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Cinema Sunday (1/3/10) January 3, 2010

Posted by monty in movies.
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Maybe it’s the premise.  Maybe it’s the profoundly sucky latter stages of John Carpenter’s career.  Maybe it’s my ailing memory.  Whatever the reason, I went into Christine (1983; my sixth Stephen King adaptation) with the assumption that it sucked.  I was wrong.

One thing I hadn’t considered is that Christine is embedded firmly in director Carpenter’s golden age.  Check this track record, from 1974 to 1986: Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China. I mean, yeah, The Fog kinda sucked (as can be expected of a movie about zombie pirates), but that list contains at least four stone-cold classics, as well as a couple of bona fide cult favorites.  Christine slots confidently into this fertile period, and is astonishingly good.

The movie is, of course, about a haunted car.  It’s ridiculous and preposterous, and the fact that it works at all is credit to Carpenter and the cast he’s assembled.  It all hinges on the role of Arnie Cunningham, the high school nebbish (played by actor turned director Keith Gordon) who purchases the titular ’58 Plymouth Fury and finds himself possessed by its malevolent spirit.  Arnie finds himself inexplicably drawn to the car, buys it against his parents’ wishes, and gradually sees it transform him from a glasses-wearing dweeb into an arrogant and callous stud muffin.

Even before Arnie buys it, though, we know all is not right with Christine.  In an opening sequence set in the 50’s, we see Christine on the assembly line, and it’s here that it (she?) slams its (her?) hood on a worker’s hand, and later kills another worker who thoughtlessly flicked his cigar ash on her pristine seat.  When Arnie buys the car, we learn that its previous owner killed himself in Christine, and his 5-year-old daughter choked to death in her.  So we know from the get-go that Christine is bad news, and Arnie’s best friend – Dennis, the popular jock (played by John Stockwell, another actor turned director) – seems to sense this and tries to talk Arnie out of the purchase.  It’s all for nought, though, and soon Arnie is storing Christine at a local garage and fixing her up in his spare time.

It doesn’t take long for Christine to show her true colors.  Leigh, Arnie’s new girlfriend, nearly chokes to death while they’re at a drive-in movie, and when Christine gets trashed by a group of juvenile delinquents who torment Arnie at school, she systematically wipes them out.  At the same time, Arnie himself becomes crueler and more dismissive of the people around him, choosing instead to spend all his time with his car.  It’s at this point that Dennis and Leigh realize what’s happening, and decide they need to destroy Christine before the car destroys their friend.

As I said at the top, it’s a dopey premise, and Christine was never one of my favorite King books.  I don’t care how gullible you are, a haunted car will never be scary, so for the movie to work, there had to be some other appeal.  The appeal in this case is the uniformly excellent cast, and Carpenter’s direction of it.  As I watched the fun and funny opening scenes – set in high school and introducing the main characters – I found myself wishing Carpenter would try his hand at a straightforward high school movie.  The hallway banter between the characters (even the minor players) was loose and believable, and it effectively created the sort of reality that would be necessary for the rest of the plot to work.

Gordon, especially, is impressive.  Most people will know him from the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School (1986), but in Christine he has to run the emotional gamut, starting out as a completely powerless, perpetually victimized nerd and ending as a raving lunatic, in thrall to an obsession that everyone else sees but him.  The movie can’t be taken seriously in good conscience, but Gordon goes all-in, playing Arnie with a straight face as a real person.  He initially wants to buy Christine because it would be the lone thing in his life over which he’d have any control.  When you think about Arnie in those terms – and I think we all know at least one Arnie in our lives –   it’s sort of profoundly sad to see what eventually happens to him.  The dude just wanted to fit in. (Interesting side note: Gordon, as I mentioned earlier, became a director.  Among his films are excellent adaptations of Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night.  His standout, though, is a World War II flick called A Midnight Clear, which I think is a brilliant film.  Seek it out.)

The rest of the movie is exactly as good as a movie about a haunted car can be.  As we see Christine start to hunt down Arnie’s tormentors, it’s mildly spooky to see this giant metal predator silently tail them, and the way Carpenter has shot these sequences, it works to not know yet whether Arnie is behind the wheel.  The one bravura scene happens after Christine blows up a gas station (don’t worry – the ridiculousness of that sentence doesn’t escape me; you just have to go with it) and goes careening down a darkened street in a ball of flame, chasing down one more victim.

There’s some other ancillary stuff (the reliably great Harry Dean Stanton shows up as a detective investigating the sudden rash of murders; Arnie and Leigh break up once she realizes he’s become a deranged nutbag), but really, the whole thing is building up to the final showdown between Christine and Dennis driving a bulldozer.

As that last sentence indicates, the movie is, in some ways, review-proof.  Criticism is almost beside the point, because Christine really has no hope of ever being anything other than dumb fun.  But damn it all if it doesn’t come close.  Carpenter somehow makes it work, and the reason, of course, is that, despite what I wrote at the beginning, he’s made a movie that isn’t really about a haunted car.  The car is on the poster, but at its heart, the movie is about one man’s descent into madness, and the friends who try to save him.  It’s less frightening than you’d hope, but deeper than you expect.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Creepshow, 1982 (11/24/09)

Cujo, 1983 (11/30/09)

The Dead Zone, 1983 (12/11/09)

Next up: Children of the Corn (1984)

*****

Current listening:

Warm Jets – Future Signs (1997)

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