3 out of 5
Directed by: John Carpenter
Slow and steady. Christine starts with plain white titles on a black background, the sound of an engine revving the only score. Once this is complete, we cut to a factory line where cars are being produced, and pause to focus on a red caddy – standing out from the bland cars in the line – which firstly slams its hood down on one worker’s hand, then leaves the dead body of another to topple out, after that second person dared to ash their cigarette upon the interior.
The car is Christine, and John Carpenter’s take on this Stephen King story is not trying to pretend it ain’t about a sentient, killer car.
Things proceed with a kind of inevitability thereafter, once lead duo of Arnie (Keith Gordon) and Dennis (John Stockwell) have been introduced, in a very cringey, 80s “boys only care about sex and ranking girls by their perceived sexual potential” bit of dialogue. While Carpenter crafts the majority of the movie with care, they character dynamics tend to feel like all cutting floor elements: Arnie’s the put-upon nerd at school and with demanding parents at home, only finding solace in shop class; Dennis is his childhood friend and protector, but has football team bona fides. We suffer through the aforementioned cringe, then some paces to establish these details, before Arnie spots Christine – some years after that opening incident – discarded in someone’s front yard, and purchases it for a couple hundred bucks.
Now the inevitability: Arnie no longer needs glasses; he starts wearing a leather vest; he gets a girlfriend. Dennis is concerned, but Arnie brushes it off, as his personality gets rougher, and his obsession with fixing up Christine grows. And isn’t it odd when the bullies who once tormented Arnie start showing up dead, often spotted being chased by a car that looks like Christine?
Carpenter captures all of this with his Halloween eye: tracking things through the nigh-dispassionate eyes of an observer; though this belies how much strength he has over the screen: the exact framing; the casual push-ins; choices when to go to closeup. While the ominousness of his slasher classic is maybe absent – instead of his score driving things, much of Christine is set to narratively appropriate oldies tunes, pumping out od the car’s radio – it is replaced by that inevitability, which is, in itself, unnerving, as you’re waiting for the film to turn.
And once it does, the steadiness continues: Arnie’s transformation and Christine’s mayhem are not all out, with the former emotionally spiking when pushed, but tempered somewhat by pitching his character more as one caught up in a horrible relationship than a mustache-twirling villain; similarly, Christine “acts” like a creature or jilted lover, only lashing out when threatened. This allows the movie to stay in the moment, leading to a pretty exciting showdown between man and machine.
The guts of a Stephen King story and Carpenter’s tone-focused direction produce a very effective, if unsurprising movie. There are a lot of narrative elements that feel at odds with, or a rather unimportant to the story – pretty much all the character bits prior to meeting Christine – but that lack of a human element may also be what helps the movie not descend into camp, and instead remain pretty steady and thrilling throughout.