Thursday, August 20, 2009

Carpenter's Tools: Christine

The marriage of the horror kings of two media, film and literature, must have seemed a sure-fire hit back in 1983. Fresh off the disappointing receipts for The Thing, John Carpenter, perhaps looking to recover a bit, came aboard an adaptation of Stephen King's Christine. The Thing was the first Carpenter film that the director didn't at least co-write, but it at least felt like a Carpenter work. Christine, despite a few flashes of Carpenter's brilliance, looks and feels like the workman project that it is.

Christine sends Carpenter back to the suburbs after expanding his scope with Escape From New York and The Thing, which only adds to the promising quality of the film. As the film opens on a bookish nerd, Arnie (Keith Gordon), and his jock friend Dennis (John Stockwell), it's hard not to think excitedly of Halloween. Buddies since childhood, Dennis is the most popular (and also the nicest) stud in school, while Arnie is the tag-along who only holds any sort of conversation with Dennis.

Life changes for Arnie when, on the way home with Dennis, they stop at a junkyard and Arnie stumbles upon the decrepit shell of an old '58 Plymouth Fury. Inexplicably attached to the rusted shell, Arnie agrees to pay the creepy junkyard owner enough money to buy a new, working car, and proceeds to use his shop skills to fix the thing up. As repairing "Christine" consumes more and more of Arnie's time, he begins to change. He ditches the glasses, slicks back his hair and by all accounts becomes a bit of a jerk. Suddenly he's so confident he can even woo the new girl, Leigh (Alexandra Paul), the immediate crush object of every boy.

Meanwhile, the car takes on a certain sentience. Its radio, which plays only old '50s rock 'n' roll, plays at will, and it picks its songs to fit the mood. It displays an open jealousy toward Leigh, which even Leigh notices. When Dennis confronts the old man who sold Arnie the car, the vendor tells the kid how the car drove his brother insane. Some gangbangers take sledgehammers and knives to Christine as retribution for Arnie squealing on them earlier, and Christine responds by fixing itself and hunting down each of her attackers by "herself."

The problem here is that it takes some effort, not simply in direction but in design, to make an inanimate object vaguely anthropomorphic and especially scary. The smoke-belching semi in Spielberg's Duel is a good example. But Christine never really pops off the screen. There's nothing particularly creepy about the car itself, and it acts as little more than dead weight dragging down tension. Carpenter manages to make a few scenes work, though; Christine using the gang leader Buddy's car to trap people in a gas station and blow it up, then chasing Buddy down while on fire is just terrific.

But not even Carpenter can coax good performances out of this cast. Gordon does well enough as Arnie, but he never conveys obsession so much as oily snark. Paul and Stockwell turn every one of their scenes into soap-level melodrama, and let's not even start on William Ostrander's performance as Buddy. Even Shatner would have told him to be a little bit more subtle. Harry Dean Stanton livens up the proceedings as a cop investigating all of the mysterious deaths occurring in the small town, but he gets too little time to boost the cast.

On the plus side, Carpenter's score is one of his best, and if Christine wasn't such a tension zapper he could have used it to generate a nail-biter. Sadly, the weak script and nonthreatening villain, mixed with some cringe-worthy performances under the direction from someone who normally got the best out of his actors, sideline the director's work, which admittedly is far from his most effective. Christine is, to me, a metaphor for puberty, of the draw of your first car and of the ways that teens can go crazy just because they're teens. It's pretty thin, but it rarely appears on lists of King's best novels. It doesn't lend itself to a particularly chilling story though, and maybe that's why Christine feels more like a good TV movie and it's by far the weakest entry in his late '70s-late '80s gold run.

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