Friday, 12 March 2010

Christine (1983)

Country: USA

John Carpenter's Christine

The 1970’s had seen a number of films responding in a most conservative fashion to progressions in technology. Like the revolt of nature film which saw the natural world decide it had had enough of humanity, technology was positioned as something that could achieve autonomy, to have a sentience and a will of its own that was dedicated to the destruction of mankind. Carpenter’s film feeds into this strain and builds upon the rather vacuous earlier killer car effort The Car (1977). In that film the vehicles sentience is painted in purely supernatural terms, whereas Carpenter opts to totally remove any sense of the supernatural from his film. The car is alive, can drive around on its own, can regenerate itself, has feelings of love, jealousy, and vengeance and is able to act on these feelings. We aren’t really given an explanation of this - it just does! Depending on your outlook this is either the films major weakness or its great strength.

The film opens with a rather stylishly mounted prologue sequence set in a Detroit car factory in 1957. We see Christine for the first time, a blood red Plymouth Fury…and fury is the operative word. Right from the off Christine has a bad attitude, crushing one mechanics hand under the bonnet, and killing another for flicking cigar ash onto the brand new leather upholstery. Christine is a car with very little tolerance or patience. The novel was essentially a love triangle played out in the same kind of high school environment that King had so evocatively rendered in his debut novel Carrie (1974). Unfortunately the love triangle doesn’t come across as effectively here, largely because the characters in the film rarely rise above the level of stereotype. The initial protagonist is Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon), a nerd simply because he wears glasses. Once he dispenses with the spectacles and dons a leather jacket, he is suddenly irresistible to the school babe Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul). Cunningham’s transformation from geekdom to chicdom takes place largely off screen, as does his burgeoning romance with his car. This is a major structural fault because it allows for little exploration of motivation. The book is implicitly concerned with this change in Arnie. Carpenter instead is more concerned with showing Christine mowing down the bad bastards who smashed her up and defecated on her dashboard.

The stock characters begin to build up - a jock with a heart of gold, the bookish love interest, the switchblade pulling school bully, the liberal parents, the down at heel detective. The characters that had such life and depth in the novel are two dimensional and predictable here - and after all this is a 1980’s horror film that is unusually reliant on characters. It as if Carpenter doesn’t realise the importance, and ultimately insults the audience with trite dialogue and mind numbing predictability. The man who was able to radically re-structure tired genres in films such as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and Escape from New York (1981) appears to have fallen asleep with this one. He and his collaborators concocting a narrative with all the stylistic grace of a Skoda.

Arnie actually undergoes two transformations in the novel. The other is into the previous owner Lebay, and although Arnie does begin to speak the same lingo as Lebay, this is another undercooked avenue. The Bill Phillips screenplay has attempted to throw as much of the novel in as it can within the allotted screen time, the result are plot developments that go nowhere and confusing character traits that remain unexplained and unanswered. Whilst the motor car initially offers Arnie the freedom and liberation seen in American Graffiti (1973), ultimately it controls, dominates and owns him. The motor car here is a metaphor for social control. Arnie swaps one form of subjugation (his parents) for another. I suppose one could say this is a subversive statement in a film culture that has seen motor vehicles as conduits to freedom and to the realisation of the American Dream.

From a stylistic point of view this is one of Carpenters flattest and least appealing films to look at. The use of framing is less sophisticated than in earlier productions, and DOP Donald M. Morgan fails to achieve the look that Dean Cundey had brought to earlier Carpenter films. There are one or two nice visual effects, but this has to rate as one of Carpenter’s least cinematic films. The one area the film does succeed very well in is its soundtrack. The use of 1950’s pop songs, but covered for a 1978 milieu is very effective, and Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s synthesised offerings are perhaps the only thing to remind us that this is a John Carpenter film after all.
© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. hey i love te car can you make a 2christine im justin mccoy

  2. Greg Stuart Smith1 October 2011 at 06:43

    Not much comment-action here, so I thought I'd let you know, Shaun, that I think this is a spot on review. Haven't seen this one in years and years, but it never resonated like a lot of Carpenter's films did for me. I remember thinking it was strange, Gordon's transformation into the cool bad boy at school. And yes, I think Dean Cundey's absence is strongly felt here.

    THE THING is a favorite of mine. Checked out KILLER ELITE (come to find out, NOT a remake of Bloody Sam's "THE" KILLER ELITE!!!) last Monday at the theater, and caught the latest trailer for the prequel that's coming out this month. I must say, it seems they did it with love and a healthy respect for the first film. Mainly, I was thrilled to hear that, in the trailer at least, they've incorporated Morricone's sparse yet terrifying score. In fact, it's dread inducing pulsing synth track is the last thing we hear as the screen slowly fades to black. My whole body broke out in goose-flesh!

    Again, a great, honest review.

