The Chronological Carpenter: Christine (1983)

ChristineJohn Carpenter was a machine in the late 70s/early 80s. Between 1978 and and 1984 he made eight movies, no small task for anyone, especially someone of his caliber. The second to last movie in that streak was Christine, an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name, which also came out in 1983. It’s about a car with a mind of its own and the dweeby kid it turns into a 1950s greaser. Apparently, I didn’t like it very much when I first watched it back in 2010.

I had a much better time with the film this time around. That first time, I didn’t really know anything about it and wasn’t very into the idea of a killer car movie, but this time, I was psyched about watching a John Carpenter Killer Car movie. I only remembered a few bits and pieces from that first viewing (and none of the negative feelings I had after that first viewing) and actually had a really solid experience this time around.

stephen king christineFor what it’s worth, I haven’t read the source material and will not be comparing the film to that (maybe in a later Book Vs. Movie post down the line, but not any time soon). So, I’m going solely by the film itself and what it gives us. One aspect that must have slipped my mind the first time I watched it was the fact that the main action of the story takes place in 1978. That bit of information goes a long way to explain why parts of the story might sound silly, because it’s a person (whether King or Carpenter) going back into their memories and building on those.

As it turns out I just read Chuck Klosterman’s essay on the film Dazed And Confused in the Criterion booklet a week or so back. In that he talks about memory and how it plays into filmmaking and storytelling. He wrote: “Dazed and Confused is not a movie about how things were; Dazed and Confused is a movie about how things are remembered. This film doesn’t illustrate what it was actually like to be in semi­rural Texas in 1976, but I’m sure it evokes how that time and place must retrospectively feel to any­one who was actually there.” I think that’s at play quite a bit in Christine in the way the characters are handled and the way it was shot. I didn’t get that the first time I watched and felt like part of it came of as lame or old fashioned, but I think it’s a function of memory playing out on the screen.

christine-USTake our main character Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) for instance. He’s a nerdy dweeb in the same vein as that kid from Grease. Heck, even his name immediately conjures up images of Happy Days. He’s a big glasses-wearing nerd who only has one friend — a nice jock played by John Stockwell named Dennis — and that’s about it. He’s basically helpless, gets threatened by predatory schoolmates and has parents who give him far too much trouble considering he’s a straight-A student with no life. Gordon plays him perfectly and continues to do so as his new car transforms him from powerless nobody into someone you should definitely not mess with. Now that I think about it, maybe Gordon’s near-perfect greaser looks are what made them go a bit over the top with the glasses and whatnot in the beginning, kind of like putting Rachel Lee Cook in overalls and glasses in She’s All That (weird reference, I know). Then again, I bet his overbearing mom wouldn’t let him out of the house wearing much else.

Last time I bagged on the kills in the film, noting that they seemed slow and easily avoided. It’s funny, that thought didn’t even cross my mind this time around (no, I didn’t read my review before this viewing). In fact, the one where the car smashes its way into a thin alley to kill the guy actually made me squirm a bit this time because it showed just how dedicated this car was to getting revenge. By the way, am I the only one who noticed how The Crow parallels this movie? I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but that made me chuckle when the “hero” of the movie started hunting down the gang of jerks who wronged it.

In a lot of ways, Christine feels like even even bigger step away from Carpenter’s usual films than something like Escape From New York. Even with its supernatural leanings and the appearance of EFNY‘s Harry Dean Stanton, this one just feels out there. First off, we’re not really meant to like Arnie. We’re supposed to be with him in the beginning and feel sorry for him because he gets taken over or influenced, but unlike Snake or Laurie Strode, this is a “hero” who turns into a villain before our eyes. Meanwhile, the secondary lead steps up and becomes the real hero of the story. Now that I think about it Dennis is a lot like Laurie, he’s super nice and a little quiet, but nowhere near as mousey. This is also one of his few full-on adaptations even though it reportedly takes liberties with the story.

At the end of the day, I like Christine, but it took me a while to get there and understand if people who love Carpenter’s earlier horror films came out of it wondering what they had just seen. This one might take a little more thinking and contextualizing to really dive into the horror underneath. On the surface, the idea of a haunted car is pretty silly, right? But, look just a little bit below the surface and you’re talking about a mode of transportation that leads to tens of thousands of deaths a year. Cars are and can be very scary, but we treat them as these rights of passage, these simple things, but really they’re multi-ton behemoths being lead around by easily distracted drivers who could, literally at every turn, shift from cruising machine to combustion engine-fueled battering ram. Cars might not be haunted, but they’re dangerous because of the people who drive them and the miniscule and major things that can happen to them.

Up next we have a film I’ve owned for years, but never actually watched: Starman!

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