I mentioned way back that I’d like to talk about some of director John Carpenter’s less discussed films. I was going to go visit Prince of Darkness but I suppos speaking to my father recently put my mind more on the automotive.
Christine is an odd film in that it’s not often considered a” top” John Carpenter film, and yet its cultural reach is extensive, with the concept of the sentient, possessive machine being pervasive in our pop culture. Partially this could be because Stephen King’s original book was also quite popular, though the book also relies more heavily on the ghost of the owner of the vehicle as an antagonist, rather than purely the vehicle itself. Carpenter’s film is a stripped-down version of the story, but I feel that it’s this version that has seeped into our cultural consciousness.
To be fair, even Carpenter seems to not regard Christine too highly, describing it as “a job”, though later admitting that it did have a place for his love. Still, it’s hard not to imagine Carpenter’s mental state as he approached the film. His arguable masterpiece of The Thing had been savaged by critics and failed at the box office, being too perfect in its deployment of bleak horror for its 1982 audience to appreciate.
This makes sense given the timing – Christine was the next film he released after his arguable masterpiece of The Thing which tragically underperformed both critically and at the box office. Compared to the Lovecraftian styles and scopes of The Thing, Christine is a fairly simple setup; a nerdy teenager gets his first car, which is malevolent and sentient. As he rebuilds the car to its full glory, it slowly changes him from sweet shyness to cold arrogance, driving off under its own ability to kill his enemies, and then any rival for his affection.
At base, Christine is much less ambitious than something like The Thing, or even some other Carpenter horror outings like The Fog or Prince of Darkness. In many ways, it is a return to something like Halloween – a dark threat within small-town America. Just like in Halloween, it handles its smaller stakes well, with memorable characters and directing. Carpenter excelled at shooting for horror even when not making strictly horror movies. The film easily shifts from suburban greenery into bleak nighttime industrial and rural landscapes where Christine herself is free to run rampant.
What really elevates the film for me, however, is the oft-overlooked performance of its lead, Keith Gordon, as Arnie Cunningham, the owner of Christine. Technically his football-playing friend Dennis is the protagonist, who has to stop Arnie and Christine and gets the girl in the end. Keith Gordon is the real star with how well he portrays Arnie’s transformation from a wallflower to a cold and manic greaser. The film has a lot of erotic undertones regarding the titular vehicle, and it’s impressive that Gordon manages to capture this relationship without making it laughable. One of the best scenes is when Arnie first observes Christine’s supernatural powers of regeneration, staring with the fascination of a teenager first seeing a woman undress. He gives an equally on-point defense of his love of the car to Dennis as they speed down a darkened highway. Carpenter is able to take what could be a silly concept at base, and turn it into a compelling dark dynamic.
Christine is a film worth checking out for the acting of Gordon alone. Throw in some great directing, a few very neat effects (especially Christine’s ability to regenerate), and some wonderful music choices and it makes a very watchable horror flick.