Sunday, May 6, 2012


In real life, cars can be involved in some pretty terrifying situations, like a drunk driver or a fatal accident. In movies, car chases have long been the staple of the action genre and have been in some of cinema's most thrilling moments. But cars themselves are not scary. They're only as dangerous as the people driving them, and unfortunately for John Carpenter's Christine (1983),  no one is behind the wheel.

Based on a novel by Stephen King, Christine is the story of high school nerd Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) and how he purchases and restores a 1958 red Plymouth Fury known as Christine that has a mind of its own, going after anyone who gets between "her" and Arnie. Stephen King has written a number of stories about inanimate objects that come to life and wreak havoc on people including "The Mangler," about a possessed industrial laundry press machine, and even in Maximum Overdrive, his sole directorial effort which was about rampaging trucks. As a species, humanity places great trust and reliance on technology and machines to make our lives easier and keep us alive. It certainly is a rather harrowing thought to consider what might happen if the machines developed awareness and decided they didn't want to obey us anymore.

However, this is an idea that usually works better in print than on film. As readers, we can imbue appliances with personalities and other traits with our imagination, and we can convince ourselves of the threat. Filmmakers work in a literal medium; what you see in the frame is what you get. While reading "The Mangler," for example, we can look beyond the machine and see the demon shining through. In the film adaptation, all we're seeing is an industrial laundry machine and no amount of camera angles, shadows, or other techniques can get us to look beyond that.

Even in the source material, Christine's horror came not from the car itself but rather the spirit of its previous owner, Roland LeBay. Somehow, his ghost became tied to his beloved vehicle, and there are times when the characters could swear they saw him in the rear-view mirror or sitting next to them out of the corner of their eye. Lebay, we learn, was a nasty piece of work, angry at the world and everyone, and his rage remained with the car. This aspect was dropped from film, and I remember reading somewhere it had to do with An American Werewolf in London using a similar idea at the time with the main character being visited by the bloodied ghosts of his victims. Whatever the reason behind that decision, all we're left with is the car, and even when she's covered with flames and running over the school bullies that vandalized her, Christine just isn't that frightening. The only people likely to be scared are classic car enthusiasts as they watch all sorts of destruction and damage being inflicted on Christine throughout the film.

However, Christine works better than The Mangler because it does have a more intriguing underlying story. This is essentially the story of Arnie's obsessive love, and as he restores the car, Arnie transforms from a wimp to someone more confident. His attitude changes, and he becomes cocky and arrogant, troubling his parents, best friend Dennis (John Stockwell), and new girlfriend Leigh (Alexandra Paul).  Arnie is essentially a slave to his first love, willing to sacrifice anything and everything for it, until gradually it consumes him, the fury of Roland LeBay engulfing him. It's an effective characterization that had the filmmakers abandoned the evil, self-driving car aspect of the story and focused exclusively on Arnie's metamorphosis, they might have been more successful.

The special effects are impressive, especially when Christine repair herself, and a number of classic rock and roll songs are used for darkly humorous effect [example, Dennis unsuccessfully tries sneaking into the car, and its radio plays "Keep A-Knockin' (but You Can't Come In)"]. But when a director of Carpenter's caliber is at the helm, you expect some genuine thrills, and sadly, that's what Christine lacks.

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