In 1982 John Carpenter’s ass kicking hot streak was derailed by the deafening apathy audiences bafflingly dumped on the legitimate masterpiece in cinema that is The Thing. Licking his wounds after such a confusing result, Carpenter’s next directorial outing could’ve been considered a cynically safe choice but to be honest, you couldn’t swing a (resurrected) cat in the early 80’s without hitting a Stephen King adaptation.
In truth, Christine wasn’t Carpenter’s first trip to Kingsville as he came very close to helming Firestarter off the back of The Thing, but plans were scuppered by the latter’s underperformance at the box office. The point is no matter what had transpired Carpenter’s post-Thing project would have involved the King – ironic considering the director had made an Elvis Presley biopic for TV.
It’s 1979 and Arnie Cunningham is your quintessential picked on high school teen with a sizeable laundry list of attributes that attract bullies like vultures. If living in constant fear at school wasn’t bad enough, overbearing parents also keep him timid at home too and one of the only plus points in his life is his friendship with jock Dennis, who drives him to school and back and tries to protect him from the torments of the switch blade packing Buddy Repperton (one of those 80’s high school bullies who constantly look deeply entrenched in their thirties).
One day Arnie comes across the rusting hulk of ’58 Plymouth Fury which he instantly becomes completely enamoured with and recklessly purchases despite learning of a string of suspicious deaths linked to the car (it’s a horror film/white person thing).
The car is called Christine and as Arnie spends almost all of his college savings rebuilding her, tension builds between him and his family but something strange seems to be happening and the timid young man gradually gains more and more confidence…. almost to the point of arrogance.
Soon Arnie is dating Leigh, the pretty new girl at school who treats his beloved car with unease and distrust and Dennis is laid up after a nasty football injury which takes the two young friends out of each others orbits for a while. After Leigh has a near fatal choking incident thanks to the intimidating auto and then Buddy Repperton and his goons viciously take Christine apart with sledgehammers, Arnie learns that his car has a far more impressive features than air conditioning when she rebuilds herself in a matter of minutes thanks to some supernatural super-charging. While Christine continues to exert whatever kind of hold she has over Arnie and the school bullies start piling up very, very dead; Dennis and Leigh join forces to try and free their friend from this terrible influence but then, does Arnie even WANT saving? After all, isn’t Christine his first love?
While not exactly vintage Carpenter (although it’s a damn sight better than Firestarter which eventually turned out as a very hot mess), Christine is still a good story, solidly told which strips down King’s weighty tome while keeping the central themes of adolescent friendships rending apart as personalities change as they age. First the first half of the film Carpenter leans into the characters admirably, patiently crafting three dimensional characters and not diving in too soon with the fact that this movie is essentially about a car murdering people.
However, when the movie finally puts the pedal to the metal the film gets plenty of mileage from both Christine’s destructive tendencies and his driving synth core, composing legitimately chilling images of the cherry red juggernaut enacting vengence on the puny, fleshy humans that have crossed her. One scene which sees the antagonistic automobile emerge from an exploding gas station as an unstoppable mobile inferno is genuinely breathtaking and when her grill gets all twisted up in the crunching finale it wonderfully resembles yawning maw of some hideous metal insect.
Even though I’ve never truly embraced Christine as much as some of Carpenter’s other works and the fact that a killer car isn’t really that scary (despite everyone’s best efforts), the movie is pretty damn cool and you can tell the director is having a blast utilizing a couple of album’s worth of rock and roll that blared out at opportune moments from the Plymouth’s sickly green radio (she essentially communicates via music like if Bumblebee from Transformers suffered a massive mental break). If Christine has a ding in her metalwork is that maybe the film takes a little TOO long taking it’s time setting up it’s premise while the plotting gets a bit sketchy the second the pace hits fifth gear. A more balanced tone (more horror in the first half – more characterization in the second) might have raised Christine to the level of Escape From New York or The Fog but as it stands it’s still a memorable entry in both the filmographies of both Carpenter and King.
She may not exactly have the mileage, but Christine still has some oomph under that shiny red hood.