Christine (1983)

Up until yesterday, there were only two John Carpenter efforts that I had yet to see. After watching Christine, only Dark Star remains, which I hope to enjoy at some point this week. After the movie was over, I hopped onto the Internet and perused Carpenter’s IMDB page. Despite being a full blown fan of his, I had never noticed that his filmography is similar to that of Woody Allen. I don’t mean this in terms of both directors’ overarching themes being kindred, just in their output levels—both of which could be described as staggering. Allen is well known for putting out a film a year, a breakneck pace he has managed to keep up well into his 70s. Carpenter hasn’t been as lucky in this respect. His career stalled out around 2001 after a string of flops, resulting in a big gap between the 2001 release Ghosts of Mars and The Ward in 2010. Before that occurred, he had some sizeable runs featuring a handful of classics, some of which I’m sure a fair amount of his contemporaries wished for their own. His first run breaks down as follows:

  • Dark Star – 1974
  • No release in 1975
  • Assault of Precinct 13 – 1976
  • No release in 1977
  • The one-two punch of Halloween and Someone’s Watching Me in 1978
  • Elvis – 1979
  • The Fog – 1980
  • Escape From New York – 1981
  • The Thing –1982
  • Christine – 1983
  • Starman – 1984

This run cemented Carpenter as the premier genre filmmaker of his generation and contains at least 5 undisputed classics, 2 television movies standing out as highlights in a decade full of classics in that particular genre, and 3 idiosyncratic cult films, each with their own, well-established merits.  This would represent the best work Carpenter’s career would have to offer; but he wasn’t done yet. He then dropped back, reloaded, and rattled off two more mini-runs, each seeing diminishing returns.

The second run:

  • Big Trouble in Little China – 1986
  • Prince of Darkness – 1987
  • They Live – 1988

The cults for the films in this section of his filmography are smaller yet no less vocal in their loyalty. Despite the fact that this is the smallest run, it remains impressive considering he directed, scored, wrote two of the scripts (penned under the pseudonyms Martin Quatermass and Frank Armitage), and shot a cameo for Big Trouble in Little China. Carpenter then lay relatively low until remerging in 1992 for his final, least successful stretch.

The third run:

  • Memoirs of an Invisible Man – 1992
  • Body Bags (a return to TV movies) – 1993
  • In the Mouth of Madness – 1994
  • Village of the Damned – 1995
  • Escape from L.A. – 1996
  • No release in 1997
  • Vampires – 1998

So, after starting his career in 1974 and running full steam until the end of his 3rdrun in 1998, Carpenter only had 7 years in which he didn’t release a film. Don’t forget that you also have to take into account that in 1978 he released two films, one of which would revolutionize the horror movie landscape.  In addition to all of these duties, he composed scores for 14 of his films! I often see essays and various message board posts complaining about how Carpenter’s legacy has been diminished due to the quality of his post 90s work. I think that any rational person wouldn’t be surprised by the dip in quality; it is painfully obvious that the man burnt himself out. Most of these films involve location shoots, massive special and practical effects efforts, large casts, and what could only be perceived as technical and logistical filming nightmares, all of which becomes more staggering when you consider how economical his directing style is. While the overall quality of Carpenter’s 1990s output is unquestionably less than his efforts in the 70s and 80s, that’s not to say that these films aren’t without their merits. Madness has some genuinely creepy moments, Escape from L.A. is plenty of fun as it satirizes and exploits its genre at the same time, and Memoirs helped Hollywood transition from practical effects to computer-generated ones by featuring landmark technological advances.

Now how is that for a digression? Time to get back to Christine

Artie (Keith Gordan, in a hypnotic performance)—an awkward nerdish type, tormented every day by knife-wielding bullies and dominating parents—and his best friend Dennis (John Stockwell) are on their way home from the first day of school in their senior year. It’s a realitively uneventfully day until Artie gets a glimpse of Christine, a rundown, beat-up 1958 Plymouth Fury. After buying the car from a creepy old man (natch), Artie’s personality and outward appearance begin to change. Before long, gone are the busted up glasses, greasy, unkempt hair, and menial dispossession. The new Artie ditches his longtime friend after a major football injury, argues violently with his parents, and—despite the fact that he managed to win her over in the first place—treats the school’s most desired girl like dirt. Yes, Artie is suffering from a bad case of tunnel vision; he has become dangerously obsessed with his car. This is particularly disturbing news since Christine has a history of killing its owner, his family and friends—she can’t help it, she’s the jealous type. Before you know it, the body count rises but the mystery lies in who is to blame: Christine or Artie?

Coming in at the end of that fabled first run, Christine doesn’t seem to get the credit it deserves in the Carpenter cannon. Actually, come to think of it, it doesn’t seem to get love in the Stephen King adaptation cannon either. Keeping in mind that I have only viewed Christine once, I think I have the answer to why this came to pass. The legacy of this film is that of a horror movie, which it isn’t. Blockbuster and every other video chain keep this one boxed into the genre when it only employs (to great effect) certain troupes that have become categorical hallmarks. It lacks the blood-soaked trappings generally associated with the genre, is deliberately paced with most of the supernatural action not occurring until the movie is half over, and shows more dedication to the development of its characters and their relationships. With Christine, John Carpenter’s focus is in creating one hell of a twisted love story and an unflinching examination of teenage angst. The use of the aforementioned horror beats combined with action movie characteristics helps to create a unique film, one that even stands out in a filmography like Carpenter’s.

Christine also carries with it the signature style that would come to be associated with the atmosphere of a classic Carpenter film: the distinctive synthesized score, minimalist lighting and photography, along with steadicam. Being an early 80s flick, the film is a hall of fame example in the use of lens flares as well. As with most Carpenter films, the special effects take a prominent role, and I’m pleased to say they hold up. Since the possessed Plymouth Fury is the true star of the show (she even gets a creepy origin story to kick off the proceedings), it seems only right that Christine’s ability to repair herself after an attack is rendered as wonderfully as it is.

While its legacy is that of an overlooked and underrated Carpenter entry, Christinesuccessful combines all of the hallmarks in the director’s career and the result is a unique, character-driven cinema. The Christine legacy is that of a true genre film; one that deserves a larger audience, from both the general movie-going public and die-hard Carpenter enthusiasts.

-David

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