Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Hell On Wheels

Christine (1983)

Such was Stephen King's popularity in 1983, that work on the film version of his novel, Christine, began while the book was still being edited. 1983 offered a bumper crop of films based on the writer's work, including Cujo, The Dead Zone, and Christine. The later two were directed by two of the masters of late 70s/early 80s horror movies, David Cronenberg and John Carpenter. Carpenter, for his part, was coming off the failure of The Thing, a financial disaster that saw him removed from the director's chair of another King project, Firestarter,* and desperate for a hit. Christine was fast-tracked and appeared in December of 1983, a mere eight months after the novel's publication.

The basic plot of the book and the movie is the same: bullied nerd Arnie Cunningham falls in love with a derelict 1958 Plymouth fury and fixes it up until it's in cherry condition. Christine, for so the car is named, reciprocates Arnie's love, and Arnie begins to change under Christine's influence. He becomes more self-assured. He asks out the pretty new girl at his high school and she accepts. His style begins to change to a 1958 sense of cool even though Arnie lives in the autumn of 1979. His best friend, Dennis, is alarmed by the changes he sees in Arnie but cannot do anything about it as he recovers from a devastating football injury, as is Leigh, the girl Arnie courts. Both of them, along with Arnie's parents, are concerned by his unhealthy obsession with the car. Arnie has enemies, too. The bullies who tormented Arnie blame him for getting them expelled, particularly the psychotic Buddy Repperton. They see Arnie's life changing and they see his cherry new car and vow to "get" him. One night, they sneak into the do-it-yourself garage where Arnie stores Christine and wreck her, going so far to defecate on her dashboard. Unfortunately for them, Christine was born bad, and there is a malevolent and jealous force animating her. As Arnie watches, she regenerates herself and begins to act as a manifestation of Arnie's id, executing ghastly revenge on Arnie's tormentors. But she doesn't stop there. She's jealous of Leigh, too, and attempts to kill her at a drive-in movie. Worse: Arnie has come under the scrutiny of Detective Junkins, who is investigating the deaths of Buddy and his gang, and then of Arnie's boss, the sleazy owner of the garage where Christine lives. Dennis and Leigh contrive a plan to destroy Christine, even though they understand that it brings them into the path of the car's unending fury...

Christine (1983)

Christine, the novel, is not one of King's better works. In addition to the burden of convincing the reader of the reality of his haunted car, the story recycles the revenge fantasy from Carrie. Arnie Cunningham is another oppressed nerd, a spiritual sibling to Carrie White. The book is overladen with other ideas about how Christine became what she is, and includes baroque, EC comics-style tableaux of monstrous comeuppance for Arnie's enemies. Christine gathers a collection of ghosts in her back seat who have a conversation with Arnie as he loses his mind. Plus, it sidelines its narrator, Dennis, for most of the book. This last part is less of a problem in a two hour movie than it is in a five hundred page novel. Christine could have been a complete disaster on film, along the lines of one of King's other tales of machinery come to life, Maximum Overdrive. But Christine is lucky in its interpreters.

Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Phillips cut away all of the narrative digressions in the book in favor of a lean and vicious narrative that focuses only on the core of the story. As a new origin, the film posits that Christine was just born bad on the assembly line in a droll prelude in which she punishes slights done to her by the workers who made her. This sequence has no significant dialogue, but provides everything you need to know about the film's title character. The screenplay removes the complication of a romance between Dennis and Leigh too, and focuses instead on both of their relationships with Arnie. Moreover, the film manages something that the book struggled to convey: it makes Christine seem alive. This is partly through its deployment of special effects, but also in the way the film uses Christine's headlights as indicators of her mood. Where the book constructs an elaborate back-story, the film doesn't need it all because the reality of the car is right there for the audience to see and seeing is believing. The difference in media has a transformative effect on the books relentless use of song lyrics as a literary approximation of a needle-drop soundtrack. The film uses an actual needle-drop soundtrack and folds it into the flow of the narrative (rather than as epigrams at chapter breaks in the book). It's subtle with this, too. Most of the soundtrack is diegetic. It gives Christine herself a "voice" that comments on the scenes in which she appears, but only with songs that would have been on the radio in 1958. The one song that is associated with Christine that isn't diegetic is George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone," which never plays on her own radio.

