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Christine
Tonight's Feature Presentation

CHRISTINE (1983)

Starring: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Robert Prosky, Harry Dean Stanton

Written By: Bill Phillips, Stephen King (novel) Directed By: John Carpenter

The Short Version

Christine is fun horror that doesn’t need buckets of blood to make its point.

John Carpenter’s direction isn’t just excellent; it’s beautiful.

From John Carpenter’s score to oldies that make the car talk, this flick has one hot soundtrack.

Christine herself is damn sexy for a horror monster, I must say.

Understated and underrated by its own director; this baby’s a classic.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHERRY CHEESECAKE.

For a cherry car.  You like cheesecake, don’t you, Christine?


Pairs Well With...

JACK DANIEL'S.

Classic American whiskey for a now-classic horror novel turned into an awesome movie about a classic car.  Don’t worry about the drinking; Christine’s driving tonight.

“Let me tell you a little something about love, Dennis.  It has a voracious appetite.  It eats everything.  Friendship.  Family.  It kills me how much it eats.  But I'll tell you something else. You feed it right, and it can be a beautiful thing, and that's what we have.  You know, when someone believes in you, man, you can do anything: any fucking thing in the entire universe.  And when you believe right back in that someone, then watch out world, because nobody can stop you then!  Nobody! Ever!


Cinematic horror has seen many a monster over the years.  Vampires.  Werewolves.  Zombies.  Cobbled together monstrosities made from parts stolen out of graves and then zapped to life with electricity.  Giant ants.  Giant leeches.  Even, at one point, a deadly mantis.  And yet it took just over seven decades before someone took one of the most prolific killers of the modern world and gave it its due as a horror monster.  That monster was the automobile, and that someone was Stephen King.  Then some genius handed John Carpenter the keys to the monster, and told him to drive her onto the screen for everyone to see.

And oh, does that sexy bitch purr when she gets there.

Roll credits.  A car starts, an engine roars, and the dark screen proudly announces: John Carpenter’s Christine.

The rest of the credits roll to no sound other than that of an engine purring at idle.  It is a stroke of absolute filmmaking genius.

Credits done; cut from black to a Plymouth Fury assembly line, Detroit, 1957.  While we listen to George Thorogood blast out “Bad to the Bone,” we see a long line of factory spec Buckskin Beige cars… save one: a special order for a new 1958 model year Fury in Ford red.  Guess which one is bad to the bone?

A man lifts the hood and checks the car out.  His hand is smashed to a bloody pulp when the hood comes back down on it.  Another man goes inside with a cigar and ashes on the seat.  He’s found there dead at quitting time.  Can you say “foreshadowing,” anyone?

Flash forward to Rockbridge, California, 1978.  Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon, Jaws 2) is a nerd with major self esteem issues.  He’s the target of bullies, his parents don’t respect him, and he can’t even figure out how to work his own locker at school.  After a rough first day of class, his buddy Dennis (John Stockwell, aka Cougar from Top Gun) is driving him home when he sees a beat up wreck of a red 1958 Plymouth Fury sitting in some old man’s front yard with a For Sale sign on it.  Despite its horrible condition, it starts, at least, and that’s enough to convince Arnie to buy the car as a fixer.  The car’s name, he’s told, is Christine.

This couldn’t be the same car we saw back in 1957, could it?

As he starts to fix up Christine, Arnie starts to change.  He gets self confidence.  He gets a retro fashion sense. He gets the hottest girl in school, Leigh (future “Baywatch” babe Alexandra Paul).   And he also gets… harsh, especially when someone messes with his car.  You’d better believe that anyone who messes with Christine is gonna pay…

Once upon a time, Stephen King wasn’t considered by the cultural elite to be one of the Great American Writers of the modern age; instead, he was just a popular hack whose horrific works made him the same sort of AntiChrist represented by Ozzy Osbourne and those freaks from KISS.  Now Ozzy and KISS are considered classic rock, Ozzy and Gene Simmons are reality TV stars, and the “troubled youth” who grew up reading Stephen King books are today’s “cultural elite” who wish their own kids would read anything at all, including vampire books, just as long as the vampires don’t sparkle.  Hell, the novel for “Christine” is actually available in school binding now!  Funny how the world changes, isn’t it?

Maybe that’s why critics today tend to like Christine better than most critics did back in ’83.

Personally, I just think it’s because Christine is an awesome movie and we’re not afraid to say so.

Like so much of Stephen King’s work, the story behind Christine takes an ordinary slice of life – in this case, the love affair between a man and his machine – and turns it into something scary.  This is no mean feat, even if you have 528 printed pages to do it on.  After all, you’ve got to believe that a car can come alive, and no matter how many people the things kill in real life every year, we all know that it’s really the idiots behind the wheel who are responsible.  In comparison, making a werewolf believable is much simpler; though equally (if not even more) impossible, the fact is that the audience has no frame of actual reference for a werewolf, whereas it’s a safe bet that everyone in the audience has travelled by car.  So, making that hunk of metal come to life?  Not so easy.

And yet, for so many who lovingly wash and wax their cars every weekend, who detail every component, even those ones that no one will ever see… is it really that farfetched?

That is what John Carpenter takes hold of and builds upon when brining Christine to life on the big screen, and he does it in less than five minutes.  In comparison, pulling that off in an entire book is child’s play.

