Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, April 1, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1983)

9. Christine

Carpenter is pretty open about the fact that he only made “Christine” because he needed the work, following the financial collapse of “The Thing.” Despite that, “Christine” is far more attuned with Carpenter’s sensibilities then, say, “Starman.” Considering they are both two of the best known names in the horror genre, Carpenter and Stephen King coming together at some point seems almost inevitable.

You wouldn’t be criticized for forgetting “Christine” is a Carpenter joint. The whole premise is very Stephen King. The movie is about high school students which, “Halloween” aside, isn’t something the director usually does. However, repeated watching reveals deeper connection to the director’s overall aesthetics. Christine the car is a force of natural, pre-existing, unknowable evil, just like Michael Myers or the street gang in “Assault on Precinct 13.” Also, like Michael Myers, the car is invincible and undying. Beyond the story, the director owns the material wholly. We get several of the trademark first-person(car?)-perspective shots. They are extremely well used and, watching Christine’s victim flee on foot in headlights, builds atmosphere and tension.

Moreover, it really sells the concept. A killer car is probably one of King’s more widely mocked premises. Even as somebody who loves killer car movies, I can see the validity in the criticism. Any time you have something inanimate coming to life, especially something that is an everyday object, it strains believably. A number of things are done to work through any potential awkwardness. Christine is treated as a real character. The car is shot in incredibly dynamic ways. It helps that, with the smooth red hood and hot wing tips, the car is a naturally dynamic shape. She’s shot at low angles, with focus on the headlights and fins, adding to the general character of the car. The truly impressive part is that the car is even driven with attitude. Christine banks slowly, slams around, grabs other vehicles and throws them. Her mean streak is visible. Kudos to the crew of drivers who worked on the film. Finally, the golden oldies pop songs used to describe Christine’s emotions might be considered heavy-handed but I like it.

The revelation that the car is a self-propelled motor of evil is held off as long as possible. We know Christine has always been bad, right from the first scene. However, it’s about forty minutes in before the car does anything overtly sinister and almost exactly an hour before the car starts killing people. Even then, it might be Arnie behind the wheel. It’s not until the climax when we realize exactly what is going on.

Whether or not that is a good thing is probably debatable. Like “Halloween,” “Christine” takes its time setting up the story. Unlike “Halloween,” that first hour is less devoted to creating an atmosphere of tension and more about exploring the characters and their lives. It’s not bad. Arnie and Dennis, despite being on opposite ends of the high school popularity pool, have a realistic chemistry and friendship. Arnie’s evolution from nerd to asshole is given air to grow naturally. The family and high school drama is fairly captivating. Still, after a while, you have to wonder when we’re going to get to the fireworks factory.

The movie’s biggest problem is that it has two protagonists. For the first hour, it would appear Dennis is the main character, the studly football star that is going to have to watch his unlikely best friend change horribly. A big dramatic plot point happens half-way through, which sidelines Dennis and puts the focus on Arnie. Both characters are interesting, more so then you’d probably expect, but the sudden change is still a little awkward. Another issue is that neither boys’ romance with Leigh is well developed. Arnie and Leigh’s relationship begins completely off-screen. Dennis and Leigh develop over the course of two scenes. Once the killer car action starts, the movie gets a lot better.

The first two attack scenes are fantastic sequences. They establish how powerful a force Christine is and how helpless her victims are. Her headlights jump to life over someone’s shoulder, the first real jump scare in the flick. Narrow alleyways can’t stop her. The car squeezing into such a tight space is both a cool visual and also inventive from a horror death scene perspective. The tight camera angles on the panicked victim help too. Exploding gas stations can’t stop her either. The second attack is the film’s centerpiece. The movie never quite tops the image of a burning vehicle wailing down the road nor the thrill of Christine dismantling the gas station with ease. The movie’s special showcase, the sequence of the wrecked Christine morphing back to life, is also a fantastic moment. These bits make up for some of the weaker kills, like Darnell’s death, and the slightly underwhelming climax.

The movie is character driven and gets decent performance out of the cast. Keith Gordon looks like a real life nerd in the beginning but also manages to sell his transformation into a different character. Gordon sells Arnie’s conflicts with his parents and friends well. John Stockwell seems likable enough as Dennis, to the point were I wish his character was a little more nuanced. Alexandra Paul, as the third part of the love triangle/central trio, is easily the weakest. Paul lesser character has more to do with a weakly written part then her performance. The movie is smart to front-load the supporting cast with great character actors. Harry Dean Stanton’s character pops up out of nowhere and contributes little to the plot. However, he’s Harry Dean Stanton so Detective Junkins is charming, hilarious, and immediately likable. Robert Prosky gets the best lines in the movie as the grouchy, vulgar Will Darnell. That is, if Robert Blossom doesn’t get the best lines as old man George LeBay. It’s very much the kind of creepy old man part Blossom specialized in and he has the thankless job of delivering exposition, via funny, casual dialogue. The only cast member that truly doesn’t work is William Ostrander as bully Buddy. Not only does Ostrander look like he’s missed a few grades, he’s mostly an undistinguished asshole.

“Christine” taps into a powerful vein. Cars… And sex. Which are one and the same. Some people, let’s face it, some men, are really into their cars. They name them, baby them, but it’s all about sex, isn’t it? The car itself, especially a big, shiny, pointy one like Christine, is a phallic symbol. The power and independence of having a car is all wrapped up in the sexual awakening of being a teenager. After getting a car, he argues with his parents, starts dating, alienate his old friends, and starts acting erratically. He changes. “Christine” stands among the ‘Teens are Monsters’ sub-genre, alongside King’s own “Carrie,” “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” and about a hundred different slasher flicks.

The sexual connection is even more obvious. One of the earliest conversations in the film revolves around three horny high school boys drooling over the hot new girl. Arnie’s virginity, and desire to get laid, is brought up frequently. Old Man LeBay compares new car smell to… Another notable scent. Arnie and Christine are in love. They can’t have sex so, instead, Christine “performs” for him, in maybe the film’s best scene. The car eventually becomes a surrogate for any other romantic opportunity in Arnie’s life. The director himself has admitted that the climatic scene of the Plymouth Fury being crushed under a bulldozer is meant to represent a rape. All of this obvious dangling subtext adds extra flavor, texture, and strength to a story that, on its surface, might be a little silly.

A great score further helps the film. An occasional bluesy guitar riff, intentionally recalling the fifties classic rock, is packed in among the throbbing, intense electronic melodies. “Christine” is always a little better then I remember. It’s a bit overlooked, underrated even. While it’s far from the best John Carpenter movie or Stephen King adaptation, it has a number of surprises in store and plenty to recommend. [Grade: B]

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