Film Ramblings:CHRISTINE(1983) An American Born Nightmare Machine

John Carpenter’s Christine is a film about an American born murder machine. A 1958 Plymouth Fury. The car’s model and color are perfect visualizations of this voracious killer that harbors a jealous streak that one would need a thousand odometer clicks to cross. The red chrome glistens like spilled blood as she chews up asphalt and spits out souls in her wake. She’s a uniquely American nightmare. Christine is a serial killer, born in the smoke and steam of Detroit, that heads west to bring turbo charged misery to anyone that steps in the path of the wicked glow from her headlights. She’s as Red White and Blue as a psychopathic sniper that picks off innocents from a bell tower with a high powered rifle. Christine is every slick looking trashy bitch that killed those that got between her and her man and buried the bodies in unmarked graves next to those amber waves of grain. Women such as this provide 24/7 programming for a dozen true crime cable stations. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses and I will seduce them and eat them for lunch.

Christine is an adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. From what I remember of the book, the movie is mostly true to King’s original story. At least as faithful as a film can be to a book. One can only hope that a flick cheats on the novel less than the average politician does stepping out on their oblivious spouse. I recall the kills in the novel being vivid and beautifully written passages of suspense and vehicular slaughter. John Carpenter does a quality job with the mayhem and roadkill in the movie version. It’s just no match for the reader’s imagination when it’s being fuel injected with King’s powerful prose. I read the book during October in the late 1980’s. Much like the characters in Christine,  high school graduation was bearing down on me like an out of control ’72 Dodge Dart driven by drunken responsibility. I inhaled the book in my room, beneath my beloved Sheena Easton poster, as the local alternative radio station played “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” from Bauhaus in celebration of the Halloween season. It was cool, creepy mood for reading the book.

My first car was a ’76 Camaro. The paint job was a weathered, chipped and flaking here and there, midnight blue. Something comes over a kid when he sees the first car he wants. It was like eagerly awaiting history class because you got to sit next to her.  Math and English mattered not because she wasn’t there. Give me Liberty or Give me Death, the history books said. And you got to smell her shampoo when you learned about the Revolutionary War and The Great Depression. Man, I loved History.

I was never a gearhead. I don’t have that ability. I am not fluent in the language of manly things. Christ, I have a blog and I write poetry about my feelings and all that. You think I know the inner workings of the internal combustion engine? I can, however,  drive a stick shift. I am not that much of wuss. Being able to handle a manual transmission has become a lost art nowadays. Much like listening to other people’s opinions that differ from yours in a civil manner.

I bought the Camaro in 1989 and paid eight hundred bucks for it. It was all my cash. Every cent of it. I was working at Herman’s World of Sporting Goods at the Sunrise Mall in Massapequa and I was good at saving my pennies. Since it was my coin my parents didn’t give me any static about the car. They were good like that. It had a straight six under the hood and it was built like a tank. You knocked on the side of that thing it felt and sounded like a stainless steel sink. I remember flying down a deserted Ocean Parkway down by the beach, the dead of winter clutching the wheel wells like a pack of angry wraiths, with the radio tuned to WBAB with Dokken’s Burning Like a Flame blasting from the speakers. That was Freedom right there. That was a pure kind of love. Within a year, a blown head gasket ended my affair with the Camaro. It depressed me a bit, but I was young. There would be a vast lifetime of loves. Looking back, thirty years later, I feel strangely devastated. Things that might have been and all that. My first ride was easily the coolest machine I’ve ever owned. Now I get around in a 2018 Hyundai. The car is as dependable as a loyal dog. However, it ain’t making the old ladies swoon when I pull into the the church parking lot for bingo.

Christine is a flick about that bad girl that your dear mother always warned you about. Moms are usually worried abut some skanky Sally letting their little boy go too far with her under the high school bleachers, crushed beer cans and their clothes tossed to the side. Mothers don’t want their sons to grow up too quickly. They sure as shit also don’t want to hear about how the whole town knows her son is with that tramp, what’s her name, as she’s hosting a Tupperware party with the other mothers from the community. Mother won’t ever be able to enjoy her fondue again after she hears about junior’s nocturnal activities with that little strumpet.

