John Carpenter’s Christine (1983)
Arnie (Keith Gordon) is a high-school geek who becomes transfixed with an old car – ‘Christine’ – he purchases and does up. Arnie soon begins to change, developing a more uncaring and aggressive personality. When Arnie’s enemies begin to die, with ‘Christine’ seemingly involved, his best friend Dennis (John Stockwell) and girlfriend (Alexndra Paul) set out to help him and destroy his love for ‘Christine’.
Adapted from Stephen King’s story of a killer car, you may be fooled into thinking this is mere low-brow entertainment better suited to an episode of The Twilight Zone. In truth, this is one of Carpenter’s best movies. The cult director’s hallmarks are all here – minimalist lighting, a throbbing synthesized score, outcast characters and some ‘big’ scenes.
Many of Carpenter’s films deal with siege-mentalities. His characters are often trapped, usually physically, in a confined area subject to attack. Think the police station in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976), the outpost in THE THING (1982) or the church in PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987). Here, once again we have that same siege mentality except this time it’s Arnie and ‘Christine’ who are under-siege from everyone else in the movie. The world and his wife are out to get Arnie and ‘Christine’, or at least that’s how it looks from the perception of the film’s lead character.
The performances from the cast are universally strong. Aside from our leads, who are all on top-form, Harry Dean Stanton and Roberts Blossom have outstanding bit-parts as a curious cop and the seller of ‘Christine’ respectively. It’s this quirky character development which means, quickly into the running time, you forget you’re watching a rather silly movie about a demonic car.
The script is informal, loose and urban – which matches the photography of the picture. The conversations between Gordon’s Arnie and Stockwell’s Dennis are heart-felt, particularly in the film’s penultimate scenes where Stockwell sobs as he realises the depths to which Arnie has sunk because of ‘Christine’. In fact, much of the movie seems to be about the disintegrating relationship between Arnie, his parents and his best-friend; not because of some teenage girl but because of Arnie’s deadly obsession with ‘Christine’. This film could just as easily be termed a love story – the best horror movies often can be – and the inevitable tragedy that comes hand-in-hand with the blind & possessive nature of a teenager’s first love.
As well as the emotional stuff, there’s some choice gutter dialogue between Darnell (played by a gruff Robert Prosky) and Arnie which provides the acid-tongued comic relief that Carpenter loves to flavour his films with (remember the wise-cracking Napoleon Wilson everyone?).
Stand-out sequences include the car transformation scenes – particularly the first one where we see ‘Christine’ repair herself after being beaten to hell-and-back by a bunch of high-school bullies – and the gruelling chase set-pieces. In these, the shadowy cinematography is brilliantly showcased as ‘Christine’’s headlights form grim lanterns that stalk Arnie’s tormentors along desolate highways. The reductionist and naturally self-penned score from Carpenter is one of his finest and the perfect accompaniment to the elegantly-choreographed chase sequences. The 50s tunes that creepily play out of ‘Christine’ as she is about to get nasty are a sweet touch indeed. Seek this soundtrack out; it’s well worth a listen.
For all the positives, the film doesn’t quite get the pacing of the story right and it seems that Arnie’s transformation from likeable geek to ‘school bastard’ actually happens much behind the camera. But, Carpenter’s strength with CHRISTINE is that he plays the story straight – not for laughs – and this is a serious horror movie about aching love and possession. One of the most under-valued genre movies of the 80s and of Carpenter’s career.
Hotdog rating: 8.5/10