William Ostrander in Christine (1983)
Keith Gordon in Christine (1983)

The film is surprisingly bloodless for a horror movie from 1983. Carpenter was faced with exactly the opposite problem he faced when he made The Fog three years earlier. That film was initially bloodless, but the success of the slasher movies--particularly Friday the 13th--that followed Halloween convinced Carpenter and his producers that they needed to add more gore to that film. With Christine, he was faced with an analysis of The Thing that suggested that the extreme violence in that film was a contributing factor in its failure. Which isn't to say that the film is not violent. In some ways, going back to the way he suggested violence in Halloween makes the violence in Christine even crueler. This is most evident in the death of Moochie, filmed from above as Christine forces herself into a space that's too narrow for her, but the death of Buddy is even crueler. It's almost offhand as the flaming Christine runs over a burning victim that tumbles briefly in her wake. You can't actually see any of the gore in either scene, but the film is good at conjuring images in the audience's mind. When Jenkins tells Arnie that they had to scrape Moochie off the concrete with a shovel, you don't really need to see it to conjure up the picture in your mind's eye.

Christine (1983)

For a film with such a ridiculous premise, it's a particularly grim horror movie, but this too is part of its modus operandi. If it cracks a smile even once, if it ever winks at the audience, it will break the spell. So it never does. The absurdity of the idea of malevolent, sentient car is ridiculous enough without calling attention to it by laughing at the idea. Even its most ridiculous set pieces work because the movie plays them completely straight. The scene where Christine regenerates herself is a committed special effects set piece that conveys a sense of wonder and horror (emphasized by Carpenter's choice to score the scene to the Viscounts's sinister version of "Harlem Nocturne"), while the duel between Christine and the bulldozer that ends the film benefits from the sense of tragedy hanging over the entire thing. Arnie may be enacting his own id through Christine, but he's her victim, too.

Keith Gordon in Christine (1983)
Alexandra Paul in Christine (1983)
Christine (1983)
Christine (1983)

The film's biggest handicap is the trio of actors in the lead. Keith Gordon was a genre veteran by 1983, having worked for Brian DePalma on two films, but he's a LOT more convincing as Arnie the dweeb than as Arnie the cool villain. This was Alexandra Paul's first major film role, long before she went on to become a Baywatch pin-up, and her inexperience shows; Carpenter wisely diminishes her role in the film compared to the character in the book. John Stockwell is similarly handicapped by a plot that sidelines him in the hospital for a huge whack of the film's running time.

Keith Gordon and Harry Dean Stanton in Christine (1983)Keith Gordon and Harry Dean Stanton in Christine (1983)

Whatever the shortcomings of these three, Carpenter more than covers for them with his supporting cast. Roger Ebert once noted that no film starring M. Emmett Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton is completely worthless, and this gives Harry Dean Stanton the juicy role of Junkins so it's more than worth watching. Stanton devours the part. Also chewing the scenery are Roberts Blossom as George LeBay, Christine's scabrous previous owner, and Robert Prosky as the cigar-chomping Darnell, a man who oozes working class resentment and shady capitalist opportunism. Even William Ostrander's bully, Buddy Repperton, works as a distillation of every high school bete noir ever filmed. The supporting cast is strong enough to hold the screen against Christine herself, who is one of the more indelible film automobiles of any vintage. I mean, the evil car in The Car (from 1977) has no real distinguishing characteristics other than "big and black," and the cars in The Cars that Ate Paris are all pretty interchangeable. But Christine? She has a personality. If this were not so, then her demise at the end of the film would not be so cathartic. It would be just so much screeching twisted metal, like a demolition derby or something. Nor would the film's last shot hold so much menace. Carpenter takes King's ending and distills it down to a shot so minimalist that one has to marvel at its elegance. And maybe laugh at it, too. It's pretty funny.

*Universal had cause to regret this decision. The film version of Firestarter followed Christine into theaters six months later and got withering reviews. It did less business on a higher budget, too. Worst of all, it incurred the scorn of King himself, who counts it among the worst films made from his work. He calls it the movie equivalent of "cafeteria mashed potatoes." Carpenter, it seems, got lucky.

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