her way is permanently taken care of.

Although not in the book, Christine opens over the song ‘Bad to the Bone’ with a cool sequence where we basically see Christine’s ‘birth’ on an automobile assembly line in Detroit in 1957. The story does not further elaborate on exactly why or how Christine is an evil possessed car, but it doesn’t need to and it is better that it did not. After all, the film’s premise has a certain level of tongue-in-cheek playfulness that it necessarily needs in order to work. Part of this requires that certain elements of the story, such as why Christine is evil, remain unexplained.

As I stated before, Christine is a twisted look at Americans’ obsessions with cars. The film is also about the time-tested notion that chicks love guys with cool cars. Before he bought Christine, Arnie was a high school nerd that no one except his friend Dennis paid attention to. Arnie’s fortunes change after he buys Christine. Suddenly he’s cool now and enough so to attract the hottest girl at school. This idea gets turned around when we soon discover that Arnie’s real girl isn’t Leigh, but Christine herself. In a strange way, this reminds me of the premise in Weird Science, in which the two high school nerds can’t get any girl to notice them so they create the perfect girlfriend on their computer in the form of Kelly LeBrock.

Christine is set in 1978, but the story has a 1950’s sensibility and innocence where you see guys asking girls to go dancing with them on a Friday night, girls fawn over the football jocks (Dennis) and cool guys (Arnie), couples go to a drive-in movie to make out, and where the bully (and even Arnie) looks like a 1950’s greaser. If you have read enough Stephen King novels like I have, you might surmise that Arnie represents Stephen King, who grew up in the 1950’s and he seems to really like cars from that era.

The Arnie Cunningham character was originally going to be played by Kevin Bacon. When Bacon decided to drop out of the role in favor of starring in Footloose, Keith Gordon (now a TV and film director) took over the role. Keith Gordon is one of cinema’s quintessential nerds just from his two performances in Christine and Back to School. That being said, although I’ve seen Christine a couple of times, I’m still not sure what to make of Gordon’s performance. Although its cool to watch the character transform from geek to 1950’s cool guy, I cannot make up my mind whether the quality of Gordon’s evil Arnie performance is deliberately hammy and over the top or whether Gordon is simply a bad actor. As one example, the car scene toward the film’s climax where Arnie and Dennis are riding in Christine and Arnie explains to Dennis how all the ‘shitters’ of the world are against him is laughably bad to the point of distraction.

Speaking of Arnie and Dennis, one of the strong points in Christine is how Arnie and Dennis’ friendship is portrayed. Although he is a popular football player, the story wisely refrains from painting Dennis as being a stereotypical high school jock who is surrounded by meathead friends and airhead girls. Despite their differing social status, Arnie and Dennis remain the best of friends and John Carpenter portrays this relationship in a believable manner that does not feel forced. Through their dialogue and body language, it is alluded that these two have been friends since childhood. A good example of this occurs early in the film where Dennis and Arnie are driving to their first day of school and Dennis tells Arnie that they will need to finally get Arnie laid. Based on the tone of the conversation, you can tell that Dennis does not say this to be mean, but he says it like he’s been aware of this issue for a very long time and its due time to resolve it.

photoChristine also features a wonderful cast of colorful characters. Of course, the star of the film is the car itself (its astounding that the production actually destroyed a couple of these classics for the film). However, Christine is also populated by memorable secondary characters that lend a deeper tapestry to the film. You first have Robert Blossoms, who plays George LeBay, the brother of the former owner of Christine and the one who sells the car to Arnie. There is also Robert Prosky (the old, white bearded TV producer in Mrs. Doubtfire), who plays Darnell, the garage owner who lets Arnie keep his car in his garage. There is also the woefully short performance given by the great Harry Dean Stanton, who plays the detective investigating the deaths of the bullies killed by Christine. Finally, we have the film’s villain, Buddy, who is played by William Ostrander. For years I used to think the actor playing Buddy was Peter Weller (the star of Robocop) until very recently when I discovered to my surprise that it was an actor I have never heard of. Buddy has a great presence in Christine that is very reminiscent of Biff from Back to the Future, but less comedic and more threatening. By the way, as an aside, doesn’t the chubby bully who gets crushed by Christine look and sound like the actor Jonah Hill?

Christine is also noteworthy for some of its technical achievements. For one, its always nice to hear John Carpenter’s film scores. A rarity for a director, Carpenter can not only write and direct, but he also composes music for his own films and he’s actually quite good at it. Like many of his films, Christine features a synthesizer sound that is especially played to great effect in the scenes where Christine hunts down the bullies. The film also contains some nice camera and lighting work by DP Don Morgan (Starman) (e.g. the drive-in scene when Christine attempts to choke Leigh). Finally, in an era where anything and everything is done with computer-generated effects, its absolutely amazing to see these older films that contain special effects that would most certain be done with computer effects today. In Christine, there are two such scenes. The first was where Christine fixes herself up after she’s almost destroyed by the bullies (the effect was done by simply reversing the camera). The second is when we see Christine completely engulfed in flames and chasing down Buddy.IMG_2946

So what did I not like about Christine? Aside from its sorta hokey premise, which you will either completely buy into or not, and Keith Gordon’s somewhat weak performance, the film mostly remains strong. My minor issues are with the script. First, the story does not do a good job explaining why Arnie falls in love with the car so fast. Did the car use its evil power to draw him to her or had Arnie seen the car previously and now he really wanted it? The film probably needed just one additional scene or even a few pieces of dialogue to cement Arnie’s immediate interest in the car. Second, we never see Arnie ask Leigh out. We suddenly find out he’s dating her when Dennis sees her on the football field. It felt like there was a scene missing where Arnie should have met Leigh and asked her out. Third, Arnie’s transformation from nerd to cool was too sudden. There needed to be some more transitional scenes to make the final transformation more plausible. Finally, the climax and the scenes leading up to it felt rushed. I do not fault the screenwriter or Carpenter necessarily because I know this is what was written in the novel. Also, the one major weakness in most of Stephen King’s novels are usually the end.

I enjoy Christine for what it is, which is a pulpy, sort of campy horror flick that remarkably holds up after all these years. I recently showed it to my brother, who had never seen it nor read the book and who has a pretty discerning taste in films. Even he liked it and that’s more of a testament to the film’s quality than anything I have written here.

Advertisements