Christine, however, is a whole other level of bad. Only old rock and roll tunes play from the Devil’s radio embedded in her dashboard. Hellfire charges her ignition and starts the pistons pumping to kick out the death ride. Christine’s tires squeal and smoke like souls burning in Satan’s pit as the car embarks on its high octane journey down the highway to hell. And this road was not paved with good intentions.

In the opening credits sequence, we see the titular automobile inching down the assembly line with a dozen other unfinished ’58 Furies. It’s 1957 and the post war American economy seems to be clicking on all cylinders. All the autos are vanilla white, unpainted, as men screw in rivets and weld metal together around and under each vehicle. Christine stands apart from the rest. She’s as red as that fateful apple in the Garden of Eden. You know the one. Like a beautiful woman dancing in a sundress at a seaside bar, Christine turns all the men’s heads on the line. Cigars and cigarettes dangle precariously from the mouths of awed workers as they watch her make her way down the assembly line, the finishing touches being applied before she is sold off the lot in some generic American town or city. Before she makes her way out of the plant, Christine has maimed one dude and killed another. Lethal for such a young lady.

Flash forward twenty years and it’s the  late 1970’s in California. High school football star, Dennis, played by John Stockwell, rumbles up the sun splashed street in his muscle car. Stockwell plays Dennis with a nice mixture of arrogant jock and loyal buddy. He rolls up to a house to pick up his “charity case”–best friend Arnie Cunningham. Arnie is played to nerdy perfection by Keith Gordon. Gordon gives a realistic, dramatic performance in this. He gives the intelligent, witty but socially awkward Arnie a poignancy that never strays into parody. A couple of years later,  Gordon would get to play the loser for bigger laughs in the Rodney Dangerfield classic, Back to School.

Director Carpenter mixes the teenage drama quite well. The friendships ring true, the razzing banter over chicks and socially taboo subjects like masturbation are conversations not foreign to teenage boys. Though the stakes are elevated for the sake of the film,  the rivalries and turf wars that go down break out over insignificant shit. In my experience being a teen, this was how these things started. It was how they ended that was the important thing.

The heartaches that characters suffer carry sufficient weight in Christine. Looking back on our high school years, many of the problems that seemed earth shattering are probably laughable once we got knocked around by the real world. The young lack that foresight. Not being able to ever get a date was a big deal. Word spread. Snickers and muffled laughter followed you in the halls. Classmates cleared a path for you when you went into the cafeteria. No one wanted to catch that stink you had on you. You were marked with a scarlet letter. Once someone went a certain length of time not dating anyone, they would never have a shot. Unless you could find someone from another town or a different school. I am guessing that social media might even make it more difficult to change your dating geography today. No wonder the younger generation is angry. Using Stephen King’s novel as a solid foundation, the screenplay by Bill Phillips has some smart, cutting dialogue. Teenagers drop some lines in Christine that have insight that sneaks up on you like a growling Chevy Nova as you wait at a red light in your tiny Smart Car.

Carpenter keeps the pace moving at a brisk clip. It cruises along like a Roadster at 7am on a sunny Sunday morning in summer; nothing but green lights for miles and commercial free rock and roll on the radio. Arnie’s first day of Auto Shop during senior year pits him and Dennis in a tense standoff with Buddy Repperton(William Ostrander) and his band of grease monkey thugs. Repperton resembles a hulking Vinnie Barbarino who wields a switchblade and vicious, anti-social attitude. He is fond of adding an extra consonant when addressing Arnie as “Cunningham”. You can probably guess the letter and where it’s inserted. Before being carted off to the principal’s office for the serious infraction of a concealed weapon, Repperton vows revenge.

It’s never fun running afoul of criminal dirtbags in high school who are built like ’49 Studebakers. For my buddies and I, it was floor hockey intramurals on Tuesday nights. A few slashes with hockey sticks and getting slammed a bunch of times into those sliding wooden walls they wheeled out to divide the gymnasium was all we had to endure. In the passenger seat of Dennis’ car, Arnie is despondent because he knows he’s going to get worse. Then Arnie sees her and makes Dennis pull over.

Christine.

She’s not the sleek beauty she was when she rolled off the assembly line. She’s now a dusty, dirty and dented old hag. Christine is the automobile equivalent of that day shift bartender at the biker joint. You can tell she was once gorgeous, but years of hard living and pounding the road gives her skin the look as if she had spent the past decade getting beaten with chains. Still, the beauty is underneath the cold and emotionless facade. Definitely not a woman to be trifled with. Appearances can be deceiving and damage can represent strength. Survival.

