I remember when John Carpenter’s Christine came out in that heady summer of 1983. Despite being a mere twelve years old, the big JC was already one of my favourite directors. What a run he’d had: Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, The Elvis Movie, Escape from New York and The Thing. I’d seen all of them apart from The Thing which wasn’t available on Betamax (good choice there, Dad). I also knew and loved Stephen King despite having read precisely none of his novels. However, I’d seen Salem’s Lot and Carrie so I pretended I’d read the books too. With all this pedigree it seemed like the coming together of two modern greats ready to make the perfect movie, albeit one about a killer car, which even at that age I knew was a goofy idea.
It could only be a disappointment. And it was!
That was the general consensus when the film came out: meh, before the word had even been invented. Looking back at Christine now I don’t know what the problem was. It’s a great bit of film making.
Okay let’s look at the essential difficulty first. A demonic car is always going to be problematic cinematically. Spielberg just about pulled it off with Duel because he kept his killer truck a distant and unexplained entity. Here Christine demands otherwise, she has a name for god’s sake. She has a personality, one of the main ones in the story. Fortunately, a combination of King’s classic strong characters and Carpenter’s ability to shoot a film help us get over the ridiculous central premise in a way that Stephen King failed to do in his own directorial effort Maximum Overdrive (more killer trucks) a few years later.
John Carpenter’s directing skills cannot be underestimated here. By 1983 he was a master film maker and his flourishes and trademarks are everywhere in Christine. Obviously his use of steady cam is the most prescient. As he slowly moves down the long corridor of the garage workshop, the camera is pointing at Christine’s bay all the time, but she is hidden from sight right until the last moment, forcing the audience to stretch their collective necks out to see what state the Plymouth Fury will be in this time. Carpenter also uses clever camera tricks like having headlights appear in the background of shallow depth of field shots, so we can see Christine coming but she is out of view from her next victim. There’s also that big frontal look of the car we return to again and again, Christine’s “eyes”, her headlights, staring out at us, a mean lump of metal, waiting to kill.
It’s not just the clever camerawork Carpenter is good at, he knows how to shoot good character scenes too. This kind of stuff is often ignored but whether its our heroes chatting in school hallways or being bullied in shop, Carpenter gets the most from every scene, able to capture intimate moments whilst always making everything look beautifully wide and cinematic at the same time.
Carpenter’s confidence is apparent from the opening titles onwards. We start with the usual John Carpenter white font on black background and whilst we are told the music is by the great man himself, we hear no music at all, only the ominous rumble of a V8 engine.
The central cast are also really good, with Keith Gordon and John Stockwell make convincing best friends. Despite one being the standard bespectacled nerd and the other the typical jock (who for someone so cool is called Dennis), a combination of strong performances and that keen sense of character King can write so well makes these two very believable. Gordon adds little weird touches too: his love for Christine is noticeable even in his hand gestures: he touches the car like she’s a sexy woman, which surely will only result in a bad case of rust if he takes things too far.
There are a number of other strong secondary characters too, most noticeably Robert Prosky, as the owner of the scrapyard where Gordon fixes up Christine. He’s a tobacco chewing old grouch who has a soft spot for the nerdy kid with lines like “don’t think you’ve got the gold key to the crapper” and is the kind of American character actor who just lights up the screen every time he appears, until Christine crushes him to death that is.
Another great guy is Robert Blossom who sells Gordon the car. Blossom plays an old trope of the horror movie: the old geezer who explains the background to the plot and says you’re all doomed. However apart really encouraging such death and destruction by selling the car in the first place, Blossom, with his ratty old beard, withered arms and milky, distant eyes, looks like he really could be haunted by the darkpast of that demonic automobile. He tells his late brother’s story (who owned Christine) with such conviction, it’s the creepiest part of the film. Here we also get to hear that Stephen King voice shining through; the small stories of people’s tragic past that inform and embellish the current unfolding story with neat little snippets of dialogue that brings the tale to life: “A brand new car is just about the finest smell in the world,” Blossom says with spit on his lips, “apart from pussy.”
Okay, not everyone is as good, or as interesting. Gordon’s bullies, lead by William Ostrander are your standard thug bunch which I’m sure were much more rounded in the book but here are overweight teenagers lead by a thirty year old man pretending he’s still at school. Also Alexandra Paul as both Gordon’s girlfriend and Stockwell’s object of desire (we know who’s Gordon’s object of desire is and she has four wheels not massive eighties hair) is a bit rubbish but then she’s not given much to do other than to look attractive and scream a bit.
Actually there are a few jarring moments in the story. Gordon goes from super nerd to mysterious moody cool kid almost too quickly and his relationship with Paul is never given a chance to establish itself before she’s suddenly being jealous of and then choked by Christine. I wonder if these pacing issues are anything to do with the fact that the film went into production before the book had even been finished. Whilst I’m sure King would have given the film makers access to his notes maybe the nuances of his story telling weren’t available to the scriptwriter. This most comes across when we reach the climactic showdown between Christine and a bulldozer. It just seems clunky and an add on with very little wrapping up for the three main characters, especially Gordon who is barely seen, let alone given any final resolution.
The incredibly light and upbeat coda at the end of the film where (MASSIVE SPOLIER) Stockwell and Paul stand over a crushed up pile of Fury metal and joke about it, moments after their best friend and lover has been killed on a spike, undermines the seriousness of the rest of the story, as well as the dynamics and tragedy of the main protagonists. Maybe Carpenter wanted his audience to leave on a bit of an upbeat mood, however it’s more of a huh than a high.
Also, while I’m here. The film really suffers from a lack of graphic violence. I’m not saying that every horror film must have gore to work, Halloween is one of the most bloodless slashers ever made and we all know how good that is. But some of Christine’s deaths demand the gruesomeness you would find in King’s books. Especially when the bullies are murdered, there should be that grim fictional satisfaction of seeing Buddy and co being splattered all over the tarmac, not a cutaway to Harry Dean Stanton telling us about it afterwards. Maybe Carpenter was sick of blood and guts having just come off The Thing with all the grossness any director could want for a lifetime.
These issues are stuff that I imagine lead to the frosty reception Christine got upon its release by me and everyone else back in 1983. Now, they seem more like trivial missed opportunities. The rest of the film shows Carpenter at the peak of his powers, and King creating that small town American horror he is so good at, full of interesting detail and tragic losers. Christine, whilst not perfect, shows what great film makers and storytellers can do with the proper care and attention. It’s not one of Carpenters finest films films but its craftsmanship is so apparent (the car reforming scenes look like really good CG!) and story so entertaining that even though she’s a killer car, you wouldn’t kick Christine out of bed.