Christine (1983)


Director: John Carpenter

Starring: Keith Gordon, Alexandra Paul, John Stockwell, Harry Dean Stanton, Kelly Preston, Robert Prosky, Christine Belford

Words: Adam Janicki.

In 1982 John Carpenter released The Thing, a taxing passion project that signified his first critical failure for a feature film. Looking for immediate work, he accepted the job of adapting Stephen King’s novel, “Christine”, a then national best seller. Working to a lesser budget than on The Thing and with a cast of mostly unknown actors, it seemed Carpenter wanted to try something different. This did not stop Christine becoming a critical and commercial success, taking $21M over a budget of $10M and providing an iconic character in a film that might not be as well remembered as it should be.

The film follows Arnie Cunningham, a teen at the bottom of the social ladder with the usual adolescent issues of parents, bullies and girls. Arnie does however have his driving license, and when on the market for his first car he finds a wreck of a bright red 1958 Plymouth Fury for sale, and it’s love at first sight. As Arnie rebuilds the Fury, named Christine, he gains some self-confidence and with it comes the attention of Leigh, the new girl at school. But it soon becomes apparent that Christine is not impressed with the rival affections of Arnie’s new love interest.

There is an instant synergy between John Carpenter and Stephen King. The story is close enough to John Carpenter’s Halloween in setting and characters that you can see why this may have felt like an easy job following the difficulties of The Thing. Retreading a few of the King and Carpenter tropes; youth in revolt, sex, virginity and creepy locals, Carpenter sets up a town full of believable and entertaining characters. Focusing heavily on story in the first half, Christine feels like the rare 80s slasher where you feel genuine affinity for all of the potential victims in the film.

Arnie is perhaps the least likeable of the bunch, although you never hate him you can’t help but cheer for his bullies or wonder why his two main companions, Dennis and Leigh tolerate him. However, Arnie is never the true focus in the story so the unease around his character always feels deliberate, and Leigh and Dennis fill the protagonist roles as the perfect movie teens giving the viewer someone to root for. Fun side characters include the old man with the shovel from Home Alone, tobacco chewing scrapyard owner, Darnell, and Harry Dean Stanton as Officer Junkins, presumably named for his desire to send Christine to the junkyard, all of which add humour and colour to the surrounding town and story.

Throughout the first half Christine is quiet but ever present, seething and idling away in the background, communicating through rock and roll via her radio when someone tries to break in or when Leigh gets too close to Arnie. As Christine is restored and Arnie’s persona changes, we see Carpenter use the toolset he developed on earlier films, treating Christine like a two tone Michael Myers, her scenes on the hunt are some of the best in any slasher film. Alongside the direction, the stunt drivers and the effects team manage to give Christine a personality that is a treat to watch, holding her own against more famous movie monsters, Christine deserves a spot in the slasher hall of fame. Unfortunately, these scenes are the highlights of the film and too few throughout, almost at odds with the more reserved first half.

Accompanying the change in tone, the visuals and sound shift in character. The 50s rock radio is replaced with Carpenter’s usual synthesiser. Again, similar to Halloween the music adds strength to the villain, giving Christine a powerful presence that feels inescapable and full of rage. The contrast and swing between these two types of sound give the sense that the car is enjoying herself in the violence, making for an entertaining but shallow second half. Considering the score, visuals and effects it is a surprise that Christine is not more fondly remembered for these moments, the film holds up against the majority of the 80s slasher films but lacks some of the exploitative elements of more popular cult features.

The problem with Christine, however, is the fact that it feels like its two halves don’t gel together well. Although the characters and premise are strong they are eclipsed by Christine at all times. Christine’s impact on the characters feels abrupt, and the deaths feel lacking in impact despite the time invested in the characters. Either due to a lack of a strong protagonist or some missing connective tissue, the climax feels underwhelming despite how enjoyable it is to watch, preventing the film sitting among the top tier Carpenter films. Despite the pacing issues and unsatisfying ending, an iconic movie monster and some great chase scenes make this a memorable King adaptation and a worthy entry in Carpenter’s catalogue, although Christine doesn’t sit on top of the pile, the film definitely earns some love for Christine as a character and for the kill scenes.