  3. Cheers Greg! It might be because (a) the film is crap or (b) the review is crap. Stephen King's novel is in many ways an epic. Not in terms of page count, but in the rich gallery of characters he creates, and in its densely plotted narrative. Quite how such a work could be condensed into a 90 minute film is beyond me. Although the film retains the key events, it does so at the cost of characterisation and most importantly of all...plausibility. The best thing about the film is the soundtrack in my view.

    I couldn't agree more about THE THING and Morricone's contribution to the overall atmosphere of tense paranoia. Do you have a favourite Morricone score? I have thought about this long and hard and I've concluded that MY NAME IS NOBODY is my favourite.

  4. Greg Stuart Smith5 October 2011 at 07:38

    Sorry it took me a few days to respond to this. Had some technical difficulties, among other things. That said, your review was definitely NOT the crap. In fact, just the opposite is true. So whatever the opposite of crap is (something that is debatable), that was this review: the opposite of crap! I guess that leaves us only one other option, as to why there has been as lacking of love in the comment section - and we both know what that is: CHRISTINE is this crap. Other than the music as you say.

    Couldn't agree more about King's novels. I haven't read this one, but I've read at least half of his books (and that's saying a lot!), and their film versions often times fall flat for this reason: that his narratives are usually so dense, that it nearly defies logic that they could EVER be condensed down to 90 or 120 pages! Even his novels that have been given mini-series treatment fall flat, though this may have more to do with the fact that most of them (I haven't seen either of the SALEM'S LOT mini-series though) were made by the networks, and thus, could not be one tenth of what a Stephen King novel is. Though Tim Curry's Pennywise stalks more than a few peoples nightmares, I know that!

    Anyway, I don't know if you were following the DARK TOWER SERIES drama, but the revolutionary idea for that one, was to have three features with two mini-series released in between them as a way to cover the whole scope of that series. A new regime at NBC/Universal axed the project, but supposedly Ron Howard is still shopping it around. My guess is it ain't going to happen. Which means maybe I can still do it! Hey, and you said yourself, you've written: post-apocalyptic, historical adventures, and most importantly, westerns! You could be the scribe!
    I like it! I like it a lot!

    Anyway, I've been thinking about it, and it's so hard to come up with a favorite Morricone score. I downloaded the complete THE THING score the other day and am listening to it right now. So good. I still haven't seen MY NAME IS NOBODY, so I must do that soon. The one that sticks in my head the most these days is his score to DUCK YOU SUCKER! That score is amazing, and from what little I've heard of MY NAME IS NOBODY, it seems to be in that vain. All that being said, I still think my favorite would have to be FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. The way he incorporates Mortimer and Indio's locket theme with the more traditional Manco (ala: "... he went by the name of Manco.") whistling theme, is so dman good! I especially like how he incorporates an organ into the locket theme when Indio is in that church! Ah, AMAZING!

    Okay, I'll stop rambling now...

    Besides MY NAME IS NOBODY, which of his scores for you come in second and third?

  5. I think CHRISTINE is certainly worth a read Greg. With King films its either a case of huge 800 page novels being condensed into 90-120 minutes, or tiny 30 page short stories being stretched to 90 minutes. The 1979 Tobe Hooper mini-series of SALEM'S LOT is very good. It's one of the better King adaptations, its worth watching for James Mason's great performance. I also thought STORM OF THE CENTURY was pretty good. But this was an atypical mini-series in that it wasn't based on a King novel, but an original screenplay.

    I read the whole of THE DARK TOWER series in June and July and yes I did read a few things about the concept behind the film/TV versions. I'm not sure how it would work, but the idea is intriguing. Whilst I was reading WIZARD AND GLASS, which is the fifth and longest of the books, I felt it could actually condense quite well into a 130 minute film.

    Another Morricone score I really like is A GENIUS, TWO PARTNERS, AND A DUPE. Which like MY NAME IS NOBODY was one those Terence Hill comedy westerns. A top three is quite I'll do something slightly different;

    Top 3 Western Scores:
    1. My Name is Nobody
    2. For a Few Dollars More
    3. Face to Face

    Top 3 Giallo Scores:
    1. Who Saw Her Die?
    2. Spasmo
    3. Bird with the Crystal Plumage

  6. Surely Morricone's score for 'Lizard in a Woman's Skin' deserves a Top 3 Giallo score ranking, Shaun? 'Black Belly of the Tarantula' and 'What Have You Done to Solange?' are certainly up there, would you agree?

    In unguarded moments I also admit to liking Morricone's 'L'ultimo treno della notte' (as sung by Demis Roussos), the title track for Lado's 'Night Train Murders'. ;)

    Oh, and I certainly agree with you about 'Christine'. I think the casting is visually terrific, but the film is a mere shell of the novel.

  7. Absolutely Johnny...the ones you mentioned are also superb, and certainly up there. The opening sequence to BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA with Ms. Bouchet is one of the most arresting starts to any giallo! Your a brave man admitting to liking the Roussos song from NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS. I like the film though, I find it to be far superior to the film it is imitating.


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