Thursday, March 10, 2011

Film Review: CHRISTINE (1983, John Carpenter)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 110 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Keith Gordon (THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN, DRESSED TO KILL, director of THE CHOCOLATE WAR, WAKING THE DEAD), John Stockwell (MY SCIENCE PROJECT, TOP GUN), Harry Dean Stanton (PARIS TEXAS, WILD AT HEART), Alexandra Paul (BAYWATCH, DRAGNET '87), Robert Prosky (GREMLINS 2, LAST ACTION HERO), Kelly Preston (JERRY MAGUIRE, TWINS), Roberts Blossom (CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, FLASHPOINT). Original music by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth. Special effects supervised by Roy Arbogast (RETURN OF THE JEDI, THEY LIVE, JAWS 2). Stunt coordinated by Terry Leonard (CONAN THE BARBARIAN, COBRA). Written by Bill Phillips (FIRE WITH FIRE, EL DIABLO), and based on the novel by Stephen King.
Tag-line: "Seductive. Passionate. Possessive. Say hello to Christine...Your Girlfriend, The Car."
Best one-liner: "No shitter ever came between me and Christine!"

I didn't like CHRISTINE very much the first time I saw it. I think I expected either mind-blowing gore and stomach-churning tension á la THE THING or balls-out fun and Americana smart-alecks á la BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, and so I was left a little disappointed. However, I've found that my appreciation for it increases exponentially with each viewing, and now I'd have no problem whatsoever referring to it as an upper-tier Carpenter.

A much-hyped collaboration between two titans of modern horror, Stephen King and John Carpenter, CHRISTINE plays well to some of their respective fascinations: King's being the turbulence of adolescence heightened by runaway supernatural evil (see also: CARRIE) and Carpy's being an obsession with 50's nostalgia and the feeling of being born in the wrong time (see also: WAITING OUT THE EIGHTIES). The story of a murderous '57 Plymouth Fury and the strange hold it takes over the personality of a 70's teenage outcast, CHRISTINE is equal parts thriller, chiller, and a freaky coming-of-age. Here's ten reasons I think it's quite a plum in Carpenter's oeuvre:

#1. The soundtrack (and occasional lack thereof). Right off the bat, Carpenter lets us know it's not exactly business as usual: despite the familiar Albertus font, the film opens not with the familiar strains of a synthesized Carpy score, but the malevolent idling of an engine. Later, we get some Carpy-penned tension-building tracks, but the majority of the soundtrack is made up of classic, early Rock n' Roll tracks (which take on an even greater significance when the demon-car Christine begins to use their lyrics to communicate!). Carpenter also beautifully illustrates the decline of American culture as Buddy Holly's original "Not Fade Away" literally fades away into Tanya Tucker's 70's-tastic (and fairly abhorrant) version. Including Bonnie Raitt's reinterpretation of Del Shannon's "Runaway" achieves the same purpose: groundbreaking, sincere work gives way to glossy, poppy, overproduced nonsense. (And I don't mean especially to pick on Tanya and Bonnie, because the state of mainstream artistic expression has only worsened since!)

#2. Robert Prosky. One of the great character actors, his irascible (and frequently improvised) Old Man Darnell can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned.

"That's the last time you run that mechanical asshole in here without an exhaust hose," he gripes while chewing on that old man cud that all grizzled garage owners apparently chew on. "Don't think you got the gold key to the crapper-nobody takes advantage of me!" He's great.

#3. Use of the word "shitter." Sometimes Stephen King goes a little over the top with the stylized patois, but every once in a while, a term pops up that truly warms my heart. Like when Keith Gordon squeals "Don't touch her... SHITTER!" Or when Roberts Blossom (any relation to Buck Flower?) malevolently intones "You don't know half as much as you think you do...SHITTER!" I could go on.

#4. Christine's self repair. Sure, the key principal at hand here is running the film backwards, but even the 80's SFX-naysayers must admit that the end result is astounding.

And just think of how shitty it'd look with CGI. I'm sure a remake will be in the works shortly, as the powers that be continue to mine Carpenter's back catalogue– it makes my skin crawl.

#5. The choking scene. Carpenter illustrates a supernatural event (a car consciously trapping a girl inside as she chokes on some food) through the simplest terms (extremely bright light)...and it works!

#6. Photographing Christine as though she's Michael Myers from HALLOWEEN.

And it occurs to me that those early scenes in HALLOWEEN on Michael driving around and stalking the girls likely later served as Carpenter's 'audition' for CHRISTINE! (And see the opening sequence of HALLOWEEN III for the aftershocks.) Also, the sudden lighting of piercing headlamps in the darkness makes for a great and unexpected horror motif!

#7. Carpy's meditations on the relationships between humans and machines.

Carpenter takes a different, less fleshy approach than, say, Cronenberg, but he's got a lot to say about the feelings which we ascribe to our objects. At what point does a car merit a gender? At which point does Christine emerge as a character beneath the indifferent chrome and candy apple? Is it when she's wounded- when that gaping maw of gnarled pipes and twisted metal resembles a mouth?

Regardless, there's an excellent moment when, after a demonstration of Christine's sentience, a porch light flips on suddenly in the darkness. We're in a state of mind which believes immediately somehow that the light may be 'alive,' yet it quickly sinks in that a person (soon revealed to be a parent) has turned on the light in response to a teenage argument. But it demonstrates perfectly that odd disconnect between identifying machines and the people who operate them.

#8. Harry Dean Stanton. Sure, his part's not that big. Sure, he's been better used elsewhere. But when Harry Dean Stanton shows up, I stand to attention and salute.

It does make me kind of sad that Harry Dean and Carpenter only collaborated twice, though––can you imagine him as one of the crew in THE THING? Or as a resistance member in THEY LIVE? The mind reels.

