No. 35: Christine

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

After a brief interlude by some lovely cartoon mice, we’re back to our three-film mini marathon of Stephen King films here on the Back to the Movies 1983 countdown. The second-most commercially successful King adaptation of the year turns out to be probably the least well-known of the three in 2010. There are a few reasons that could account for this but my guess is that unlike The Dead Zone and Cujo (which we’ll get to next week), Christine doesn’t really take itself that seriously. When it comes to horror film, though there are a lot of filmnerds out there that disagree, it’s absolutely essential that the audience takes the threat of real danger seriously. If they don’t, you don’t have a successful horror film by definition.

While Christine has a couple of good scary moments, it’s certainly not a film that keeps you in a sustained grip of terror in the way that many of King’s other stories manage to. Christine is much more of a slow burn, a decent into madness. The problem is that in the film version, we don’t know what that madness is coming from and what its exact nature is. That confusion impairs the horror.

I’ve said many times before that slavish adherence to the source material is neither a vice nor a virtue when it comes to film. A film should do what works best on film and not make decisions based on some kind of sense of “loyalty” to the source material upon which it’s based. Stephen King and his fans ran into this issue with Stanley Kubrick’s masterful adaptation of The Shining, which made significant departures from King’s book but nonetheless stands as one of the greatest horror films ever made. When it comes to the changes that director John Carpenter made to the original story, however, I think it may have been worth sticking a little bit closer to King’s writing.

Christine focuses on a classic car (the title character) that seems to have a strange effect on its new owner, a lowly high school nerd named Arnie (played by Keith Gordon). After purchasing the beaten up old clunker from a creepy old man, Arnie mysteriously begins to become cool and confident, dressing like the Fonz (even though the movie is set in 1978) and landing a date with the hottest girl in school (Alexandra Paul). He also manages to restore the car to looking brand new despite having almost no auto repair skills and no money.

It doesn’t take long for Arnie’s girlfriend and best friend Dennis (John Stockwell) to figure out what’s going on, and it takes us even less time since rather than giving us a clever mystery to be revealed later, Carpenter lets us see very early in the film what King only hints at for most of the book: Christine appears to be alive and can magically repair herself. Not only that but she’s also apparently quite jealous and vengeful and finds ways to kill those who hurt her (the bullies) or try to get between her and her owner (girlfriends, wives, etc.).

It’s a silly premise and Carpenter’s treatment of the story somewhat plays into that. The problem is that there’s not really anything particularly scary about a classic car, even when it’s running over people. It has no personality or expressiveness because it’s a big hunk of painted metal. It’s an idea that probably works a lot better on paper than it does on the screen, although the movie does do several things very well.

While the storyline of what the car is up to in 1978 may not be all that interesting, the backstory of the car is pretty intriguing. Upon first finding the car, Arnie talks to the owner, a grungy and strange-looking man named George LeBay played to creepy perfection by character actor Roberts Blossom (see the clip below). All the details about the old man and his story, the corset-like back brace, the murderous history of the car, all come from the book but are somewhat gutted in the film since we’re told that unlike in the novel, the previous owner was simply another victim of this inexplicably evil car. King’s story made the original owner the cause for the car’s evil, an obsessed ghost who was haunting or even possessing the car and making it do all the horrible things it’s doing in 1978.

Keith Gordon does an OK job in nerd mode but he’s never really able to convince us that Arnie could truly make a sudden transition to being the coolest guy in school. He’s much more effective in scenes like the early bully confrontation with Buddy Repperton played by William Ostrander, who despite being 24 when he made the film looks like he’s about 55. Arnie’s pathetic attempt to stand up to Buddy and his subsequent rescue by best friend Dennis make us really feel for the guy, though those sympathies go right out the window as the movie progresses.

As I mentioned before, it’s pretty difficult to work up legitimate terror when you’re watching someone get hit by a car. It’s just not as terrifying as watching someone be murdered in a more intimate way like with a knife (which you’d think Carpenter would understand having already made Halloween). But there is one legitimately cool piece of imagery that comes out of the car’s murderous night of revenge. In the midst of chasing Buddy, the ringleader of the bullies, Christine destroys a gas station which explodes in a ball of flame that must have accounted for half the film’s budget. As Buddy runs away down the highway, Christine rolls after him engulfed in flames. The sight of a flaming, murderous demonic car is a pretty cool image and probably the one enduring thing that really sticks with me after the film.

I have a few other minor beefs with the film but nothing that couldn’t have been overcome with a stronger premise or a tighter, more cohesive screenplay. One of my pet peeves with the film is the excessive swearing. I’m all for a good creative swear-off, I’m not offended by it. But when it’s used willy nilly without any obvious purpose, it comes off as ridiculous and really hurts my ability to connect with the characters. According to IMDB, the producers were afraid that because of the lack of gory violence in the film they would end up with a PG rating (since there was no PG-13 in 1983), a death sentence for a horror film. In order to land that much-needed R, the producers decided to insert as much swearing as possible into the film, even giving Arnie an oft-repeated nickname that involves the c-word. It’s a bush league move by the filmmakers and it certainly doesn’t do anything to help us buy the already ludicrous premise.

I wanted to point out one more detail that didn’t so much bother as amuse me. The film opens and closes with George Thorogood’s now-clichéd hit “Bad to the Bone”, a song that has become one of the most overused tropes of cinema over the past 25 years or so. Watching the film, the musical struck me as very odd, since the song has an almost comical connotation now when it’s used in movies and TV shows to signify something being unexpectedly bad-ass. But as the clever folks at The Onion AV Club point out, this is the first known instance of the song ever being used in a film, meaning the connotation I place on it as a viewer in 2010 is probably completely different from the effect the song had on viewers in 1983, when it was likely the first time they had ever heard the song, at least in the context of a film.

Maybe there are a number of elements in this film, like the use of “Bad to the Bone”, that made a much greater impact on audiences in ’83 than they do on me today. It would certainly explain why this film received so much critical praise in its time while the next film on our list, a film I much prefer to Christine, was almost universally panned and disliked.

Next Up: The final Stephen King adaptation on our countdown, Cujo.