Ed. note– As I deal with the frustrations of having no car and two jobs to which I constantly need rides, I cap off the brief Devil’s Ride series of reviews with one car I’d be better off not having, CHRISTINE. John Carpenter adds an enjoyable flick to his catalogue, and creates a rare Stephen King adaptation that doesn’t embarrass itself. Just remember, Hell hath no fury like a Plymouth Fury scorned.– P.F.
When people think John Carpenter, their minds usually go to HALLOWEEN, THE THING or ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. Under those classics, CHRISTINE tends to get buried. It’s a shame, because the flick really is an enjoyable addition to Carpenter’s catalogue, and a well-made Stephen King adaptation to boot. It speaks to our fascination with the automobile, and functions as a love story between a young man and his car.
The film starts in a car factory, where an assembly line pushes out Plymouth Furies. While a worker tinkers with nuts and bolts, Christine slams her hood down on his hand, and the evil is born. Flash forward two decades, and nerdy Arnie Cunningham heads off to his first day of school with his ride, his best friend Dennis, a popular, good looking football player. Arnie’s in for a bad first day, as he falls victim to hood Buddy Repperton and his gang. On their way home, Arnie makes Dennis pull over so he can check out Christine, who’s fallen into disrepair. Grungy old timer George LeBay is ready to offload his brother’s old car, and Arnie is all too pleased to take it off his hands. There’s an instant love affair that’s not just one-sided, as a restored Christine is fully ready to return Arnie’s love. But bad things begin to occur, because Christine is severely overprotective of him, and ready to kill anybody who harms him or draws his love away. This places Repperton and his gang in harm’s way, alongside Arnie’s new girlfriend Leigh Cabot.
CHRISTINE rides on the strength of its performances, none greater than Keith Gordon’s as Arnie. Gordon has a trick role, because he’s got to transform from likable, meek Arnie to a despicable, aggressive jerk, a task he handles with aplomb. With a lesser actor, this film could have been a disaster. But Gordon plumbs depths of humanity and gives two totally different performances, and makes the transition believable. Carpenter surrounds Gordon with a solid cast, especially John Stockwell as Dennis and Alexandra Paul as Leigh. The relationship between the three is dynamic, and just as importantly, realistic. Rounding out the cast with veteran actors enhances the film. Robert Prosky is appropriately crusty as garage owner. Harry Dean Stanton is Harry Dean Stanton, so you can’t go wrong there. Best of all is Roberts Blossom as LeBay. With his wild eyes, interesting wardrobe and foul mouth, he brings an edge as he calls everyone “shitters.” Carpenter’s casting carries the film, and is one of its great joys.
The other great actress is Christine herself. Carpenter and producer Richard Kobritz got 24 Plymouth Furies, and Carpenter did a Hell of a job making Christine both sexy and menacing. Much like the Marsten House in SALEM’S LOT, another King novel that Kobritz produced for the screen, Christine becomes a fully fleshed out character. An impressive scene where Christine goes on fire and continues to chase a thug down the street, flames billowing all around her, is awesome and states just how bad she is. She’s homicidally jealous, but beautiful and alluring, so it’s easy to see why outcast Arnie is so attracted to her. Keith Gordon and a 1957 Plymouth Fury make CHRISTINE one of Carpenter’s better films, and it deserves much more love from the horror community than it gets.
Carpenter also provides one of his trademark scores, balanced off by songs from the 1950s. The music provides a feeling for an era long gone by, and Carpenter’s synthesizers never let you forget this is a Carpenter movie. The use of 2:35 to 1 aspect ratio is also classic Carpenter, as he employs the format better than probably any director of his time. He knows how to fill space, and makes beautiful movies. Though Carpenter didn’t use his longtime DP Dean Cundey, Donald M. Morgan does a great job.
The gore hounds may find the film disappointing. Though there’s plenty of death, not much of it shows up on screen. Reeling from bad reviews for his last film THE THING, over which people called him a “pornographer of violence,” Carpenter delivers a relatively bloodless flick with CHRISTINE, but don’t let that steer you away from watching. It’s definitely a horror flick, even if aliens aren’t bursting out of Huskies. And it’s solid horror.
Solid, too, are the extras on the special edition DVD. I first owned the bare-bones edition, but Columbia made up for lack of bonus features in spades. The two most prominent entries are the trio of featurettes and the commentary. The shorts include most of the major players, including Carpenter, Kobritz and the now more mature cast, as well as screenwriter Bill Phillips and stunt coordinator Terry Leonard. It’s a really interesting set of chats about how the film came together. One oddity, though: much of it seems severely out of order. The commentary is even better, with Carpenter and Gordon discussing all sorts of interesting things about the flick, and dropping such gems as how an extra introduced Gordon to his wife, and Carpenter’s avoidance of his own films’ premieres. Both Gordon and Stockwell would go on to become directors after CHRISTINE, and it’s neat to listen to Gordon discuss how jazzed he was about learning from Carpenter. Some deleted scenes and outtakes round out the disc. You can take them or leave them.
John Carpenter’s CHRISTINE is not on the same level as THE THING, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK or HALLOWEEN, but it’s just as good as THE FOG, and much better than PRINCE OF DARKNESS. A killer car and a dead on cast do justice to a Stephen King adaptation, and the director adds another signature Carpenter flick to his catalogue. Go in expecting little gore, and you’re in for one Hell of a ride.