Sunday, October 23, 2011

Director's Spotlight #1.4: John Carpenter's Christine

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and why some of their films work and some don’t. This month, the director in question is Master of Horror John Carpenter, and the focus on his 70s and 80s horror films. Next, his 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine.

Grade: 51 (C+)

Sometimes it’s possible for a good director to overcome ridiculous subject matter. This is not one of those times. Filmed after the commercial and critical failure of 1982’s The Thing, Carpenter’s adaptation of one of Stephen King’s sillier novels is a well-directed film, but the conundrum of making the concept of a haunted car frightening is never solved? To the credit of Carpenter and the cast, no one ever winks at the audience, and it might be possible to enjoy the film without thinking too hard about it. But sheesh, that plot.

Here goes: Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) and Dennis (John Stockwell) are best friends, but they couldn’t be more different. Dennis is a good-looking athlete pursued at an almost comical degree by one of the prettiest girls in the school (Kelly Preston). Arnie is a relentlessly bullied nerd with no luck with girls. One day, on the way home from school, Arnie sees a beaten-up old car, called “Christine” by the crotchety old man selling it, and buys it against Dennis’ advice. Arnie fixes up the old car over the next few months, and as the car goes from being a piece-of-junk to a gorgeous car, Arnie becomes a lot smoother. He starts dating the pretty new girl. He looks a lot cooler. He acts a lot tougher. But there’s something weird about the car. It only picks up old rock-and-roll songs from the 50s. Arnie starts treating his friends badly. Dennis gets hurt in a football game while looking at it (no, really). Arnie’s girlfriend Leigh (Alexandra Paul) starts choking while inside it (no, really). It has a history of people around it or inside it dying (no, really). And now the people who have crossed Arnie start turning up dead in car-related incidents.

Right from the get-go it’s difficult to buy into the film’s plot. The opening scene implies that from its inception the car was possessed by some evil spirit: it maims one worker and kills another. Carpenter tries to set a creepy mood in the opening scene, but there’s no way to avoid it: this scene is hilarious. That it is well made can’t hide how inherently ridiculous it is. It doesn’t get much better from there: the scene in which Arnie’s girlfriend chokes in the car recalls a somewhat similar scene from Halloween, but context is everything. In Halloween, a major character being choked to death in a car was terrifying. In Christine, a major character being choked to death by the car is goofy.

Carpenter’s usual gift for building characters fails him here. Stephen King’s novels are often marred by one-dimensional characters (not to mention silly plots), and Christine is no exception. The bullies tormenting Arnie are stereotypical knife-wielding “high schoolers” (the leader looks at least 30), while Arnie’s parents are stereotypical sheltering parents. The leads don’t fare much better: Dennis and Leigh are barely there, and their relationships with Arnie are poorly established. The first hour of the film spans several months, never staying in one place too long or giving either character enough time to make an impression. Arnie, meanwhile, is unbelievable throughout. Keith Gordon overplays both his nerdiness in the early stretches of the film and his bad-boy routine later in the film, and the change comes so quickly it’s hard to get a hold on the character. The dialogue doesn’t help: King’s books sometimes contain clumsy use of fake-slang, and Arnie’s use of the word “shitters” for anyone who crosses him is particularly terrible. Not everything can be blamed on King. Carpenter could have re-written the script to give more time to character development. Character actors Harry Dean Stanton, Robert Prosky, and Roberts Blossom have their moments as a police officer, a garage owner, and the car’s previous owner, respectively, but otherwise the characters in Christine are thinly conceived.

So why is Christine not a complete dog? Ridiculous as the concept of a haunted car is, the scenes of the car stalking the bullies are effectively thrilling and provide some striking images. The use of 1950s songs is a nice touch which recalls the heyday of rock-and-roll songs about love for cars, and the use of “Little Bitty Pretty One” in one of the early chase scenes is particularly memorable. The effects-scenes of the car are neat as well. These stronger scenes come in a thirty-minute block in the film’s second half. It goes back to silliness for the underwhelming climax, but for a while, Carpenter manages to make a film about a haunted car semi-plausible.

Next Week: John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, John Carpenter’s The Ward

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