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Creepshows and Fright Nights: A Look Back at 80s Horror: ‘John Carpenter’s Christine’

I was reading Stephen King’s Christine when the movie opened at the Howard Twin Cinema across town.

My mom had given me the paperback for Christmas – I’d discovered King a year or so before and had been reading nothing but ever since – and I couldn’t wait to dig into it and start creasing the spine. I was about a third of the way through when my buddy Vince called and asked if I wanted to go see the movie.

Remember, this was in the days before home video gained mass popularity. You had no way of knowing how long a movie would run so you either saw it when it came out (preferably opening weekend) or ran the risk of missing it altogether.

And it must be said: I was not a fast reader. I didn’t figure on finishing the book before the movie was gone, and would have to wait for it to show up on HBO or Prism (if you know, you know).

This was a now-or-never proposition.

So Vince and I set out for our first theatrical John Carpenter experience. We were fans, of course (read as: We’d seen edited-for-television versions of Halloween, Escape from New York, and The Thing), and considered ourselves connoisseurs (though many of our classmates insisted on mispronouncing that word as “nerds”).

As such, we came away having greatly enjoyed Christine. Waiting outside the cinema for my dad to pick us up, we discussed the film, made the inevitable comparisons to the James Brolin, ahem, vehicle, The Car, of which we were both fans (of the edited-for-television version, anyway), and listed the things we loved about it: the 1950s soundtrack that comprised Christine’s voice, Carpenter’s score, specifically the love theme that sounds just a wee bit like the wedding march, the cinematography (well, the lens flares, let’s be honest), and Alexandra Paul.

Yeah, we were discerning film-goers at 13.

But looking at the movie now, I long for the days I was so easily contented because there’s Just So Much Wrong with Christine.  And it all starts in the opening scene.

“Is he about to disrespect a John Carpenter movie?”

No, no, no! There are things I love about Christine. I’m listening to a playlist of all the songs from the movie even as I write this, and with Little Richard howling “Keep a-knockin’ but you can’t come in” through my headphones and directly into my ears, I’m already feeling the nostalgia that had me thinking for decades that this was one of the great Stephen King movies.

But there are aspects of it that just Do Not Work. King has long compared Kubrick’s The Shining to a big beautiful car with no engine, a comparison that feels appropriate, if a little on-the-nose, here.

Stick with me.

Detroit, 1957. A line of Plymouth Furies rolls off the assembly line to George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone”. All but one is Sandstone White, the custom-painted Autumn Red car standing out among them. During this, one of the line inspectors steps up to the red car and opens the hood. As he leans down to look at the engine, the hood slams down on his hand, mangling it severely. Whether this is how the car turns evil, or whether she was evil (somehow) from the word go is unclear.

What is clear is that Christine has just had her first taste of blood.

So, evil established (albeit somewhat murkily), we can move on. But, wait! Another worker steps up to admire the car. He climbs inside, turns the radio on – and ashes his cigar on the front seat. Dick move, but okay. Cut to the end of the workday, and the man is found dead inside the car.

I’m not sure what the point of this second scene was. The first scene, the hood-chomping bit, lets us know a) that the car is inherently evil (as King suggests of the Marsten house in ‘Salem’s Lot), or b) that the line inspector’s blood brought her to life (as happened to an industrial laundry press in King’s short story, “The Mangler”). Either way, it doesn’t matter: She’s alive.

But the cigar-man scene shows that she’s alive, evil, and… spiteful? We could have used one or the other here but surely we didn’t need both. Five minutes into this movie and we’ve already wasted half that time.

Flash forward 20 years. Nerdy Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) buys this same car, now in a terrible state, from a creepy old man named George LeBay (Roberts Blossom) who tells them that the car, affectionately called Christine, used to belong to his brother, dead these six weeks. Arnie’s jock friend, Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell) tries to talk him out of the purchase, but Arnie will not be deterred. He’s in love.

