Monday, April 1, 2013

John Carpenter: Christine

Due to the critical (and somewhat financial) shellacking Carpenter’s previous film, The Thing, took in 1982, it’s easy to see why the auteur would distance himself as much as possible from the material of his next film. After failing to get the opportunity to direct the Stephen King adaptation that really interested him (Firestarter), Carpenter was essentially a director for hire on his next two films — Christine and Starman. And it’s no surprise that these two films mark what was — at that point in his career — his worst stretch of films (and really, what an amazing thing it is that the streak ends at two). So, off of one King adaptation and onto another, Carpenter was asked to make Christine, the story of a killer car that King had published earlier in the same year the movie was released. That kind of expediency makes my brain hurt, and it’s probably one of the reasons why the film doesn't feel complete, reeks of an apathetic director just doing one for a paycheck, and is a chore to get through. 

The story of nerdy Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) who finds an old beat up Plymouth Fury 20 years after the car seemed to intentionally injure one factory worker and strangle to death another (the opening scene with the red Plymouth juxtaposed amongst those other grey cars is actually a really nice shot), fixes it up, and transforms the car into a thing of beauty. Only it seems the car is reciprocating as it also begins to change Arnie from sympathetic schoolroom punching bag always complaining about “getting laid” to an aggressive, petulant ass. It’s in the latter parts of this transformation that the film completely falls off the rails. But before we get there, the other players: Arnie’s only friend is kindhearted jock Dennis (John Stockwell). The two gratuitously swear and talk crudely about girls in a way that teenagers do. Dennis is a nice guy that sticks up for Arnie, especially when the gang of school bullies seems ready to kill Arnie (and Dennis for intervening) at a moment’s notice. This is a moment so over-the-top the only way to explain it is to think of something like The Last House on the Left. I mean, I know bullies can be cruel, but it’s as if these actors (who are quite terrible) all went to the David Hess school of acting. I’ve never seen bullies like these. But I digress, the rest of the film concerns itself with Arnie’s obsession with the new girl, Leigh (Alexandra Paul), and how he uses the newly restored Plymouth (now named Christine) to try and get some.

This backfires on Arnie and leads Leigh and Dennis towards each other and into a romance. Naturally, this angers Arnie who begins to continue his evolution into “badass”  and starts hanging out at the garage where Christine is housed — and with crusty old garage owner Will (Robert Prosky, who chews every last bit of the scenery he’s in) — than he does with his family or Dennis. And that’s about all there is to it. When Arnie begins to suspect that Christine is alive, he tells the car, “show me” and the car flashes its lights on and begins purring in recognition to Arnie’s request (this scene, I have read, is a somewhat contentious one among fans of the book as King never explicitly lays it out Arnie’s complicity in the killings). At this point the film goes as follows: bad dialogue, Arnie acting like a total dick to everyone around him, some Prosky scene chewing, Christine kills someone, more talking, a few “Oh hey it’s Harry Dean Stanton!” moments, more bad dialogue, Christine kills some more people, and then there’s a big final showdown where Dennis uses a bulldozer to “kill” Christine. Oh, and Stanton just pops in again at the end to tell Dennis and Leigh that they're heroes. 

I apologize for the snarkiness, but there was just nothing to this movie (it doesn’t help that at 100+ minutes, it’s one of Carpenter’s longest and feels much, much longer) outside of a few nice shots and moments of atmosphere. But the tone is just all wrong. The film has to be a rib, right? The denizens of the high school are nothing more than bad caricatures (perhaps this was intended? Someone help me out if you’ve read the novel), the acting by Gordon is grating, and there is little in the film in the way of tension or shock (something Carpenter got so absolutely right in his previous film). It’s as if Carpenter wanted to make the most benign horror film he could think of—distancing himself from even the things that he almost always gets right in his films (getting good performances from his characters, musical score, some semblance of tension)—so that if audiences and critics hates this one, he had already built in some excuses. I know it seems ridiculous to think that a filmmaker would do that, but the auteur has stated in recent interviews that he basically took Christine for the money and nothing more; this was a job for hire, essentially (and this is something that, in recent interviews, Carpenter says a lot about movies he doesn’t have a particular fondness for).

I know that Christine has its defenders (and, please, defend away in the comments!), but I just don’t see the appeal. I have to side with King here who stated that Carpenter, “fucked this one up.” There are so many odd touches throughout that are uncharacteristic of Carpenter: Harry Dean Stanton’s detective popping in and out of scenes without being established, time-stamping the film a la a police procedural, the underused idea behind the car’s playing of classic rock ‘n roll juxtaposed with the car murdering people, Gordon’s acting decisions (especially in the moment where he blows up at his parents), and the fact that Carpenter (perhaps hesitant of introducing any kind of gore due to the backlash surrounding The Thing) second guesses his usually honed instincts when it comes to shock and suspense. Oh, these touches aren't odd because Carpenter has never used them before (obviously he's used things like time-stamping and lack of character backstory to great effect in Assault on Precinct 13), but they're odd because of how sloppily thrown together they are here. I get an overwhelming sense of "meh" from the film, as if the great director just sat back in his director's chair, legs crossed, and said, "yeah, go for it." And that is a very sad thing indeed when thinking about a film directed by John Carpenter. 

