Christine (1983)

At the time that Stephen King was still largely considered a horror writer it is not surprising that the more well-known directors of the genre brought his creations to the screen.  Tobe Hooper directed the television adaptation of Salem's Lot while George Romero cowrote Creepshow with King, going so far as to give him a starring role in one of the segments.  1983 even saw David Cronenberg crossing over into mainstream U.S. cinema with his version of The Dead Zone.  It was only a matter of time before another big name, John Carpenter, joined in. 

At the time King had become a hot enough property that Christine's movie rights were up for bid before the novel was on the shelves.  Producer Richard Kobritz, who had been responsible for helping bring Salem's Lot to television, passed on Cujo in order to get Christine, and Bill Phillips provided a screenplay that, although it changed a number of events in the book, pretty much provided a simplified version of the story for Carpenter to film.  As for Carpenter, although The Thing has since become known as a classic of '80s horror, it was a major box office failure.  He needed something to turn his own fortunes around, and Stephen King was pretty much a can't-miss.  

Arnie (Keith Gordon) and his best friend Dennis (John Stockwell) are about to start their senior year of high school in the small town of Rockbridge, California.  Dennis is a popular jock with a promising football career while Arnie is the target of frequent bullying from Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander) and his gang.  When Buddy pulls a knife on Arnie during a confrontation in auto shop it results in the former's expulsion, taking the heat off of Arnie at school but putting him in Repperton's sights for retribution. 

On the way home after his tough day at school Arnie tells Dennis to stop after he sees a 1958 Plymouth Fury rotting in the yard of George LeBay (Roberts Blossom).  The car, named Christine, belonged to his brother Roland, who had passed on, and George is looking forward to selling it as well as the property so he can move out of town.  Arnie is instantly in love, agreeing to pay the asking price and taking the barely running hulk to a garage to fix it up.  This he does, and soon begins to change, gaining confidence and even dating a new student named Leigh (Alexandra Paul).  However, both Dennis and Arnie's parents are concerned about his sudden change in personality.  When Repperton and his friends destroy Christine, they all soon begin to die one by one, and it becomes obvious that Christine is hiding some secrets of her own. 

Christine is one of my favorite Stephen King novels.  It is one of his earlier books, like The Shining, that shows there was more to King than writing about ghoulies or things that go bump in the night.  Rather, along with spinning a good yarn, he had things to say about the culture he grew up in.  With Christine it is about our fascination with machinery to the point of anthropomorphizing it.  Carpenter and Phillips make it even more clear in the movie version, with Christine being bad from the moment she rolled off the assembly line.  In the book it is made clear that she, and eventually Arnie, are possessed by Roland LeBay, while in the movie it is insinuated that the Christine's toxic and manipulative personality is to blame for both LeBay and Arnie becoming what they are. 

Keith Gordon was not, and still is not, a big star, and Carpenter personally went with largely unknown actors for the lead with a few character actors, like Harry Dean Stanton as Detective Junkins and Robert Prosky as garage owner Darnell, thrown in.  The inspired thing with choosing unknowns is that star egos don't get in the way and neither does plot armor, leaving it wide open on who may be a victim of Christine's wrath at any time.  

The other thing King often did, even when pursuing hoary concepts like vampires or killer cars, was make it better.  One of my guilty pleasures in the 1977 movie The Car, in which a demonic black vehicle terrorizes the roads around a small town.  It was undoubtedly an influence on Christine, but everything in King's novel and Carpenter's movie improves on everything in The Car.  That includes many of the stunts, with one of the most memorable scenes being Christine pursuing Repperton while engulfed in flames. 

By design Christine was big on story and low on gore, focusing more on Arnie's transformation and isolation due to his toxic relationship with Christine.  In a situation that is the opposite of most movies today the script was peppered with f-bombs in order to get an R-rating, as without the foul language Christine was less violent than many PG movies of the time and even had less sexual content.  It allows the movie to stretch out and be more than just a b-movie with a killer car.  It still isn't perfect, with the main cast obviously too old to pass as teenagers and a few pacing problems, but it still largely works.  It also helps that it sets the events in 1978, giving it a time and place that helps keep it from aging badly. 

Christine (1983)
Time: 110 minutes
Starring: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, William Ostrander
Director: John Carpenter



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