Arnie’s mother, as big a bully as any found in Arnie’s shop class, won’t let him keep Christine at home so he keeps her at Darnell’s Garage, which is where he restores her. During this process, Arnie himself experiences a sort of rebirth. He becomes less nerdy, almost suave, and this – to Dennis’ horror – helps him catch the eye of the popular new girl at school, Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul).

School bully Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander) also notices the change and decides that this deviation from the norm cannot go unpunished. Along with several of his lackeys, Repperton breaks into Darnell’s one night and they smash up the car.

When Arnie arrives the next morning and sees Christine in ruins, it sends him over the edge. He becomes paranoid and violent, completely alienating Leigh and Dennis, and even turning viciously on his parents when they offer to buy him a new car.

After which, Christine reveals to Arnie that she can repair herself.

“Show me,” he says. And she does.

She starts to regenerate right before his eyes. It’s a beautiful scene, what with the lens flares and everything (though why she didn’t just repair herself before anyone showed up that morning is anyone’s guess), and it suggests that Christine loves Arnie as much as he loves her, putting her trust in him and allowing him to witness her resurrection.

Now here’s the thing: Arnie had supposedly rebuilt Christine from the tires up, pounding out the dents, sanding down the rust, and scavenging parts from Darnell’s junkyard. But… it’s rather unclear just how much of this work was Arnie’s doing, and how much was due to Christine’s regeneration. Also unclear is at what point Arnie became aware of Christine’s regeneration. The way this scene is played, he’s just learning about it, but the paint that he supposedly used on her hadn’t been available for years, so he had to question that at some point.

Once she’s purring again, Christine goes out on a kill-crazy rampage. She takes down Repperton and his pals at a gas station where one of them works, smashing into the pumps and blowing the place up. Then–in the film’s one true fist-pump moment–she chases Repperton down the road, on fire herself,  and runs him down.

When she returns that night, Darnell (Robert Prosky), sees her pull in, smoking and charred.

Curious, he opens her door to find no one inside, and then does what anyone would do in this instance – he proceeds to slide behind the wheel. He didn’t burn his fingers on the door handle so I guess it’s not, like, 400 degrees inside, in spite of all the smoking and charring, but why in the name of all that is Holy would the man get inside a burned-up car? No matter. The door slams shut, the radio turns on (!), “Boney Maroney” starts playing, and the seat moves forward, crushing Darnell against the steering wheel.

Meanwhile, Dennis has learned some of Christine’s history from LeBay.

Apparently, his brother Roland had been obsessed with the car, just like Arnie. He wouldn’t get rid of her even after his own daughter died, choked to death, in the back seat.

Leigh and Dennis get together to compare notes and decide that the only way to break Christine’s hold over Arnie is to destroy her. They set a trap for her at Darnell’s, but Christine is already there waiting under a pile of scrap. Christine goes for Leigh but crashes into Darnell’s office and Arnie is thrown through the windscreen and dies. (Let’s not get hung up on why Arnie is here for this encounter but decided to stay home while Christine took care of his bullies. It was in the script, just let it go at that.)

Enraged, Christine goes for Leigh again but Dennis comes to the rescue in a bulldozer. Christine manages to repair herself but Dennis drives the bulldozer over her again and again until she can regenerate no more.

Christine is last seen crushed into a block of metal in the junkyard. The camera pushes in and a piece of her fender starts moving, twisting back into shape. Cue “Bad to the Bone” and cut to black.

Having seen the movie, I wasn’t in a rush to finish the book. To my chagrin, the cherished paperback was forgotten. I lent it to a friend (whose name, coincidentally, was Christine) and by the time I got it back, I was in the middle of Pet Sematary. The summer of 1984 would come and go before I would pick Christine up again and finally learn that the entire premise of the book had been changed! This is where many of the movie’s lapses in logic came from. Instead of having a life of her own as in the movie, the novel’s Christine, Stephen King’s Christine, was haunted by the spirit of her former owner who was slowly taking possession of Arnie’s soul.

But… this wasn’t Stephen King’s Christine.

It was, as the title insists, “John Carpenter’s Christine”. And that’s what saves the movie where the script lets it down.

That, and the lens flares.

Let’s not forget the lens flares.

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