Skip to main content

You better watch what you say about my car. She's real sensitive.

Christine
(1983)

(SPOILER) John Carpenter was quite open about having no particular passion to make Christine. The Thing had gone belly-up at the box office, and adapting a Stephen King seemed like a sure-fire way to make bank. Unfortunately, its reception was tepid. It may have seemed like a no-brainer – Duel’s demonic truck had put Spielberg on the map a decade earlier – but Carpenter discoveredIt was difficult to make it frightening”. More like Herbie, then. Indeed, the director is at his best in the build-up to unleashing the titular automobile, making the fudging of the third act all the more disappointing.


Christine was the fifth King novel to be adapted for the big screen, one of three that arrived in 1983 (the others being Cujo and the superior The Dead Zone). They all grossed about the same amount, which was significantly less than the two that kicked off Hollywood’s enduring love affair with the author, Carrie and The Shining (with the hindsight of thirty years, really successful big screen versions are the exceptions – It being the latest –  with his non-horrors having met with disproportionately greater critical or commercial approval). Such was King fervour at the time – matching only his for nose candy – work began on the movie before the novel was even released, which wouldn’t, as it turned out, be one of his better-received works either, picking up as it did Carrie’s teen trauma baton but expressing it through the rather more pedestrian mechanism of a possessed motor car.


Still, the picture seems to have undergone something of a rehabilitation in recent years, even cited by some as one of the best King adaptations (well, it’s all relative). Kim Newman put his finger on its major problem in Nightmare Movies, when he noted of the car that it “isn’t quite able to make her as much of a seductive personality as the script suggests she should be”. It isn’t that the movie isn’t scary – and it certainly isn’t – it’s that Christine has insufficient heft as a villain. The best you can say is that Carpenter doesn’t allow the Plymouth Fury to become a joke, which given the broadness of some of the elements here could easily have happened.


When you follow the tribulations of a put-upon nerd, there ought to be some catharsis in having him triumph over his persecutors, even if this is by way of turning to the dark side. Carpenter succeeds admirably with first part, but then seems to become almost disinterested in the payback (Arnie’s most effective moment comes not in response to the school bullies, but grabbing his admonishing father by the throat), which sidles along as offhandedly as the sudden appearances of Harry Dean Stanton’s cop (in all of about three scenes), haunting the protagonist like an even more unkempt Columbo.


Newman opined that the “For much of the movie, the focus is not on Christine, but on her owner”, but the key here is only the “for much of”. Keith Gordon gives a great performance as loser Arnie (not Richie) Cunningham (or “Cunt-ingham”) but once he’s transformed into a ‘50s greaser (this being an ‘80s movie, set in the ‘70s, the dislocated time could be seen as a positive or negative, but I tend to the lack of a clearly established teen milieu being a minus) his characterisation becomes disappointingly one-note. Worse, the focus shifts from Arnie to his best friend Dennis (John Stockwell, since having eked out a patchy career as a director, including Into the Blue and, er, Blue Crush).


So Dennis, already a jock with a heart (he sticks by his buddy, and stands up to the bullies) gets the girl, Leigh (Alexandra Paul, entirely underwhelming), while Arnie abruptly exits his own movie. The trick would have been to keep us engaged with Cunningham and his fate, but by the time he’s impaled on some arbitrary glass, we’re resigned to realising he isn’t even the movie’s antihero, less still co-villain. Dennis has moved centre stage, as if validating every “alpha male gets the girl” cliché and throwing support behind them to boot (I should stress that Stockwell’s very good, even as his character is earnestly irksome).


Arnie: A toast: death, to the shitters of the world, 1979.

There’s also the issue of the changes to the novel Carpenter and Bill Phillips (who wrote the screenplay) bring to bear, all but expunging the presence of Roland LeBay, who possesses the car and thus Arnie. Some who have read King’s tome suggest this was a good move, Carpenter streamlining an indulgent narrative, but for those of us unfamiliar with it, Arnie’s behaviour is left somewhat questionable. Such as, why he’s suddenly gone all ‘50s throwback (what, because the car came off a production line then?) and referring to those he doesn’t like as “shitters” (George LeBay – Robert Blossom – calls Dennis a shitter when Arnie buys the car, but that’s about it).


Then there's the background to Leigh nearly choking to death in the car, foreshadowed only by an easily-missed line of exposition. There’s never a sense of sloppiness to the production that say, Escape from L.A. exhibits, but neither do you get the impression Carpenter cared enough to go the extra distance in making this really work. And there wouldn’t have been that far to go. All the ingredients are there.


If Stanton (RIP) doesn’t get much of a look in, Robert Prosky makes a strong showing as the garage owner who allows Arnie to use his lockup, at first threatening and then increasingly understanding. Christine Belford is effectively dislikeable as Arnie’s dominating mother (“Has it ever occurred to you that part of being a parent is trying to kill your kids?” Arnie asks Dennis). William Ostrander is also an uncompromisingly hateable chief bully, although not only was he in his early 20s when the movie was made, but he also looks a good half-decade older still.


Seeing Stanton in this made me fleetingly wonder what that ‘80s teen movie titan John Hughes, who cast him in Pretty in Pink, might have made of the movie. Obviously, horror wasn’t his thing, but then this isn’t a scary movie. Hughes might have stayed focussed on the essential theme, which is rather lost amid the car-nage, a charge you couldn’t level at De Palma’s Carrie. Part of the problem might also have been that Carpenter doesn’t (didn’t) really suit straight studio movies. The ones that work (The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China) are in spite of his pitching his tent on their backlot, such that it feels like he both got away with something and lost them a wad of money (in the immediate moment) as a result. Christine, like Starman (which I like, but has little edge or bite to it, not even in a romantic sense) saw him playing safe, making watchable movies but ones that lack his essential personality.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.