John Carpenter was quite open about having no particular passion to make Christine. The Thing had gone belly-up at the box office, and adapting a Stephen King seemed like a sure-fire way to make bank. Unfortunately, its reception was tepid. It may have seemed like a no-brainer – Duel’s demonic truck had put Spielberg on the map a decade earlier – but Carpenter discovered “It was difficult to make it frightening”. More like Herbie, then. Indeed, the director is at his best in the build-up to unleashing the titular automobile, making the fudging of the third act all the more disappointing.
Christine was the fifth King novel to be adapted for the big screen, one of three that arrived in 1983 (the others being Cujo and the superior The Dead Zone). They all grossed about the same amount, which was significantly less than the two that kicked off Hollywood’s enduring love affair with the author, Carrie and The Shining (with the hindsight of thirty years, really successful big screen versions are the exceptions – It being the latest – with his non-horrors having met with disproportionately greater critical or commercial approval).
Such was King fervour at the time – matching only his for nose candy – work began on the movie before the novel was even released. Which wouldn’t, as it turned out, be one of his better-received works either, picking up as it did Carrie’s teen trauma baton but expressing it through the rather more pedestrian mechanism of a possessed motor car.
Still, the picture seems to have undergone something of a rehabilitation in recent years, even cited by some as one of the best King adaptations (well, it’s all relative). Kim Newman put his finger on its major problem in Nightmare Movies, when he noted of the car that it “isn’t quite able to make her as much of a seductive personality as the script suggests she should be”. It isn’t that the movie isn’t scary – and it certainly isn’t – it’s that Christine has insufficient heft as a villain. The best you can say is that Carpenter doesn’t allow the Plymouth Fury to become a joke, which given the broadness of some of the elements here could easily have happened.
When you follow the tribulations of a put-upon nerd, there ought to be some catharsis in having him triumph over his persecutors, even if this is by way of turning to the dark side. Carpenter succeeds admirably with first part, but then seems to become almost disinterested in the payback (Arnie’s most effective moment comes not in response to the school bullies, but grabbing his admonishing father by the throat), which sidles along as offhandedly as the sudden appearances of Harry Dean Stanton’s cop (in all of about three scenes), haunting the protagonist like an even more unkempt Columbo.
Newman opined that the “For much of the movie, the focus is not on Christine, but on her owner”, but the key here is only the “for much of”. Keith Gordon gives a great performance as loser Arnie (not Richie) Cunningham (or “Cunt-ingham”) but once he’s transformed into a ’50s greaser (this being an ’80s movie, set in the ’70s, the dislocated time could be seen as a positive or negative, but I tend to the lack of a clearly established teen milieu being a minus) his characterisation becomes disappointingly one-note. Worse, the focus shifts from Arnie to his best friend Dennis (John Stockwell, since having eked out a patchy career as a director, including Into the Blue and, er, Blue Crush).
So Dennis, already a jock with a heart (he sticks by his buddy, and stands up to the bullies) gets the girl, Leigh (Alexandra Paul, entirely underwhelming), while Arnie abruptly exits his own movie. The trick would have been to keep us engaged with Cunningham and his fate, but by the time he’s impaled on some arbitrary glass, we’re resigned to realising he isn’t even the movie’s antihero, less still co-villain. Dennis has moved centre stage, as if validating every “alpha male gets the girl” cliché and throwing support behind them to boot (I should stress that Stockwell’s very good, even as his character is earnestly irksome).
Arnie: A toast: death, to the shitters of the world, 1979.
There’s also the issue of the changes to the novel Carpenter and Bill Phillips (who wrote the screenplay) bring to bear, all but expunging the presence of Roland LeBay, who possesses the car and thus Arnie. Some who have read King’s tome suggest this was a good move, Carpenter streamlining an indulgent narrative, but for those of us unfamiliar with it, Arnie’s behaviour is left somewhat questionable. Such as, why he’s suddenly gone all ’50s throwback (what, because the car came off a production line then?) and referring to those he doesn’t like as “shitters” (George LeBay – Robert Blossom – calls Dennis a shitter when Arnie buys the car, but that’s about it).
Then there’s the background to Leigh nearly choking to death in the car, foreshadowed only by an easily-missed line of exposition. There’s never a sense of sloppiness to the production that say, Escape from L.A. exhibits, but neither do you get the impression Carpenter cared enough to go the extra distance in making this really work. And there wouldn’t have been that far to go. All the ingredients are there.
If Stanton (RIP) doesn’t get much of a look in, Robert Prosky makes a strong showing as the garage owner who allows Arnie to use his lockup, at first threatening and then increasingly understanding. Christine Belford is effectively dislikeable as Arnie’s dominating mother (“Has it ever occurred to you that part of being a parent is trying to kill your kids?” Arnie asks Dennis). William Ostrander is also an uncompromisingly hateable chief bully, although not only was he in his early twenties when the movie was made, but he also looks a good half-decade older still.
Seeing Stanton in this made me fleetingly wonder what that ’80s teen movie titan John Hughes, who cast him in Pretty in Pink, might have made of the movie. Obviously, horror wasn’t his thing, but then this isn’t a scary movie. Hughes might have stayed focussed on the essential theme, which is rather lost amid the car-nage, a charge you couldn’t level at De Palma’s Carrie.
Part of the problem might also have been that Carpenter doesn’t (didn’t) really suit straight studio movies. The ones that work (The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China) are in spite of his pitching his tent on their backlot, such that it feels like he both got away with something and lost them a wad of money (in the immediate moment) as a result. Christine, like Starman (which I like, but has little edge or bite to it, not even in a romantic sense) saw him playing safe, making watchable movies but ones that lack his essential personality.