Christine.

Blowing off heavy protests from Dennis, Arnie writes a check for $250 for Christine. The man that sells it is a wizened old slice of white trash played by the solid character actor, Roberts Blossom. From his sunken, rodent eyes he recognizes that Arnie is hooked; that the car already has him under her spell. As he argues with Dennis over the transaction, we see the old man’s grimy beard and hear the pool of phlegm congealing in his sunken chest. The old man has an attitude like a car accident. He later reveals himself to be an evil human being. It’s a characterization drawn with grim precision by the late Blossom.

Carpenter also fills Christine with two legendary character actors. Robert Prosky plays Darnell. He’s the grumpy and profane owner of the junkyard where Arnie pieces Christine back together again and returns her to her former, demonic glory. Darnell also isn’t above scratching his ass in the company of others, as well. Carpenter also casts the sublime Harry Dean Stanton as Detective Rudolf Junkins. Junkins is on the case to put an end to the violence and mayhem the Plymouth Fury has besieged the town with. Junkins is one of those cops that purposefully comes across as too nice and slow witted. Then the time eventually comes to not be so nice and slow witted.

Not to disrespect the movie stars, many are extremely talented and easy to look at, but I’m usually more interested in seeing the character actors do their thing. They usually aren’t getting by on their looks. They can straight up act and breathe life into any type of character a writer can conjure up. I believe if you have a good script, someone that knows where to point a camera and if you load your cast with these character actors, you’ll most likely fart out a compelling movie.  Carpenter has always been able to fill his flicks with great actors. Most of them were never the super stars. Kurt Russell aside, look at The Thing, Escape from New York and Starman to illustrate this point.

Christine can be seen as a metaphor for addiction. Addiction can completely change a person. Once Arnie gets Christine buffed, polished and street legal, he loses the glasses and nerdy clothes and picks himself up a stunner of a girlfriend. She’s the new chick in school and all the dudes circle her like a pack of Velociraptors on the trail of some unlucky dinosaur in the sweltering, prehistoric heat. She is played by a pre-Baywatch Alexandra Paul. She sports full lips, lithe body, tight yet modest clothes and a 1970’s hairdo that would make that famous poster of Farrah Fawcett blink with jealousy.

Arnie, becoming and arrogant prick with anger issues, seems to worry about his shiny red Christine more than the loved ones in his life. He chugs beer and wishes ill on the “shitters of the world”. There’s an unsettling scene when Arnie gets into an argument with his parents at the dinner table. This, in turn, breaks down into a shoving match between him and his old man. Arnie viciously grabs him around the neck and gently threatens him like a classic action movie villain. Keith Gordon does an excellent job at making the believable transformation from lovable nerd to dangerous sociopath. Like many addicts, he pushes away concerned loved ones using scorn or force. Arnie has but one love. His car. Addiction is love. Love can be deadly.

Once the flick hits the road, Carpenter does a bang up job of building suspense and conveying the power of this massive, 3500 pound missile shot from the bowels of hell. The stalk and smash up scenes are expertly shot, edited and scored. We often times see the headlights off in the distance, slightly out of focus. Then they come into focus as Christine starts to make its move on her victim. The effective use of lens flares in Christine gives the Plymouth the supernatural quality that the film needs. This is accompanied by Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s pulse pounding synthesizer music. While I think the film lacks a classic theme like Halloween or, my favorite, Escape from New York, this is an effective score and fits in perfectly with the time when the movie rolled off the lot.

We should be thankful this movie did not come out ten of fifteen years later when cgi was in full effect. The car crashes in Christine are all practical. I hate cgi car crashes. The physics of everything is all wrong. There is no weight to the vehicles and machinery. There would be no beauty in seeing a devilish car, engulfed in flames, speeding down a dark highway.

In the end, Christine should be regarded as one of Carpenter’s better efforts. And, as mentioned, one of the more faithful adaptations of a King novel. It might not rise to the level of Halloween or the The Thing, but it’s a solid entry in Carpenter’s body of work and is very accessible to the casual or non-horror film fan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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