Christine (John Carpenter, 1983)
Sensitive high school football jock Dennis (John Stockwell) watches with growing concern as his best friend, the four-eyed nerd Arnie (Keith Gordon, giving the performance of his life) begins to transform into someone he no longer recognizes (which includes nabbing the hottest girl in school that he himself had his eye on, played by Alexandra Paul) – someone who seems as filled with seething menace as the beat-up used 1958 Plymouth Fury that the once-loser bought just before he started to change… a car transforming right along with him, into something murderous… and very possessive…
De Palma. Romero. Hooper. Hell, even the less celebrated, yet still respectable Teague. (Kubrick too, but he’s from this whole other filmmaking sphere). And now… Carpenter. Ah, Stephen King, what charmed beginnings to your cinematic life (yes, yes, along with being an immensely prolific populist horror writer, naturally). All these influential genre filmmakers, masters of modern horror, in the peak of their magically creative years, the very golden period of the genre (as recounted in Jason Zinoman’s enjoyable _ Shock Value_, a book that uses the same narrative backbone as “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”, which documented the parallel rise of the rebellious New Hollywood brat pack, to the point of both championing a less critically lauded filmmaker as a tragically underappreciated driving force on the scene — Hal Ashby in Raging Bulls and Dan O’Bannon in Shock Value, both who aren’t underrated to me, that’s for sure).
Along with Carpenter’s directing and the beautifully lit killer-car sequences (including those just-as-cool moments of Christine magically fixing herself)… is Keith Gordon as Arnie; introduced as nerdy and timid, then slowly changing – at first seemingly for the confident better before growing dark and obsessive, with ominous and scary signs emerging (directly linking to the purchase of that old abandoned ’58 Plymouth Fury named Christine that no one in their right mind should have paid a dollar), Gordon brings the part completely to life. Hitting the notes of his character’s transformation with pitch perfect control, cinematically and theatrically, while never falling over into being broad, I’d put hist performance right up there alongside Vincent Price’s brilliant thespian turn into sudden madness as the distraught Nicholas Medina in the 1961 Pit and the Pendulum Already a favorite of mine for his presence in both Dressed to Kill and, yes,
Jaws 2 he doesn’t get anywhere near the recognition he should for delivering one of the great modern genre performances (hell, 1983’s Best Actor winner Ben Kingsley for Ghandi has nothing on him as far as I’m concerned!).
I saw Christine back in the theater when it first came out and remember well how relatively tepid the audience reaction was… and have been glad to see the appreciation it deserves having grown considerably over time (a not, unfortunately, uncommon fate of some of what are today universally celebrated as the greatest of Carpenter films… perhaps partially explaining the off-putting posture of bitter disinterest with which he’s armored himself over the years).
Christine may not be as weighty and powerful as the director’s most mature work The Thing (another one dismissed upon its release, to the point of almost having destroyed his career), or have achieved the iconic status or longstanding mythos of Halloween or even been as ambitious as Escape from New York but it’s right up there with his most successful efforts, certainly in terms of pure cinematic craftsmanship. And it’s a film that over the years feels more and more as personal — as ‘auteur’ — a vision as any of the best of his cinematic works. It’s certainly one of the great Stephen King adaptations.
Yes, the actors are obviously older than high school age, but at least they wisely cast with the proper trick of keeping the lot of them consistently ‘over-age’ (just look at, say, Grease I mean, Olivia Newton-John was thirty when her and Travolta were cavorting about playing googly-eyed first time lovers and I don’t remember hearing anybody complaining!), with the muscle-bound, heavy side-burned and perfectly cast William Ostrander, looking even a few years older (okay, like he’s 40) than the rest (we all know the type … left back so many times he’s an adult working full time as a car mechanic dating thirty year big-breasted strippers by the time senior year rolls around), the absolutely perfectly named Buddy Repperton, the juvenile delinquent who bullies Arnie (in an exact replay of the scene in the novel), slicing the helpless boy’s lunch bag and all its contents open with his switchblade (oh, but don’t you worry… what is Christine there for if not to meet out some nicely captured violent death-car justice for her favorite new man).
It’s a thrill-ride of a film, mixing some real jump scares and intensity with organically funny moments, played out both within the high school situations as well as through the choice of 50’s songs that Christine (the car with a life of its own) decides to suddenly pop onto the radio in response to things happening around it (i.e., ‘You keep on knocking, but you can’t come in!’ and ‘Bad to the Bone’). And that image of the blazing Christine heading down the highway like a vengeful demon straight out of hell leaving behind the burning corpse of Repperton… now that’s imagery as classic as any Carpenter has ever created.
Likely in large part due to the appeal of its high school milieu, what fun it was to watch my daughter completely captivated, and even literally shrieking in that pleasurably roller-coaster ride way at moments such as when Christine suddenly appears from the dark, freezing the suddenly very vulnerable beautiful heroine in her headlights. Delicious. Perfect.