Monday, May 30, 2011

Stephen King Month: Christine (1983)

It's weird to see someone else's name as the possessive credit on a Stephen King movie; even the most tangentially connected films often slap King's name above the title as a cheap marketing gimmick. But this is indeed as much "John Carpenter's Christine" as it is "Stephen King's Christine," and Carpenter is one of a handful of directors who seems genuinely interested in putting his own stamp on King's material rather than just serviceably dramatizing it or cashing in on the familiar name. He doesn't bring as bold a vision to the King material as, say, David Cronenberg or Stanley Kubrick, but he does make the movie his own. Of all the King movies that I watched this month and had never seen before, Christine is the only one that actually impressed me.

It fits in well with other early Carpenter horror movies like Halloween and The Fog, setting horrific events among mundane suburban activities, and featuring unassuming average people as the protagonists. And Christine the car, a 1958 Plymouth Fury with some sort of demonic soul, is as unknowable as Michael Myers or the fog itself; none of the "villains" in these movies ever speaks a word. Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Phillips take out some of the back story from King's novel, making Christine more of an enigma, and the movie is scarier when we don't know how or why this car has become evil and taken on a life of its own. Carpenter also does a much better job than King himself did a few years later in Maximum Overdrive of making a driverless vehicle seem malicious and scary.

The humans in the movie are good, too: Keith Gordon is excellent as the nerdy Arnie Cunningham, who becomes obsessed with Christine and turns into a nasty, vindictive loner under her spell. Carpenter ties the car's menace to the period of time in which it was created, adding a masterful, dialogue-free prologue that shows the car's genesis on a Detroit assembly line, and using sunny rock n' roll oldies as signifiers of the moments when Christine is about to get homicidal. And in one of the cleverest touches in the movie, Arnie starts dressing more and more like a '50s greaser as he falls further under the car's influence. King has played with the insidiousness of 1950s culture and style a handful of other times (probably most notably in Sometimes They Come Back), and Carpenter makes it subtle enough to avoid being silly while being obvious enough to convey the change in the character.

John Stockwell is also good as Arnie's more level-headed best friend, and he and Gordon have a nice relaxed chemistry that establishes their friendship before Arnie goes off the deep end (Gordon and Stockwell both later essentially quit acting to become successful directors). The ending comes on a little abruptly, but overall Carpenter maintains an excellent balance of character development and scares, throws in some nice moments of humor (Robert Prosky is amusing as Arnie's curmudgeonly boss) and is always inventive with his camera movements. It may be more unassuming, but I'd put Christine right up there with Carrie and Misery among the very best King movies.

How far to Castle Rock: The book takes place in Pennsylvania, and the movie switches locations to California, but neither one features Castle Rock.


Anonymous said...

now why didnt they make a second one it showed at the end it still moving i think they should

Josh said...

I'm glad there wasn't a sequel. I think the movie left things perfectly the way they stand.