#9. I love it when high-schoolers are ambiguously middle-aged. It's like it was a prerequisite to have at least a couple in every teen movie.

#10. Keith Gordon. Sometimes I can't quite tell if an actor is terrible or brilliant, but I enjoy their performance all the same. His character begins as a nerd that's excited about Scrabble and can't even open his own locker,

but transforms into a psychotic, car-obsessed 70's greaser prone to Pesci-esque explosions of emotion. Occasionally he enters the realm of "Hoo boy, that's over the top," but that's really such a fine line that perhaps it's not for me to say.

What is for me to say? Well, how about a toast– "Death to all SHITTERS of 1979!"

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

For me, the film's best one-liner is from Prosky's character: "You can't polish a turd!" Great to use in every day conversation, too.

Like yourself, I did not warm up to this film until several viewings later for the reasons you stated so well. But the film has aged quite well and good observation about how the stalking scenes early on in HALLOWEEN were a warm-up for what he does in CHRISTINE!

If you get the chance, the commentary track on the DVD with Carpenter and Keith Gordon is quite good as two filmmakers reminisce about the film and the nature of film directing. Very interesting stuff.

Tempest said...

I have yet to see this all the way through, and it's because like everyone here mentioned, I didn't take to this film immediately. I found it hard to get into, but I ought to watch it when I have the chance. I agree, it is comical when people well past 18 are cast as high-schoolers.

Space Cadet said...

My favorite bit is where Arnie goes psycho on his dad: “Keep your mitts off me, motherfucker!” - and walks away, and his dad is just standing there frozen with fear. Despite the storyline, it’s actually a fairly real and unsettling moment of domestic terror. I know what you mean by Gordon’s performance. It might be laughed at by today’s bullshit epicurean standards where anything resembling over-acting is quickly shunned, but I think its equally sincere in all measures. His moments of pure angst, confusion and frustration between his car, parents and the opposite sex seem completely earnest and heartfelt.

I think the most Carpenteresque scene in the film is where the main bully, Buddy Repperton, is running down the darkened highway, lit only by the flaming Christine in pursuit; for some reason images of night and fire seem associative with Carpenter’s style. Furthermore, the camera work, music and overall mood of that scene totally reminds me that I’m watching a film of his making.

Sean Gill said...


I haven't checked out that commentary yet, but it sounds intriguing! On his commentaries, Carpy always strikes that perfect note between being educational and having fun reminiscing, so I look forward to it.

Also, would love to see a 'battle of the cantankerous bosses' between Prosky and maybe Charles Durning.


If you're in an Americana nostalgia/Carpenter horror mood, I'd give it that second chance, for sure.

Space Cadet,

You make a good point about that domestic terror scene- it really stands out as a genuine, realistic freaky moment. As for Gordon, I enjoy him very much. There are a few moments where he's not quiiiiite selling the crazy-eye, but I say- so what! He's bringing enough scary adolescent energy to the role that he gets a hearty thumbs-up from me.

And Buddy being chased by the flaming car has got Carpenter's fingerprints all over it- kind of a recurring motif of 'a character fleeing the unknown while engulfed by blackness' from the open of HALLOWEEN 3 to "The Gas Station" segment of BODY BAGS to IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.

Mike B. said...

Here comes a belated tangential note! The truth is, I have lived a lie for a long time. Since I was a young man, I've presented myself as a some big Carpenter fan (and classic Stephen King fan as well), and yet until yesterday I had never seen Christine (gasp - the secret is out!). And boy oh boy, did it not disappoint. I feel like the partnership works because, really, only the IDEA is King - the rest is all Carpenter. The gorgeous slow lingering camera moves, the blasts of ominous synth madness, you are definitely right about there being no question about its place in the upper tier of his work. Three big standouts for me: 1) I LOVE how Carpenter chose to set the film about 5 years before its release. There's absolutely no need for it, but it it gives it a little extra, undefinable "something" right at the top. 2) The handling of the key scene in which Christine repairs herself (i.e., "Show me") is beyond masterful. There were a million ways this could have gone wrong and wrecked the suspense. Heck, there were many ways King & Carpenter themselves could have easily botched it. I knew it was coming, and I was bracing myself to be extra forgiving and suspending of disbelief, and instead the scene actually pulled me further into the film. 3) I love how Carpenter seems to randomly skip over HUGE chunks of plot, from the beginning right on through to the end. The biggest obviously being that we see literally none of Arnie's transition from uber-nerd to dark almost-madman; it's just boom, one scene he's a spazz and the next he's making out with a future Baywatch babe. I think it shows the clout that Carpenter must have carried at the time that he could get away with letting the audience fill in so many of the gaps. And it really helps the movie in terms of length and pace, I felt like skipping bits just allowed for more bits later. Extra movie value! Thanks as always for the great reviews, and a quick word on Roberts Blossom. You probably already have seen it, but if not, his performance in "Deranged" is one of the best, weirdest, creepiest things ever. And I noticed your note about more Van Damme coming soon, which is awesome and why your site rules!

Sean Gill said...


Glad you don't have to live in shame anymore. You make excellent points– while people always associate Carpy with top-notch suspense and electronic soundtracks (and while he does provide those in spades), Carpy is sort of an unsung master in craftsmanlike plot structure. Sure, he skips over those huge chunks, but as you say, it works! And I've always kind of held PRINCE OF DARKNESS as the gold standard for how to open a movie: he lays out scads of plot information, is suspenseful, and exudes style at the same time. "Extra movie value" indeed!

I actually haven't seen DERANGED, but I have the DVD in a double feature with MOTEL HELL lying around here someplace. I'll have to remedy that soon.

And thanks for the kind words. Still cookin' up some further Van Dammage.