It absolutely floored me to hear that John Carpenter thinks that he “fucked up” with Christine.  To my eyes as I watched this movie, nothing could be further from the truth.  I’ve seen plenty of cars “come to life” over time, from “Knight Rider” to “Transformers” and anything else you can think of in between.  Christine is the only one that never for one moment felt cartoonish.  What’s more, even when set against cars that talked and told jokes and help the hero save the girl from the bad guys, no car on any screen has ever had more sheer force of personality than Christine.  She doesn’t need to talk to make her anger and her jealousy known.  She doesn’t need laser cannons to be menacing.  She doesn’t need a Cylon eye effect up front to make her the sexiest car on the lot.  She just is.  And when “she” is a metal object with rubber tires and therefore no actress to bring that out, “she” is pretty much entirely what the director makes her, and what John Carpenter makes her is “alive.”

And that, my friends, is awesome.  (Some have complained that in the movie, you’re never given a reason for the car being alive, and that indeed the suggestion that Christine already was alive in the assembly line opening – which was made up just for the movie – contradicts the book.  I readily reject both arguments presented there.  One, the book and the movie are always different, though really, this one is butchered far less than most.  They’re still always separate entities.  Second, I personally think it plays better that you don’t have it explained.  The mystery is part of what makes Christine so awesome.)

Also awesome is the development of the relationship between “the boy and his car.”  Arnie starts out as a nerd, but he’s a believable nerd rather than a cardboard cutout.  He’s also aware of his own issues, and sees this car not just as a vehicle for himself in the real sense, but also as a vehicle for himself in the metaphorical sense.  He explains this beautifully when questioned by his friend Dennis just after he buys Christine.

“What is it with that car?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe it’s just that for the first time in my life, I found something that’s uglier than me.  And I know I can fix her up, so…”

So, indeed.  That one quick exchange is enough to explain everything that Arnie will pour into the car from there on in.

And as Arnie pours love into the car, so the car pours love back into Arnie.  Keith Gordon himself dreamed up one of the coolest ways that the movie presents this with the help of the costume designer.  Along with Arnie’s scripted personality changes, he also suddenly starts to develop a retro fashion sense appropriate to the age of the car.  Be the end of the movie, he’s dressing like James Dean.  It’s an easily missed but very, very nice touch.

However, it also goes a little too fast.  Yes, the transformation of Arnie from nerd to 50s-style tough is believable, and Keith Gordon plays both sides of this Jekyll/Hyde coin extremely well, but it also plays like a thrown lightswitch.  He gets exactly two transition points, and that’s it: one very brief moment where we first see him without his coke bottle glasses, and one longer moment when he’s greased up in a T shirt at the garage but still wishy-washy in his conversation.  That’s it.  Given the length of the film and the pains taken to develop all of its other aspects, it feels like there should have been more.  Two or three scenes would have been enough.  I understand that part of the point is so that the audience will be just as shocked as Dennis when Arnie suddenly pulls up to the game driving Christine and playing tonsil hockey with Leigh, but it just seems a little too sudden.

And yet, considering that Christine really doesn’t make any other mistakes, that one is easy enough to forgive.

I think it’s also a nice touch that the story holds off any reveal of Christine’s powers of restoration until after Arnie has already put the love, sweat, and tears into doing it all once himself.  In a very real sense, he has built this relationship between himself and the car, and when she pays back… wow.  It’s no accident that the music played behind the now-legendary scene where Arnie says “Show me” and Christine responds by restoring herself to mint after being wrecked by Arnie’s enemies is noir-style sax that any red-blooded audience member immediately identifies as dripping with sexual overtones.  Because make no mistake, my friends, this is a sexual moment, and indeed represents the consummation of the relationship, wherein Arnie fully gives the last of himself to Christine, and she shows her ultimate devotion to him.

And speaking of music, that sax is far from being the only great choice of music in this film.  It’s always hard to go wrong in that department when John Carpenter’s in the house, and he delivers something solid here.  Along with that sax, we have Christine speaking through hits of the 1950s blasted from her radio (the use of “Bony Moronie” to accompany the crushing scene is a stroke of genius), and when that’s not playing, we have yet another excellent score by Carpenter himself, driven by understated keys and synth.  Tack on to that what I believe is the first use of “Bad to the Bone” in a flick (it would go on to be used in more movies than any song other than James Brown’s “I Feel Good”), and you’ve got pure gold.  When the end credits declare that a movie’s soundtrack is available on Motown records and tapes, how can you go wrong?

Of course, when you’re discussing a movie about a car, you have to talk about car chases.  Surprisingly, Christine features only one “traditional” car chase scene (as in “one car following another”), and it’s the relatively short beginning to something bigger.  This is because Christine is not a traditional girl, and she has her own way of doing things.  Specifically, she likes to run guys down on foot.  These chases are awesome, and each has its own unique flavor.  I won’t spoil them for you here, but I will say that if you thought Christine was scary to begin with (and you will), she’s even more scary when she’s running your ass down while she’s on fire.

I hate to second guess a man as talented as John Carpenter, but the dude really should watch his own movie again.  Christine is fucking awesome.

I throw that gratuitous f-bomb in, by the way, because that’s what happened to Christine.  As it turns out, Christine wasn’t actually violent or gory enough to deserve a “R” rating (which just goes to show that once again, Carpenter can make things scary even without a ton of blood), and in a move that would probably make most modern producers’ heads explode, the producers of this film really wanted an “R” rating, supposing (correctly, I think) that its target audience would be more likely to come see an “R” rated movie.  So instead of ramping up the gore, the dropped a few choice f-bombs into the dialogue.  Instant “R.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Bottom line, Christine is just an awesome flick, any way you slice it.  Beautifully directed and rocked by an excellent soundtrack through which the title “monster” actually talks, Christine is a modern world horror movie with precision styling that hasn’t lost her appeal even after almost thirty years on the road.  In car guy terms, that makes this old Fury a classic.  Sounds about right.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011

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