John Carpenter’s Christine turns 30

christine

My New Year’s resolution ~ to submit timely reviews. This one’s late. But being so embedded in the holidays that spirit of brotherhood and forgiveness, I’m giving the Christmas season permission to do me a solid and cut me some end-of-the-year slack. How big of me. As for this film flashback, the December anniversary of John Carpenter’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “Christine,” wow. Not wow in the sense that this story of a candy-cane colored 1958 Plymouth Fury that loves its owners to death is particularly outstanding, trendsetting or even frightening. Wow because its been 30 years. Since Christine first roared down that narrow alleyway after that fat guy, an entire generation has reached middle age and road navigation improved with rear-mounted radar, diesel injection and GPS. I still take the bus. Anyway, “Christine.”

Finally, a movie that affirms that high-school jock and high-school geek can indeed co-exist. Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell) and Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) manage a strong friendship despite their differences. Dennis has the respect of his teammates on the football field and the eyes of the girls in the hall. Arnie has nagging parents and a snowball’s chance in the Sudan of getting laid. In each other’s company though they’re like peas and carrots, hamming it up, coming to each other’s aid when lockers won’t open and bullies strike. But the aid is mostly one-sided. When Arnie expresses an interest in car-repair by enrolling in an autobody class, we’re allowed to tag along. Funny how as many times as we’ve seen small-town nerds being harassed on-screen, it can still tighten the chest when done right. Also because we know what’s coming…sweet payback. Arnie isn’t so lucky in this scene. Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander) and his thug posse humiliate him and skewer his yogurt before Dennis and Mr. Shop Teacher break things up, but at least we know who’s on the hit list. Predictable or not, every horror movie needs one. To strike back, Arnie needs more than a weapon though; he needs a complete overhaul in personality. Yeah, and you know you know where he’s getting it. When Arnie and Dennis find Christine she’s as ramshakle as the house she sits by, but Arnie is completely smitten and writes a check on his college funds. Beaten-down boy meets beaten-up car. They seem meant for each other.

Car movie? Horror movie? Both I suppose. To the former, there are factual errors between King’s book and the actual vehicles that rolled off the production line in the year the fiction takes place. According to allpar.com, Furys were two-door until 1959 (King’s Christine had four), had push-button drive (King’s used a lever) and bore the color beige (Christine is red and while). Interesting but as Mr. Public Transit I’m unphased by car minutiae either way. The differences between novel and movie are another story. The speculation is that key changes were made in light of those harbingers of artistic vandalism: time and money. King had communicated “Christine” with film producer Richard Kobritz (of the TV miniseries “Salem’s Lot”) even before it hit book shelves. A script was penned and a certain Korbritz friend, “Halloween”‘s Carpenter, was attached to direct. I haven’t read the book. From what I’ve read online though, I weep break fluid for what didn’t make it to the screen. Highest on this list is the film’s dilution of Roland LeBay, the elderly owner of Christine who sells the car to Arnie in King’s novel. The movie reduces the character to a simple story of tragedy told by his brother George (Roland and his family all perish separately in the car), but more significantly it gives Christine full credit for its own evil, darkness made mechanical from some unknown force, the antidote to Disney’s Herbie. We first meet her as she glides down the assembly line in the film’s intro, slamming her hood on some nosey technician, killing some dude careless with his cigar ash. The book however chalks up the car’s personality to LeBay, that following his death his spirit possesses it. I imagine how satifying this might have been, moving beyond Arnie’s schizophrenic obsession with repairing and protecting Christine (which Gordon handles with sinister geekiness) into his partial transformation into LeBay himself. Screenwriter Bill Phillips reportedly axed the LeBay-possession plotline to avoid any similarity to the werewolf-possession-killer device in “An American Werewolf In London.” I think the change sacrifices some needed depth, for Arnie and Christine.

 

But there’s plenty to like too. The movie’s “Show Me” scene is a highlight, the moment Arnie confirms that his ride is more than a status symbol/chick magnet. The car pushes out its dents and refabricates itself in a scene that’s still eeriely cool, that still hides the source of its movie magic from the audience (Carpenter used hydraulic pumps to bend the body in, then ran the film in reverse to resurrect it). From here on, man and car are aligned in will. They have each others backs which means that now Christine can go proactive, hunting down Arnie’s bullies and turning them into roadkill. Today these scenes still have torque. Carpenter handles them in slasher fashion, letting the car stalk its victims slowly then make repeated strikes until the job is done, almost bloodlessly. Of course, the tension ratchets up when we seem to share the same screen space as the victim, a technique perfected earlier in Carpenter’s career. True to form, in a myriad of ways Christine is Michael Myers with a bumper ~ an inherently evil killer with a past, housed behind a mask (or grill), fulfilling its taste for high-school seniors. Between the two entertainments however, I’d choose the man over the machine. Despite a convincing performance by Gordon, the movie’s second half drives loose, is hazy about the relationship between Dennis and Arnie’s ex (Alexandra Paul) and short-changes Christine’s power in a climax that sputters. The movie ends with the mother of all modern horror clichés, the monster supposedly destroyed twitches before the final credits. Clearly there are other opinions. The International Christine Club runs a discussion forum and Facebook page for dedicated fans of the novel, movie and/or ’57 & ’58 Plymouths. Lots of red and white eye-candy. Check out “Merry Christmas from Christine Movie Car” on YouTube too for an unconventional way to ring in the holidays or stick with the tried and true, another Christ-named movie classic celebrating its 30th birthday this season.

“You’ll shoot your eye out!” snipes department store Santa, but not even personal injury can deter the cherub-faced Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley). Throughout the film, the 9-year-old obsesses about laying his paws on the mother of all presents, a Red Ryder 200-shot range-model air rifle (with compass), the one longed-for gift that for the days nearing Christmas is more precious than family. Of course, this can only be Bob Clark’s “A Christmas Story.” Set in suburban Indiana, this now annual subject of 24-hour movie marathons and an actual Parker house tour in Cleveland (visit www.achristmasstoryhouse.com for much much more) seems to become more endearing each year, a frosted window into at least some of our childhoods. American writer and storyteller Jean Shepherd narrates the movie as the fully-grown Ralphie with delicious nostalgicism. He co-wrote the film after all, based on fictionalized anecdotes of his own life. It pays off in spades. Even in the years following the film’s release (I was 12 in the winter of ’83), I remember thinking that this was the standard for Christmas on film. The triple dog dare, the leg-lamp, the fiery-haired bully Scut Farkus (Zack Ward), little brother Randy (Ian Petrella) layered in protective winterwear so thick it could crack a rib and parents that might have been real. No question, the flic had charm. Yeah, for select millions Ralphie was the Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) of the day. Forget “Home Alone” with its $500 million gross and aftershave on the cheeks. “A Christmas Story” gave us tongues on frozen poles on a budget of $4 million. Best of all though, it’s a Christmas movie that’s grounded. No elves, no sleighs invoked by enchantment arcing over a New York skyline, only the magic of an imperfect but loving family, which isn’t so bad. Merry Christmas then…to kids, cars and movie lovers.