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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Something something trident.

Aquaman (2018)
(SPOILERS) If Aquaman has a problem – although it actually has two – it’s the problem of the bloated blockbuster. There's just too much of it. And the more-more-more element eventual becomes wearing, even when most of that more-more-more is, on a scene-by-scene basis, terrifically executed. If there's one thing this movie proves above all else, it's that you can let director James Wan loose in any given sandpit and he’ll make an above-and-beyond castle out of it. Aquaman isn't a classic, but it isn’t for want of his trying.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

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 decisions may be vi…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Charles Dickens would have wanted to see her nipples.

Scrooged (1988)
If attaching one’s name to classic properties can be a sign of star power on the wane (both for directors and actors), a proclivity for appearing in Christmas movies most definitely is. Just look at Vince Vaughn’s career. So was Bill Murray running on empty a mere 25 years ago? He’d gone to ground following the rejection of his straight-playing The Razor’s Edge by audiences and critics alike, meaning this was his first comedy lead since Ghostbusters four years earlier. Perhaps he thought he needed a sure-fire hit (with ghosts) to confirm he was still a marquee name. Perhaps his agent persuaded him. Either way, Scrooged was a success. Murray remained a star. But he looked like sell-out, sacrificing his comedy soul for a box office bonanza. He’d seem even more calculating seven months later when tired sequel Ghostbusters II emerged. Scrooged is guilty of exactly the kind of over-sized, commercially cynical production this modern retelling of A Christmas Carol (only partial…