Halloween Every Day (for a Month)
By Andrew Neil Cole
Day 17: Christine (1983).
John Carpenter and Stephen King are unquestionably two of the all-time great names in horror. And yet, when I think of Carpenter, although I enjoy and/or admire almost all of his movies, I tend to think of Halloween, The Thing, and Escape from New York. Not Christine. The same can be said for King. The mere mention of his name conjures indelible images from countless books and movies, particularly, Carrie, The Shining, and The Dead Zone ... But not Christine. I find this an odd phenomenon, since I really enjoy much of what Christine has to offer.
Adapting King’s story of a 1958 Plymouth Fury that more than lives up to its name could not have been an easy task. The book, which runs north of 600 pages, is a much more complex, comprehensive story than it would appear at first blush. Carpenter and company decided, out of necessity, to streamline the story by adding an introductory scene that takes place on an auto assembly line in late-’50s Detroit. The scene not-so-subtly suggests that Christine was evil right from the moment of her creation. This is a significant departure from the novel, in which the car’s owner, not the car itself, was the primary source of supernatural evil. With this one seemingly simple alteration the rules of adaptation are firmly established, producing a definitive roadmap for the journey from novel to film. Approaching the story from the evil-car-only angle means that some of the best scenes from the novel will inevitably be cut because they no longer make sense. At the same time, this approach creates the opportunity to innovate and create new scenes that further the filmic story while maintaining the spirit of the novel. To this end, we lose a scene in which Christine crashes into a house and chases an intended victim all the way up a flight of stairs; but we gain a beautifully shot sequence in which Christine emerges, almost fully engulfed in roiling flames, from a gas station explosion and tears down an adjacent street in pursuit of a potential victim, glowing bright orange and blood red against the surrounding darkness, her hungry flames licking at the heels of the poor bastard she’s about run over.
Perhaps the necessity of so many dramatic adaptations and narrative reinterpretations is to blame for the film’s strangely inconsistent tone. Moments of phenomenally striking cinematography and flawless technical execution are regularly subverted by hackneyed teen-movie characters whose teen-movie actions push the narrative into familiar, even predictable terrain. We have the lovable nerd whose best friend is the protective jock. We have the generic pretty girl who attracts the attention of both the nerd and the jock, which leads—predictably—to a friendship-testing love triangle. Then we have the school bully and his band of idiot followers who might as well wear red Star Trek shirts with big black bull’s-eyes spray-painted across their chests. And yet, strangely enough, there is still much to be admired in these characters. These people actually feel loss and pain. They have acne and suffer at the hands of bullies and are embarrassed when the pretty girl doesn’t like them back. So many horror films featuring teen characters simply skip the grief when something terrible happens, or only acknowledge it with a cursory “I should’ve been there!” before quickly refocusing emotionlessly on the demands of an idiotic, pot-boiled plot driven primarily by a body count. In Christine, actions have consequences and life-and-death decisions actually result in life or death. However, these moments of heartbreaking realism, as welcome and as well executed as they may be, act as a frustrating reminder of what could have been, had so much of the film not been so contrived; therefore, the film’s most haunting, powerful moments really do little more than further contribute to its inconsistent tone.
It should also be mentioned that, like a lot of Stephen King’s stories, Christine is actually a horror/tragedy. We know that this isn’t going to end well for these characters. The unavoidably tragic nature of this tale creates a sense of melancholy and fate which anchors the story in an emotional depth that most teen horror films actively avoid in order to sell popcorn to the target demographic and accommodate the potential for sequels. (By the way, the horror/tragedy is something that King has come to master over the years. Consider the doomed characters he has created in novels such as Carrie, Pet Sematary, The Dead Zone, and Cujo [the book ends quite differently than the film], just to name a few.)
Christine isn’t a perfect film, but its visual style and tragiohorrific (that’s right, I said it) atmosphere make it a film well worth remembering and revisiting when considering the legendary careers of John Carpenter and Stephen King.