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

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ (or Zootopia as our American cousins refer to it; the European title change being nothing to do with U2, but down to a Danish zoo, it seems, which still doesn’t explain the German title, though) creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). It’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

So credit’s due to co-directors Byron Howard (Bolt, Tangled) and Rich Moore (of The Simpsons, Futurama, and latterly, the great until it kind of rests on its laurels Wreck-It-Ralph) and Jared Bush (presumably one of the th…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I can't lie to you about your chances, but... you have my sympathies.

"Predalien" The Alien-Predator-verse ranked
Fox got in there with the shared universe thing long before the current trend. Fortunately for us, once they had their taste of it, they concluded it wasn’t for them. But still, the Predator and Alien franchises are now forever interconnected, and it better justifies a ranking if you have more than six entries on it. So please, enjoy this rundown of the “Predalien”-verse. SPOILERS ensue…
11. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
An almost wilfully wrongheaded desecration of both series’ legacies that attempts to make up for AVP’s relative prurience by being as transgressive as possible. Chestbursters explode from small children! Predaliens impregnate pregnant mothers! Maternity wards of babies are munched (off-screen admittedly)! It’s as bad taste as possible, and that’s without the aesthetic disconnect of the Predalien itself, the stupidest idea the series has seen (and that includes the newborn), one that was approved/encouraged by ra…

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …