1983's Christine tends to be one of the lesser-seen entries in John Carpenter's classic-era filmography, as well as one of the lesser-seen major theatrical Stephen King adaptations. I suspect the reason for this is the same reason why I never bothered to see (or read) Christine until just last year: the concept of an evil car just sounds so silly that plenty of potential viewers find themselves doubting whether even the combined talents of King and Carpenter can pull it off. It turns out that you shouldn't doubt two of the 1980s' greatest horror maestros when they pool their resources: not only do they make the concept of an evil car believable and not at all goofy, they even turn it into a legitimately great film with a surprising amount of thematic depth. The trick is that Carpenter doesn't approach the material as a straightforward horror story. Instead, he approaches it as a highly metaphorical tale about a high school kid self-destructing under the toxic pressures and social cruelties that awkward teenage boys so frequently endure. By making it a very relatable parable of teenage angst and toxic masculinity, he takes a premise that could have resulted in laughable cheese, and instead turns it into arguably one of his best films.
Arnie is a shy and awkward high school kid who just wants to be accepted: to get a girlfriend, to be at least a little bit popular, to stop getting picked on... in short, to be cool. He thinks he's found a way to turn his isolated existence around when he gets a great deal on a gorgeous vintage car which is the very epitome of coolness, and as he fixes it up he finds a self-confidence and swagger that he never had before... but it comes at a price. There's something very strange about Christine (that's the car's name), and she has harsh demands in return for the transformation she has allowed him. Christine exists in the film as an antagonist who is every bit as major a character as Arnie (Keith Gordon), his best friend (John Stockwell) or his would-be girlfriend (Alexandra Paul); she is also a metaphor. She symbolizes the dangerous Faustian bargain that many a teenage outcast has contemplated: what would you give to be accepted, and to have the ideal life that feels just out of your reach?
|"What? I'm just sitting here behind the wheel of my metaphor."|
She also symbolizes the reality of what this usually means, if you strip away the deal-with-the-devil hyperboles: for a sensitive kid like Arnie who is far from the stereotypical alpha-male asshole at the top of the high school social hierarchy, it means sacrificing who you are to try and live into a toxic standard of masculinity. The sort of toxic masculinity where emotions are a weakness, where worth is measured in toughness and the ability to bully those further down the ladder, and where the only acceptable outlets for passion and love are inanimate objects like cars that are themselves just further symbols of cool-guy status. According to Christine, compromising your identity and your values to run with the in-crowd is pretty much the same as selling your soul to a demonic force; the cost is just as high. As someone who has never been a stereotypically masculine guy, who has always been most at home with the nerds and the outcasts, and who has always had great disdain for the machismo of car culture and the self-proclaimed “cool guys” who celebrate it, the message of John Carpenter's film resonated with me in a way I truly did not expect. Rather than just the literal “movie about a killer car” that Christine is always marketed as, the social commentary at the heart of the film is on a similar topic to Heathers, albeit with a totally different tone, and a view of the truly reprehensible popular guys that is far more cynical than that movie's Kurt and Ram. Or perhaps a better comparison would be that Christine is, in a sense, the male counterpart to Stephen King's other great horrors-of-high-school tale, Carrie.
|...and just in case you weren't already sold|
on the film, here's Harry Dean Stanton!
Carpenter's direction, and the script by Bill Phillips, focus first and foremost on creating a very natural portrayal of suburban high school existence, allowing the film to work first as a drama so that the horror elements have all the greater impact when they start to creep in. Similarly the look of the film uses two contrasting styles. Its daytime scenes are very naturalistic, steeped in the aesthetic of suburban Americana in which Christine looks right at home as just another cool car. The night scenes, on the other hand, are done in the stylized horror aesthetic for which Carpenter is known: deep shadows, blue light, lots of blackness punctuated by striking use of color. This balance of daytime and nighttime visual styles is strongly reminiscent of the original Halloween, and it works just as effectively. Carpenter is clearly very much in his element here, bringing horror back to suburbia once again. While the villain this time is a car rather than a killer, he nonetheless creates some very suspenseful and atmospheric horror set-pieces; indeed, Michael Meyers was such a hulking, unstoppable machine that swapping him out for a literal machine in a way scarcely makes a difference.
Christine is a somewhat rare thing: a horror film with an unexpected amount of substance at its core, which gives it much more to chew on than just an expendable cast of victims. Its premise may sound silly in theory, but King and Carpenter use that premise as a springboard to go to deeper places, and in doing so they have created a movie which is a very memorable entry on both of their filmographies. Both of their voices are highly evident in the film, and fans of each artists will find much to enjoy. Particularly in the case of Carpenter, Christine deserves more attention: it has all the elements of his filmmaking style at its best, and is highly recommended for anyone who has seen Halloween a few too many times, and wants to watch something that recaptures a bit of that magic, but has its own unique identity too.
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- Christopher S. Jordan