John Carpenter’s next film after The Thing was supposed to be an adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter for Universal Pictures written by Thing scribe Bill Lancaster. When Carpenter’s sci-fi classic failed at the box office, Mark Lester was given the helm instead and ironically Carpenter found himself at Columbia Pictures directing another Stephen King adaptation, Christine. Carpenter would have the last laugh as Christine not only beat Lester’s Firestarter to the box office, but at the box office as well. Today Christine is considered a minor classic and Firestarter has all but been forgotten.
I currently have not read King’s novel…thought with a trip to the library it now sits on my night table…(UPDATE: My book review sits below, after the film trailer…) so, I am reviewing Christine strictly as a movie and not as an adaptation. Set in 1978, this horror flick tells the story of nerdy Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) who is oppressed by both his overbearing parents and the high school bullies. His only friend is kind hearted football player Dennis (John Stockwell)…that is, until he meets Christine. Christine is an old, beat-up red 1958 Plymouth Fury named by it’s previous owner, who, unbeknownst to Arnie, committed suicide inside it. The owner’s brother (Roberts Blossom) sells it to him despite Dennis’ protests and Arnie sees the restoration of his new obsession as a way to finally earn respect from his peers. Not only does Arnie restore the car, he also begins to change. The awkward nerd becomes a confident man and wins the prettiest girl in school, Leigh (Alexandra Paul), but also the vengeful eye of the bullies he’d gotten expelled. When they trash his beloved car, the vehicle shows it’s true nature and not only restores itself before Arnie’s eyes, but methodically tracks down and slaughters the wrong doers…on it’s own. Arnie refuses to see the evil thing before him and the confident man starts to become an aggressive and violent person who forces anyone who cares about him out of his life, which he lives only for his car. Fearing for Arnie, Dennis and Leigh start to investigate the car’s past and not only find a trail of bodies, but the realization that Arnie’s obsession may be taking him on a ride straight to hell, unless it is stopped…but can it be and can Arnie be saved?
Carpenter creates an entertaining and atmospheric thriller from Bill Phillips’ script adapted from the King novel. He successfully creates a likable and sympathetic character in Arnie and thus his transformation from nerd to cool guy to heartless villain gives the film the dramatic backbone it needs. He also successfully establishes the relationships between Arnie and Dennis and Leigh, so we understand why they are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to save their friend despite his becoming, for lack of a better word, a douche. Though I will say we could have maybe used a bit more of this to really solidify the relationships. What really makes this film click, though, is the menacing and evil character given to the title vehicle by Carpenter and his team of FX people. From the opening scene set on an assembly line in 1957, we see Christine claim her first victims. A car that is born bad. We get a blood red car that is dripping with malice and one that only plays vintage Rock ‘N’ Roll songs on the radio…which seem to always suit the situation at hand…and takes a lethal interest in anyone that comes between her and Arnie, like Leigh…the other woman. Carpenter films the car from angles and in lighting that give it a demonic presence and stages the sequences of it pursuing it’s prey with the same tension and intensity he would if filming Michael Myers as a muscle car. Despite how bad the bullies are, there is a sense of sympathy when Christine mows them down in cold blood. She is by far the greater of the two evils. The FX of the vehicle repairing itself after being damaged are truly breathtaking, as we literally watch panels un-dent and grills regain their off-the-assembly-line shape and it adds to the vehicles supernatural aura.
The master director gets good work from his human cast, too. Gordon is fairly solid as Arnie conveying the sensitive nerd and then his slow transformation to cold blooded killer. He does go a little over the top in a few sequences and could have done with less of the maniacal eye rolling in some of the later scenes, but otherwise is well cast. Stockwell gives his Dennis both a strong and a sensitive side as Arnie’s concerned friend. Paul’s Leigh seems like a naturally sweet girl who still cares about Arnie even after he is so mean to her and is a likable heroine. We also have veteran Harry Dead Stanton as a detective that knows Arnie and his car are responsible somehow for the murders, yet frustratingly can’t prove it and character actor Robert Prosky as a slimy garage owner that takes a shine to Arnie, but not to his car…and the feeling is mutual.
Carpenter again supplies the music and though the score is very reminiscent of his excellent Halloween III score, it is still highly effective at adding atmosphere to the proceedings and also includes some great Rock ‘N’ Roll classics. Though it’s the first Carpenter film without cinematographer Dean Cundey since Assault on Precinct 13, Donald M.Morgan fills in and does very well in capturing Carpenter’s camera work and mood. The film isn’t perfect. There is some weak dialogue at points and, as stated, the relationships could have been a bit more fleshed out, but they do work fine as is. The final showdown between Christine and Dennis driving a bulldozer could have been a bit more intense, but this a modestly budgeted film, so what we get is effective enough and certainly well staged.
All in all, Christine may not be on the same level as Halloween, The Thing or Escape From New York, but it is certainly a solid and effective chiller and an entertaining movie that sometimes gets overlooked when talking about Carpenter’s classic films. Also stars Kelly Preston as a hottie trying and failing to catch Dennis’ eye.
Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) flaming vengeful Plymouth Furys!
BONUS BOOK REVIEW!
CHRISTINE by Stephen King
This is only the second Stephen King book I have ever read. Despite being a horror and sci-fi fan, I have never gravitated toward his books for some reason. I am a fan of director John Carpenter, though and have recently revisited and greatly enjoyed his film adaptation and so, I was curious to check out the source. I liked King’s Christine, but I didn’t love it and certainly wasn’t wowed by it. To be honest, I think Carpenter’s movie was far more economical in the telling of the story, as I found King’s book to be long-winded and could have lost about 100 pages and still told the same story and with equal efficiency. To me, King likes to go off on tangents that really don’t further the story and only serve to create stretches between the action. Did Dennis really need to have not one, but three long discussions with George LeBay about his brother and his demonic car? And let’s face it, King never really explains sufficiently why Christine is such a demonic entity even before LeBay dies and starts to haunt her and Arnie. It’s a casual throw away line that really doesn’t satisfy. LeBay has no history or belief in the supernatural, so it’s silly to accept that he transformed his car into a supernatural entity. Again, Carpenter’s film simplified the story and just made the car ambiguously evil from the moment it was made, much like his Michael Myers. I did like the book overall, but I do feel based on this, that even though King is a good writer, he’s one that also gets self-indulgent. I’m certainly not intimidated by a long book, most of the fantasy stuff I read is over 400 pages, it’s just there is a difference between a story that requires a lot of detail in it’s telling and a story that’s just taking longer than needed to be told.