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.

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…

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

Would you like Smiley Sauce with that?

American Beauty (1999)
(SPOILERS) As is often the case with the Best Picture Oscar, a backlash against a deemed undeserved reward has grown steadily in the years since American Beauty’s win. The film is now often identified as symptomatic of a strain of cinematic indulgence focussing on the affluent middle classes’ first world problems. Worse, it showcases a problematic protagonist with a Lolita-fixation towards his daughter’s best friend (imagine its chances of getting made, let alone getting near the podium in the #MeToo era). Some have even suggested it “mercifully” represents a world that no longer exists (as a pre-9/11 movie), as if such hyperbole has any bearing other than as gormless clickbait; you’d have to believe its world of carefully manicured caricatures existed in the first place to swallow such a notion. American Beauty must own up to some of these charges, but they don’t prevent it from retaining a flawed allure. It’s a satirical take on Americana that, if it pulls its p…

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

Is CBS Corporate telling CBS News "Do not air this story"?

The Insider (1999)
(SPOILERS) The Insider was the 1999 Best Picture Oscar nominee that didn’t. Do any business, that is. Which is, more often than not, a major mark against it getting the big prize. It can happen (2009, and there was a string of them from 2014-2016), but aside from brief, self-congratulatory “we care about art first” vibes, it generally does nothing for the ceremony’s profile, or the confidence of the industry that is its bread and butter. The Insider lacked the easy accessibility of the other nominees – supernatural affairs, wafer-thin melodramas or middle-class suburbanite satires. It didn’t even brandish a truly headlines-shattering nail-biter in its conspiracy-related true story, as earlier contenders All the President’s Men and JFK could boast. But none of those black marks prevented The Insider from being the cream of the year’s crop.

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.