“She’ll possess you. Then destroy you. She’s death on wheels. She’s…”
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul
Synopsis: A nerdish boy buys a strange car with an evil mind of its own and his nature starts to change to reflect it.
Horror maestro Stephen King’s novel Christine, while perhaps not one of his best novels, was a great one for a weekend read on the beach. It was a page-turner, a gripping tale enhanced by King’s skill with dialogue and references to pop culture new and old, which seemed to anchor his stories in reality in a way few other horror writers could at the time. His horror stories have met with only mediocre success when adapted for the screen for this reason. The films lack King’s unique ‘voice’ and, robbed of this, they are forced to rely on the strength of the plot — which was never King’s strong point. His skill as a writer of literature lies in breathing new life into old ideas, and populating his novels with the type of characters you’d expect to meet in real life, pumping petrol at your local gas station, selling trinkets at the local store, or haunting the corridors of your high school. King’s writing voice took us into the minds of these ordinary people in a way that his movies never could, so that the cinematic representations of his literary creations often come across as flat and unconvincing.
Although time has been pretty kind to the movie Christine (more so than it has to the 1976 version of Carrie, that’s for sure), it suffers from this problem of characterisation in a big way. Characters of reasonable depth are transformed into one-dimensional stereotypes, and the lack of any real backstory leaves gaps in the narrative that are never filled. Why, for example, is a popular jock like Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell) such great friends with a human punch-bag like Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon), for example? Their friendship isn’t so fantastical as to be unbelievable, but it is unusual enough to deserve an explanation which is never really forthcoming, and nobody questions Dennis’s friendship with such a weedy nerd. Cunningham is a fragile-looking weakling with a sunken chest and spindly arms who sports the kind of oversized glasses that should have the words ‘hit’ and ‘me’ printed on them. There are plenty of people at his school willing to do just that, chief of whom is local bad boy Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander, whose birthdate on IMDb suggests he was 23-years-old when he made Christine, although he looks closer to 35). Meanwhile, it’s clear that the school’s hottest cheerleader (Kelly Preston) would like nothing more than to have him play with her pom-poms at his leisure. It looks like she’s destined to be disappointed, however, with the arrival of equally hot new girl, Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul).
As Dennis is driving Arnie home following another run-in with Repperton and his gang, Arnie spots the wreckage of a car parked in the yard of a ramshackle bungalow, and has Dennis pull over so that he can have a closer look. The car, a red-and-cream 1958 Plymouth Fury which has clearly been neglected for years, is seemingly beyond repair, but Arnie buys it at an inflated price anyway, and somehow manages to drive it to a garage and scrap yard owned by Will Darnell (Robert Prosky). Over his parents’ strenuous objections, Arnie insists on keeping the car and sets about the lengthy process of making it roadworthy. Only, the transformation of the car doesn’t take as long as most people would expect, and as he works on it Arnie undergoes a transformation of his own, changing from the bespectacled nerd he once was to a self-confident tough guy. In fact, his transformation is so complete that he somehow manages to pull Leigh Cabot, that foxy new girl that Dennis had already tried putting the moves on. In fact, when Arnie shows up with Leigh in the gleaming, fully-refurbished Fury called Christine during a school football game in which he’s playing, Dennis is so taken aback that he mishandles a pass and is the recipient of a crunching tackle that comes close to breaking his neck and leaves him bedridden for a number of weeks.
So, in the space of a few short weeks since buying Christine, Arnie has got himself a new image, a new girlfriend, and a job with Darnell. Life is looking up. But Repperton hasn’t forgotten how Arnie got him hauled up in front of the school’s head as a result of that run-in they had just before Arnie first saw Christine. And he sees in Arnie’s car, the perfect means of getting revenge. Together with his gang, Repperton makes the big mistake of breaking into Darnell’s one night and totals Christine with uncustomary effort and enthusiasm. Naturally, Arnie is distraught when he discovers what has happened to his car. Unfortunately for Leigh, she just happens to be with him when he finds the car, and he turns on her in a vicious rage. Their relationship was already shaky thanks to a choking episode Leigh suffered while sitting in Christine, and this sudden rage pretty much spells the end of them as a couple. With a tearful Leigh now out of the picture, Arnie sets about repairing the damage done to Christine, but this time he has help from an unlikely source. The car actually starts repairing itself and, once the repairs are complete, it is thirsty for revenge on those who bent her wipers and dumped on her dashboard…
Every movie adaptation is forced to slough off the flesh from the novel on which it is based in order to reconstruct a thinned-down version around its bare bones, which inevitably means that a movie so often seems inferior to the novel. That’s the case with Christine, due largely to the fact that not only do we learn next to nothing about the human characters, but the movie also reveals precious little about Christine, and exactly why she’s such an evil bitch. She sure does look good, though, and mere association gives her an aura of evil even when she’s merely parked in her bay in Darnell’s garage. This evilness grows in strength and implacability with each mile she travels, thanks to an odometer that rotates backwards with each passing mile. It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t really have anywhere to go other than the usual path of revenge and self-defensive destruction — something we’ve all seen in countless other movies.
The careers of the leads in the movie never really amounted to much. Stockwell, Gordon and Paul all continued to work, but never really enjoyed much significant above the line status. They all do ok here, and Paul looks delicious, but Gordon suffers from the impossibility of the role he’s asked to play. The producers had two choices. Cast a hunk in the role of Arnie Cunningham and dress him like a nerd for the opening scenes, or cast a slightly built lad in the part and forget about using any intimidating physical bulk to emphasise his transformation. They went with the latter which, when you think about it, was the sensible option, but it was always going to leave whoever they cast in the role struggling to impose their personality on the new, improved Arnie. Gordon does the best you could reasonably expect, charting the path from weakling to cool kid to obsessed (and possessed) delusional paranoid, but he never really convinces.
Nevertheless, Christine is still a decent horror movie if you’re not expecting lots of gore or cheap scares. It looks good, thanks to Carpenter’s direction and remains true to the nature of the novel even if it does only skim its surface. The transformation scene, in which we see Christine punch out her dents and straighten her crumpled chrome fenders still holds up today and, if anything, probably works better than the CGI which would undoubtedly be used today.
(Reviewed 2nd December 2013)