I broke a thousand hearts
Before I met you
I’ll break a thousand more, baby
Before I am through
I wanna be yours pretty baby
Yours and yours alone
I’m here to tell ya honey
That I’m bad to the bone
–lyrics, “Bad to the Bone” (George Thorogood and the Destroyers)
A good B-movie is like a pop song: fast, dumb, and a certain kind of true. It’s an experience that lifts you up, thrills you, sweeps you into a shallow but powerful wave of emotion, and then when it’s over, vanishes from the mind completely. Christine, King’s novel about three teenagers and a haunted 1957 Plymouth Fury, takes itself a little too seriously to work the way it should; but John Carpenter’s 1983 film adaptation gives the story the treatment it deserves. As a ridiculous (but po-faced) take on the teen problem film, Carpenter’s Christine finds an enjoyable, silly domain all its own.
As with King’s novel, the best part of the story is the car itself. When Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) first spots the damn thing, it’s a rusted out hunk of junk sitting by the side of the road. Long before he or his best friend Dennis (John Stockwell), though, we learn that the car–whose original owner, Roland LeBay (deceased–his brother makes the sale) nicknamed Christine–is, as the saying goes, more than meets the eye. The radio comes on by itself (always 50s rock and roll), the odometer runs backwards, and every once in a while Christine puts the ‘vehicle’ in vehicular homicide. None of this seems to bother Arnie, and the bulk of the film is spent working through what amounts to a bizarre, violent love rectangle between Arnie, Dennis, Arnie’s new girlfriend Leigh (Alexandra Paul), and Christine. The latter is as jealous and possessive as any bunny-boiler, and the suspense of the movie is not only whether or not the car can be stopped, but also whether it will take Arnie down with it.
What makes the car side of the story work so well in the film are the effects, which are phenomenal, and the way Carpenter’s direction gives Christine a distinct personality all her own. In the novel, the nature of the car’s evil is somewhat confused–we’re not sure how much is the car and how much is the influence of the car’s original owner, LeBay, a world-class asshole whose ghost seems to inhabit the vehicle. The movie immediately dispels all confusion by opening on the Detroit assembly line in 1957. As “Bad to the Bone” jams out on the soundtrack, the freshly manufactured Christine maims one auto worker and murders another for getting ash on her upholstery. It’s cheesy and funny and tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also a nifty reworking of the traditional haunted house backstory. In the classic The Haunting, Hugh Crain’s first wife dies when her carriage crashes just as she sees Hill House for the first time, suggesting the deadly nature of the “bad place”; Christine updates the carriage.
Later in the movie, Christine will go out on her own, seeking vengeance against a group of bullies who threaten Arnie and trash his car. These sequences work on a surreal, nightmare level, showing us an absurd movie monster that is nonetheless terrifying in its relentless, murderous pursuit. Not only is this Plymouth Fury aptly named, but the car is nigh indestructible, able to repair itself like magic in a series of shots whose technical wizardry remind me of nothing more than the virtuoso transformation effects that are always a hallmark of werewolf films. This creepy and illogical ability gives Christine the freedom to throw herself heedlessly at her victims, because unlike the humans she destroys, she’ll always roll away. There’s not a scarier shot in the movie than the one at the end of a suspenseful chase sequence where the hapless teen Moochie thinks he’s escaped by finding an alley too small for Christine to enter–but the car simply shoves itself forward into the too-tight space, letting its body compress and giving poor Moochie no place to run.
Christine doesn’t just build up its villain into a huge, malevolent presence; it also gives her a playfulness that adds to the tongue-in-cheek tone that often underlies the movie’s surface drama. One impactful change from the novel is the way Christine here uses the ’50s rock songs on her radio almost as speech, like playing Little Richard (“You keep a knockin’ but you can’t come in!”) when Dennis tries to open her door to investigate. At other points, the soundtrack offers an eerily cheery counterpart to the action, as when the radio plays Larry William’s “Boney Maroney” while Christine’s seat literally crushes a man to death. These songs are Carpenter’s way of finding a cinematic way to summarize everything the film is trying to do tonally and thematically. He wants you to know how ridiculous this is, but he also wants to present a skewed version of what it’s like to be a teenager and find the one thing–a girl, music, a car–that comes along and captivates you and becomes your world because it’s the only part of your life that makes sense.
The limitations of the movie are its characterization, although King’s book doesn’t do it any favors in that department. The key perspective in the novel isn’t Arnie’s experience as a nerdy, socially awkward virgin who discovers a car that seems to solve all his problems (while really creating some new, much worse ones), but Dennis’ as a normal, everyday jock who sees his best friend going down the wrong road. But the film can’t give either boy the kind of subtlety and realism that King does, and even if it could, that would probably have run counter to the film’s tone. So for much of the film Arnie is more annoying than tragic, as Christine goes through the motions of a Rebel Without a Cause-style parental conflict but can’t really sell that feeling to us.
So the movie really works best as horror (and dark comedy), not drama. Its chief strengths are its most cinematic elements: the special effects, the direction of the murder sequences, the thrilling action choreography of the climax, Carpenter’s customarily excellent synth score, and best of all, the powerful visual presentation of that car. Automobiles represent all sorts of things to young guys: freedom, independence, adulthood, sexual power… For most people it’s the first thing of real value and use that they’ll ever own. Just looking at Christine’s gorgeous red and white paint job, her pointed edges and soft curves, it’s easy to understand what Arnie sees in her. “You know, when someone believes in you, man, you can do anything, any fucking thing in the entire universe,” he says to Dennis, and everybody else in the movie pretends to be astonished that he feels that way about a car and not his girlfriend or Dennis or his parents. But we get it. At its heart, Christine says that first loves change you, even when they’re bad, and they never go away completely. It’s simple and goofy and kinda true, too, at least until the lights go up and the music stops. Until then, hey, at least you can dance to it.
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because it’s time to make American automobiles great again. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.