Oeuvre: Carpenter: Christine

Oeuvre: Carpenter: Christine

A surprisingly prescient work of art that deserves a higher place in its director’s consideration.

Outside of his undeniable classics, John Carpenter’s work brings up memories of late night hunts on cable TV during the dark days of hopping a mere 30 channels with a controller attached to your television by a lengthy cord. Christine gets lost in this cloud of memory, playing between The Beastmaster and Carlin at Carnegie in the endless loop that was HBO in the early ‘80s. Through this portal, the movie is easily dismissed as a mediocrity that took the old SNL skit “Land Shark” all the way, replacing Jaws with a cherry red, 1958 Plymouth Fury that stalks the streets of small town America like it was the ocean off the shores of Amity. To do so devalues what is a surprisingly prescient work of art that deserves a higher place in its director’s consideration. Yes, it’s about a killer car–and so much more.

Christine was Carpenter’s second Stephen King adaptation. The first, Firestarter, ended abruptly when he and Universal Studios parted ways after The Thing became a critical and financial flop. He needed a job to get his career back on track, and producer Richard Kobritz called asking him to bring King’s forthcoming bestseller to the screen for Columbia Pictures. Given the paucity of offers from major studios, Carpenter took the job, but it’s hard to fall in love with your rebound. This was more a professional calculation than passion project, as the director makes clear in many an interview.

Still, from the classic car and ‘50s rock classics, there are hints of Elvis in this tale of an eight-cylinder demon that possesses its owners. Its latest victim is Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon), a high school nerd looking to upgrade his identity and social status who happens upon the Christine’s rusted carcass in the yard of its former owner’s brother, George LeBay (Robert Blossoms). Blossom’s large eyes and gaunt physique make him the perfect postmodern witch in this fairy tale, while Gordon takes Arnie from bespectacled zeta male to Rebel Without A Cause cosplayer in a brilliant performance that teeters on the edge of indulgent but never capsizes. Arnie’s loyalty to his car is unwavering, but Gordon manages to imbue his performance with subtle expressions of dismay about the murders mounting around the object of his affection. That’s pretty much the extent where the subtlety ends.

The movie begins with the BA-DA-DA-DA-DA of George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” while Christine’s origin story on the assembly line unfurls. The machine kills the first man to disrespect its interior with cigar ash, but being the first coffin for that poor inspector doesn’t keep Christine from reaching a showroom and the outside world. It is a steel and chrome commodity more important than a human life, but Carpenter would interrogate American corporatism later on with They Live. Christine is more an intentional study in toxic masculinity long before the term was en vogue.

Arnie exists on the low end of the teenage spectrum with two boys he’d rather be: Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell), his football star best friend, and Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander), the musclebound bully who torments Arnie. Carpenter introduces their animosity in an auto shop class where all the misdirected machismo of car culture comes in its most concentrated form. Dennis puts up a good fight, but Buddy rules this arena, and when Christine starts possessing Arnie’s soul, it pushes his personality toward bad boy Buddy at the exclusion of Dennis. The bumbling Arnie is transformed into an antiquated archetype of tough and cool with elements of Dean and Elvis. Nostalgia becomes fetishized in Arnie’s aesthetic, Christine’s body work and the golden oldies that play while the radio glows a sickly green. Arnie even touches the car with greater care and affection than he offers his girlfriend, Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul). She’s the prettiest girl in school, but after her skin roughens with age, the car will always reflect an idealized youth with her polished exterior.

Academic reading aside, the movie offers two sequences that deserve greater due. The first is Christine’s rebirth after Pepperton’s gang breaks into the garage where Arnie stores the car. Sledgehammers and crowbars lay waste to the machine and the months Arnie spent resurrecting it. Fully entwined with the teenager’s soul, the car repairs itself before his eyes. Using all practical effects, the car goes from total loss to monster machine, popping out its dents, reassembling mirrors and windows, repairing its interior and re-inflating its tires. It is the automotive version of the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London and no less impressive.
The second is Christine’s vengeful joy ride. The car stalks Pepperton and his boys, killing them in a sequence that begins with the car crushing itself into an alley to pin one against a brick wall to Christine pulling out of a burning gas station engulfed in flames. It is a chase sequence that stands above Bullitt and The French Connection for sheer audacity and entertainment value.

These unexpected pleasures can’t hide the movie’s unevenness. Too many characters behave stupidly for the sake of plot, making the preposterousness of the monster impossible to ignore. The metaphor can only go so far, and two hours tests its limits. When the movie was released, it performed similarly to The Thing, though the criticism was not quite as merciless. With consecutive flops, critics wondered if Carpenter’s directing prowess had been shaken. But he was ahead of his time.

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