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CHRISTINE

I’ve always liked this John Carpenter directed Stephen King adaptation.  Matter of fact, I’d say it’s one of Carpenter’s all-around best films, a darkly comedic haunted car chiller that’s dated extremely well. 

The Package 
     CHRISTINE was a minor hit back in 1983 and received a number of enthusiastic reviews, but for some reason it’s been maligned in the years since.  John Carpenter himself has largely dismissed it, claiming he “slept through” the production, which I find hard to accept.  The script by Bill Phillips admirably streamlines Stephen King’s 500-plus page novel, which stretched a rather thin narrative about a nerdy teen transformed into a monster by a haunted car (sort of like THE CAR meets MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH) to interminable lengths. 
     The film also contains excellent performances by then up-and-comers like John Stockwell, Keith Gordon and Alexandra Paul, in addition to a rich variety of supporting turns by Robert Prosky, Harry Dean Stanton, Christine Belford and DERANGED’S legendary Roberts Blossom, all old pros.  Not one but two of CHRISTINE’S leads went on to auspicious directorial careers: Stockwell, who helmed CHEATERS, BLUE CRUSH and TOURISTAS, and Gordon, a Brian DePalma veteran (from HOME MOVIES and DRESSED TO KILL) who’s become an indie superstar with A MIDNIGHT CLEAR, MOTHER NIGHT and THE SINGING DETECTIVE.

The Story
     Arnie is a teenaged dork who becomes unaccountably obsessed with an old car: a red and white 1958 Plymouth Fury named Christine that plays fifties-era pop tunes on its radio.  Arnie buys Christine from an old man for $200, not realizing the codger’s brother asphyxiated himself in the car years earlier...and that Christine severely injured two men the very day she came off the assembly line! 
     Arnie and Christine make quite a pair: he fixes “her” up and in turn loses much of his nerdiness, becoming a bonafide cool dude and nabbing one of the prettiest girls in the school.  Neither Arnie’s parents nor his jock buddy Dennis know what to make of his transformation.  The school bullies are equally puzzled, and respond to the new Arnie by smashing up Christine.  She in turn reconstitutes herself and goes after the bastards, brutally killing each of them.  Arnie for his part is increasingly becoming a total asshole, verbally abusing his girlfriend, neglecting his friends and physically assaulting his parents.  Dennis decides he’s had enough and challenges Arnie and Christine to a final car-bulldozer duel.   

The Direction 
     From a visual standpoint this is one John Carpenter’s most inventive films, with masterful widescreen photography and ever-probing camerawork courtesy of ace cinematographer Donald Morgan.  The roving POV tracking shots from HALLOWEEN are back, and utilized in consistently invigorating fashion: particularly notable is a library sequence in which the protagonist tries to get up the nerve to ask a pretty girl out, conveyed through a POV shot that pans past the girl in question and continues, ashamedly, toward the bookshelf behind her.  It’s the teenage characters in the film and Carpenter’s sensitivity to their problems that makes CHRISTINE the warm and absorbing--and darkly funny--thriller it is.  Much like Stephen King at his best (which the novel CHRISTINE in my view isn’t), the characters are interesting enough to carry the film on their own without the horror business.
     That’s not to say the scary stuff isn’t well executed.  Carpenter is as always at his best in scenes of pure horror, and despite the fact that he’s stuck with the inherently unscary concept of a haunted car, he manages to pull off some crackling imagery, such as Christine driving down a nighttime highway engulfed in flames, or the sight of a demolished Christine magically reconstituting herself before her owner’s astonished--and sexually aroused--eyes (the pre-CGI special effects here and elsewhere are impeccable). 
     The performances also deserve a mention, even if most of the “teenage” cast members are clearly far older than the parts they’re playing.  In interviews Keith Gordon has repeatedly evoked the tremendous amount he learned from John Carpenter, and how the atmosphere Carpenter created on CHRISTINE allowed him to do great work acting-wise and was a major inspiration on his own directorial career--in other words, somebody other than me has recognized this film’s considerable power. 


Vital Statistics 

CHRISTINE
Columbia Pictures

Director: John Carpenter
Producers: Richard Korbitz, Larry Franco
Screenplay: Bill Phillips
(Based on a novel by Stephen King)
Cinematography: Donald M. Morgan
Editing: Marion Rothman
Cast: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Robert Prosky, Harry Dean Stanton, Christine Belford, Roberts Blossom, William Ostrander, David Spielberg, Malcolm Danare, Steven Tash, Stuart Charno, Kelly Preston, Marc Poppel, Robert Darnell
 


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