I get that the film may be tongue-in-cheek, but its satirical tone just didn’t work for me, especially during the botched ending. Here, Carpenter gives us the old slasher trick where we think the movie is over as the camera zooms in on the compacted remains of Christine (the equivalent of the slow zoom on the “dead” killer in slasher movies), only for the car to “wink” at us by crinkling its crushed bumper. Christine may have worked had Keith Gordon not been cast as Arnie and had Carpenter cared enough to infuse some of his usual cynicism and satire into the film, but instead Christine (and pardon me for using car puns here) is a lemon; it just kind of idles.

Carpenter would take a step back from the horror genre with his next film, Starman, a public atonement of sorts for The Thing; a way for him to prove he could make a “friendly” alien film and prove himself as a commercial filmmaker. And money. I’m sure money had something to do with it.


  1. Oh, defend I will!

    Can't believe you hated this as much as you did, as I love it more and more each time I watch it (it has been the only mainstay in my Halloween horror binge the last 6 years or so). It is strange, and the performances are largely stilted (Gordon's is the most eccentric; the scene where he pounds beer after beer seems amateurish at first but then descends into an almost theatrical underpinning) but to me they're intentional (mainly because virtually everyone here has done more naturalistic work elsewhere). And Carpenter is well very Carpenter here; he has a budget so his set ups and movements are completely realized; if you have the DVD watch how he initially unveils Christine, it's a bravura use of deep shot to close crop of creepy dude, to 180 degree camera pan. Given the material is SO 'B' (I can't think of a more absurd plot in Carpenter's career—up to this point—), and his technique so refined it makes such an interesting push and pull.

    Someday I'll write a proper defense of the film as I do think it's the apex of Carpenters work, and his most deeply subversive film. It's the America he always portrayed; the darkness of suburbia imagined as the wild west only here the vastness of urban sprawl has played out in the neurosis of car culture (and everything from the music to the style gets added to the blender). America had seen an oil crisis years before (still ongoing) and to me, this is the only mainstream film I've ever seen to savagely attack that notion head on.

    Different Strokes, different folks.

    I will add as a parting shot; how did Keith Gordon land this role and DRESSED TO KILL? That I'll never be able to explain.

    1. Oh, and I'll add that the scene at the drive in where Christine locks the date in the car alone and nearly suffocates her is perhaps the greatest Carpenter set piece in his entire oeuvre. That interior lighting that makes the car almost glow is really something extraordinary.

    2. Jamie: I really liked that scene, too. I should have mentioned it. I'm at work now, so I don't have the time to do your comment justice, but I'll get to it by tonight. Thanks for such a wonderful defense of the film! I had you in mind when I encouraged readers to defend the film; I remember you singing its praised during the horror countdown.

    3. Sorry it took me so long to reply. Work has been crazy. Okay, so maybe I was a bit crabby when I reviewed it, but it kind of reminded me -- although on a much "lesser" level -- of The Fog and Escape from New York in that it came at a time in the man's career where he was at the top of his game, and Christine just screamed "minimal effort" to me. I'll explain this in more detail with my review of Starman, but I think what drives me crazy about Christine (and Starman) is that it just reeks of a director playing it safe -- a director that is content with average. It's horribly depressing in that regard.

      I grant you that there are a few scenes that stand out (like I mentioned in the review, I love the opening shot with the juxtaposition of red against those drab grays), but overall it just did nothing for me. I get that Carpenter is trying to create some kind of bizarre universe filled with caricatures (and stilted performances of said caricatures), but it just moved at such a choppy clip. There's a lot that's left in in the name of "atmosphere" that would have been better served giving us the believable (as believable as a possessed car story can be) transformation of Arnie's character. Important character developments moved too abruptly, here, and that's big, noticeable thing in a movie where you main antagonist is a hunk of metal.

      I like what you say about the setting -- how it jives with what Carpenter had been doing to that point, and I hope you do write that defense of the film because I would love to read it.

      Thanks for the great comment, Jamie!

  2. Keep on enjoying this retrospective but I think you´re WAY harsh on Christine. There´s some major flaws but the film is atmospheric, the sequence where the main bullies are killed is brilliant, the music is prime Carpenter, the use of widescreen is, as always, great. I could go on but I see this, not as a step back but rather a return to the more atmospheric, non gory scares of Halloween (comparisons end there). The source material isn´t that great but I still think that this is one of the better King adaptations and even though it´s an uneven movie there´s, as in almost all of Carpenter´s movies, some truly great scenes that make it worth seeing even for non-fans.

    1. Thanks, Anon. I'm glad you've been enjoying this retrospective. Look up at my response to Jamie to see why I was so harsh on the film. Yeah, I was crabby, but since I've been watching all of these in close proximity, the lesser Carpenter films really stand out. I agree with you about the music. If there's one thing that Carpenter always gets right in his movies, it's the music.

  3. I can actually speak to recent experience here. You are right, this is one tedious little movie. I somewhat applaud Keith Gordon's performance...and the killer car is worth a few laughs. On a whole, thought? There's just not much to care about: it's all "connect the dots" Stephen King nonsense.

    Cool review.

  4. Love the way Prosky says, "You can't polish a turd." hah. I dunno. I can't hate on this film as it really has nothing more on its mind than to entertain and be a popcorn movie, which I think it succeeds in being. Is it top tier Carpenter? No way, but it has its moment, as pointed out quite well in the comments above. It sure as hell ain't as bad as MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, which, for me, is Carpenter's lowest point.