Monday, October 30, 2017

Ten Days of Terror!: Christine

Film: Christine
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

An adaptation of a Stephen King novel is always going to be a crapshoot. You might get something exceptional like The Shawshank Redemption, something controversial like The Shining, or pure shit like Maximum Overdrive. The mention of that last film is important here, because much like Maximum Overdrive, Christine is a film about a vehicle that quite literally has a mind of its own. This is one of those rare instances where I know the source material well enough to comment on the adaptation, which is true of a surprising number of the more classic King stories.

Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) is a stereotypical high school nerd. His only real friend is Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell), a relatively popular student and star of the football team. Arnie has a difficult relationship with his parents despite his being what most would consider a model student. His parents, primarily his mother (Christine Belford), are dominating and controlling, in many ways preventing Arnie from having any real adult responsibilities. At the start of the film, the current conflict between Arnie and his parents is that he has opted to take shop, a class his mother feels is beneath him.

After a bullying incident with high school hard ass Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander), Arnie and Dennis head home from school when Arnie spots an old, dilapidated Plymouth Fury for sale on the lawn of a seedy house. The house and car are owned by George LeBay (Roberts Blossom), who offers to sell the car to the suddenly enamored Arnie. Arnie writes a check for $250 (roughly $600) on the spot and, told that the car is named Christine, drives it away to face another vicious run-in with his parents. Unable to keep the car at home, Arnie takes it to Darnell’s Autobody, run by Will Darnell (Robert Prosky) to start fixing Christine back to her original condition.

This is when strange things start happening. Arnie, the quintessential high school nerd, has suddenly ditched his glasses and started dressing more like a late-‘50s greaser. Unsure with girls to this point in his life, he is soon dating Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul), the new girl in the school. And Christine is being repaired much more quickly than it should be. It is as if Arnie dedicating his time and money to the car has caused it to reciprocate, fixing itself while he makes repairs. But this love comes at a terrible price. Christine evidently is alive, and is very jealous of any attention that Arnie might give to anyone else.

We learn that the car’s former owner, George LeBay’s brother, killed himself in the car. Earlier, both his infant daughter and wife died in the car as well. LeBay was obsessed with Christine, and the car apparently becomes obsessed with anyone showing it any attention. When Arnie and Leigh are at the movies, Arnie leaves the car for a moment and Leigh gets locked inside and almost chokes to death (like LeBay’s daughter did years earlier). When Repperton and his gang of hoodlums destroy the car, it repairs itself and hunts the quartet down, killing them all, and repairing itself of any sustained damage. Eventually, police detective Rudy Junkins (Harry Dean Stanton) gets involved with all of the unsolved cases that seem to point to a car that somehow remains in pristine condition.

Christine takes a lot of shortcuts from the original novel, as is typically the case. Most of these don’t really affect the story. In this version, Christine is very much its own entity, while in the book it is frequently implied that the car is being possessed and driven by the angry spirit of Roland LeBay, its former owner. The ending is considerably different as well. The biggest gap here, though, is the relationship between Arnie and Leigh. There’s much more of a natural build-up in the book with Arnie gaining confidence and being able to ask out the girl who didn’t know him as the high school nerd. Here, it simply happens without a great deal of explanation.

That said, Christine has everything that one would expect in a John Carpenter film. It looks and feels like much of his work down to the minimalist and evocative soundtrack. The effects are also remarkably good. While some of it is almost certainly just reversed film stock, it’s surprisingly effective and sinister to see a damaged car becoming undamaged in what appears to be real time.

It’s also well cast. Neither John Stockwell nor Keith Gordon had tremendous careers as stars, they look the parts for this film. Alexandra Paul is mid-1980s pretty (a must for a role like this one), but also has some decent chops when it comes to dealing with Christine toward the end. It’s also always nice to see veteran character actors like Stanton, Prosky, and Blossom in small but effective roles.

Christine is a hard film not to like. While parts of it simply happen too quickly, it does stay true to the base story and to King’s themes of obsession and misplaced love. It could stand to be a little bloodier, but for what it is, it’s solid.

Why to watch Christine: It’s a high second-tier Stephen King adaptation.
Why not to watch: Gorehounds will be solidly disappointed.


  1. The film struck a chord with me, even though Carpenter said Christine "wasn't very frightening" and the film was "a job" for him as opposed to a "personal project".
    The book was ideal for adaptation because it's so visual. I enjoyed this one a lot more than I thought I would. There are similarities to Carrie in regards to the bullying, but I wasn't bothered by that. The lead performance by Keith Gordon stayed with me. As you say, the effects are remarkably good.

    1. Honestly, I don't find that surprising at all. I think there are certain movies that can really resonate with us at particular moments in our lives, and Christine has all of those elements. If you see this at the right age, it could easily be one of those movies.

      The success of Christine is that it strips down the story a lot (it's clear in the book, for instance, that the car is possessed or has captured the soul of its former owner) that aren't here, but the essence of the book is here. I mean, yeah, killer car, but also all of the teen angst that the book is really about is here, too.