CHRISTINE Is Further Proof Of Why John Carpenter Is A True Master
Complete silence. Not even the familiar tunes of the Columbia Pictures fade in. Then the title screen, the sound of a car starting, and the immediately recognizable opening riffs from "Bad to the Bone" by George Thorogood and the Destroyers. The gruff vocals bring us into a Chrysler manufacturing plant where a string of cars are on the auto line, sporting the muted color of "buckskin beige" but our antagonist, a spectra red Fury with a dartline paint job, her name is Christine. Within five minutes, two people are dead but within a minute into this movie, your hooked.
Well, that's John Carpenter for you.
Christine came out in 1983, well after the critical and financial success of Halloween and only a year after a movie that (at the time) was considered a massive failure, The Thing. Well here and now, we know that The Thing would go on to become one of the biggest cult classics of all time and revered by many horror and science fiction fans as one of the best of each respective genre. This was not that time, however, it was 1983 and Carpenter decided to put aside personal projects and instead focus on something that he considered "just a job." Without knowing this fact, Christine still holds up as a totally watchable, in fact an altogether really good and fun movie. Coupled with this knowledge, however, Christine is a little more incredible. Knowing that Carpenter went into making the movie, based on the works of ever-popular Stephen King, with a different mindset than most of his filmography proves that Carpenter is almost always at the top of his game.
The book isn't widely considered one of King's most terrifying bouts, although well written and an observation on the United States obsession with the automobile, and when the script came to Carpenter he pretty much took it the same way. "It just wasn't very frightening," he said. Then he did what John Carpenter does and directed the shit out of this literal hell on wheels tale.
Christine follows Arnie Cunningham (played by Keith Gordon), the biggest caricature of a nerd that eighties Hollywood had to give. Huge square-rimmed glasses, clothes just a little too big, this guy even drops a giant bag of garbage on his way out to school. He plays Scrabble with his parents and brags about it. His best friend is polar opposite, Dennis Guilder (played by John Stockwell) is so cool because he doesn't even try. He's just naturally attractive, laid back, and looks out for his best pal, Arnie. After a particularly rough day, Arnie runs into our titular 'character' Christine, and buys her on a whim. We soon find out that Christine is more than just a normal car, and things escalate from here.
You would think a movie about a demonic car with a penchant for murder would be cheesy. And you're right. We have seen it done since Christine and the results vary. What Carpenter does to push the film from cheesy to good and then to fantastic is he creates a character out of the car. When first introduced, the Fury is a dilapidated beauty that's all but written off, strongly connecting with Arnie and how he feels about himself. He knows what he has to offer but people see the exterior and it's all crushed packed lunch from there. As the Fury undergoes changes, so does Arnie. The more fixed up the car becomes, the more confident he gets. It's a symbiotic relationship and we are witnessing the growth of them both. As Arnie adopts a leather jacket and ditches the glasses, the Fury starts showing signs of sentience. Her headlights glow, her radio dials on it's own (only to fifties music, a sly callback to the setting of the novel), and she starts lashing out at people who don't treat Arnie right.
By creating a persona for the car, we connect with it. At first, it seems almost altruistic. This kid came along and did all this work, helped it get fixed up, now it's just returning the favor. However, the relationship sours as Arnie starts projecting the same strange feelings the car has. He's callous, vengeful and violent. By turning the car into a personification of the stereotypical male ego, it becomes a much more threatening entity. She oozes sex and power and Arnie will do whatever he can to curry favor with it.
It doesn't end there. While we get some fun acting from Gordon and Stockwell, we're also treated to a classic synth score from Carpenter but partnered with a smattering of fifties rock n' roll. Alongside a rocking soundtrack, Christine features some truly awesome special effects. Every time the car is damaged, it repairs itself and these scenes are as mesmerizing as some of the best werewolf transformations, with tires inflating and dented chrome finding it's way back home.
One last note for Christine is how wildly relevant the movie still is. While a fun and rare demonic vehicle feature, it also offers a look at toxic masculinity and basically deconstructs it and tears it down. When the movie starts, Arnie is often chastised by his hornball friends who make lewd and sexist comments, but as the movie continues Arnie becomes more "masculine" by becoming frequently and sporadically angry and violent. The harder he leans into this unfortunate social construct, the more Dennis veers away from it. While Arnie initially hooks up with school heartthrob Leigh (Alexandra Paul), he feels entitled and deserving of her affection, and ends up lashing out when she doesn't bend to his whim. I don't want to get too heavy here but in today's culture, it's a message that may need to be relayed.
Because guess what happens to Arnie? HE DIES.
The cherry on top is Harry Dean Stanton popping up as Detective Rudy Jenkins. Do yourself a favor if you were anything like me and thought this film was unessential viewing. GO WATCH IT.
Also, happy birthday John. You're a true master.