Monday, January 30, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Christine" (1983)

Stephen King in 1983 was an absolute juggernaut, cranking out best-selling novels that all seemed to be turned into popular movies. By the early '80s, Hollywood wasn't even waiting until his books came out, optioning them before publication so they could start work on a film adaptation. Take "Christine," which came out a mere seven months after the book.

"Christine" was regarded as one of the bigger flops of Stephen King movies, but it's held up well over the years and even attained the status of a minor cult hit. (It actually wasn't a money-loser, taking in $21 million in ticket sales against a budget just under $10 million.)

The film has probably had its most profound effect on car collectors who specialize in late 1950s Plymouth Furys, who paint their vehicles in candy apple red with white stripes to obtain their own Christine. Similarly, the remake of "Gone in 60 Seconds" bombed at the box office, but many '68 Mustang fastbacks were converted into Eleanors.

I like "Christine," though I wasn't very much scared by it in 1983 and find it even less so now. What it does achieve is a pervading sense of disquiet -- the film manages to be disturbing without very much overt violence. The movie received an R rating from the MPAA, but the deaths aren't very grisly -- a few F-words here and there seemed to do the trick.

Given the presence of John Carpenter, by then pigeonholed as a director of horror films, working from a script (by Bill Phillips) based on a "horror" novel, it was perhaps inevitable that "Christine" would be judged via the prism of scariness. But if one sits back and lets the movie come to you, it's revealed as quite a decent dark drama with supernatural elements.

Interestingly, both the male leads have since gone on to productive careers behind the camera. Keith Gordon, who had a popular run playing nerds in the '80s ("Back to School"), has directed a bunch of television series episodes, including "Dexter," and helmed several respectable feature films, including "A Midnight Clear."

John Stockwell directed "Crazy/Beautiful," one of Kirsten Dunst's first films, and the horror film "Turistas." There seems to be a nautical theme in his filmography -- the surfer movie "Blue Crush," diver-centric "Into the Blue" and the forthcoming shark movie "Dark Tide."

On the female side, Alexandra Paul went on to a successful television and film career, best known as one of the "Baywatch" babes. And Kelly Preston has a small role as the girl spurned by the popular jock.

Plot-wise, there isn't a whole lot to tell: ostracized high school loser Arnie Cunningham (Gordon) buys a dilapidated 1958 Plymouth Fury and fixes it up. His best friend Dennis (Stockwell) and Arnie's unlikely new girlfriend Leigh (Paul) become convinced the car is haunted by an evil spirit. Soon, bodies start piling up.

The movie varies a bit from the novel, where Christine is possessed by the ghost of her first owner, who killed himself in the car. The film shows the car as evil from birth -- mangling the hand of one worker on the auto assembly line, and killing another who dares to flick cigar ash on her shiny new front seat.

Christine raises some metaphysical questions: What exactly is the source of her foul enchantment? Since she was bad to the rivets once finished, at what stage of construction did sentience manifest? Does the soul reside in the engine, or the differential?

Her main power, of course, is the ability to re-form herself to shiny newness, even after being smashed to a pulp by some local bullies who hate Arnie. Of course, Christine takes her revenge on the hoodlums, running them down or squishing them one by one. The two most memorable death scenes are Christine forcing her bulk into a narrow loading bay to get at one bad guy, ripping her fenders off in the process; and a flaming Christine, emerging from a gas station explosion, chasing the chief bully down a lonesome road in the film's most evocative scene.

Less mesmerizing, and in fact down right hokey is the bit where Robert Prosky, as the surly owner of the you-fix-it garage where Arnie keeps Christine, gets smushed against the steering wheel when she ratchets her front seat all the way forward. Never mind that as far as the seat would go would only give him a bruised belly. Even less plausible is the idea that Arnie would be allowed to continue driving Christine after his boss is found murdered inside of her, instead of being relegated to a police impound lot.

I liked the friendship between Arnie and Dennis. In most movies depicting high schoolers, the nerds and jocks are obligatory enemies, so it's nice to see the football player standing up for his best friend. There's an almost gentle grace between them. Especially touching is the scene where Dennis asks Arnie what he sees in the still-battered Christine.

"I guess I finally found something uglier than me," he says candidly. "You're not ugly, Arnie," Dennis responds, with a genuine note of pity. "I know what I am," Arnie asserts. You don't see too many moments like this in movies of any era, an authentic and heartfelt communication between two 17-year-old guys.

"Christine" was seen as a jalopy when it originally came out, but its reputation has been restored over the last 30 years.

3 stars out of four

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