One of the reasons John Carpenter’s work as a whole holds up so well is because, more often than not, the filmmaker never really had to resort to gimmicks or tropes. Whether he was telling stories about aliens, ghosts or the devil himself, he did so with a unique perspective and master-class craftsmanship, instantly creating a singular approach that didn’t need any narrative or stylistic crutches to seem in tune with his more popular contemporaries. However, if there was any instance where Carpenter might have relied on the tropes of his time (and, impressively, retain most of his cinematic voice), it would be CHRISTINE.
Of course, CHRISTINE’s execution also has much to do with the source material, considering the film is an adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. King’s voice in and of itself is unique, and for the most part, the more effective adaptations of his work seem to almost be bonded by that voice in tone. And in terms of CHRISTINE, there’s no doubt that Stephen King’s particular portrayal of suburbia bleeds through Carpenter’s lens, with the characters, dynamics and dialogue all feeling closer to the author as opposed to the filmmaker. In fact, Carpenter’s voice largely comes through in the film’s sequences of pure horror, in which the filmmaker of THE FOG and HALLOWEEN comes out to play in a big, bold way.
However, from the “Bad to the Bone” introduction to the “punk gang” to the inquisitive gumshoe detective, there’s something oddly studio-driven about CHRISTINE. Throughout the film, Arnie’s relationship with CHRISTINE is portrayed via the performances as co-dependent, much more like an emotionally abusive relationship than an addiction; however, as much as the film leans in that direction, the film always seems to pull back, choosing to favor a more monster movie construct than Carpenter or even King’s more curious implications. Even the love triangle between Arnie, Dennis and Leigh feels strangely underdeveloped and streamlined, leading to the film’s narrative identity crisis as the film shifts from Arnie to Dennis almost carelessly.
Yet at the end of the day, CHRISTINE still fits within Carpenter’s filmography, complete with a John Carpenter/Alan Howarth score, top-notch action direction and some truly imaginative horror sequences. For instance, the suspense building up to Moochie’s death scene (and even the execution of that sequence in general) is totally terrifying, and 100% evocative of Carpenter’s cinematic style. Even the choking scene in CHRISTINE evokes the visual stylings of THE FOG, especially with the lighting and the editing; in fact, the film’s cinematographer Donald M. Morgan may not be Dean Cundey, but he sure as hell makes CHRISTINE look like a Carpenter/Cundey collaboration. Furthermore, the performances on display are riveting, passionate and (for the most part) organic in a way that certain King character’s typically are not, showing Carpenter’s talent as an actor’s director.
Carpenter also does a great job of establishing CHRISTINE as a credible villain, which could be difficult to a less-skilled filmmaker who might have been more inclined to turn the film into a JAWS rip-off. With the unique design of CHRISTINE aside, Carpenter gives CHRISTINE emotions and makes the car more than just a prop, but rather a well-rounded character. And while the songs that come on the radio during her attack sequences do feel gimmicky (in both a studio and Stephen King way), the more subtle ways that Christine torments and acts out in protection of Arnie comes across with a straight face as opposed to a winking eye.
Overall, with over 30 years since CHRISTINE roared into theaters, the film is a truly fascinating watch in retrospect. With the voices of Stephen King, John Carpenter and the ‘80s studio system swirling about, especially considering Carpenter’s post-THING reputation in mind, CHRISTINE is a film unlike most in the filmmaker’s prolific filmography. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as, despite some dated elements, CHRISTINE still runs like a beaut in 2016.Read more »