Of course I’m a big fan of filmmaker John Carpenter. After all, he’s responsible for “Halloween” (click here for my review) and launching the career of Jamie Lee Curtis. Two other interesting works by him are “Escape from New York” (click here for my review) and “They Live” (click here for my review). Both of those have problems that ultimately make them grade out as less than adequate while being watchable. Nearly reaching that low-water mark from Carpenter is “Christine,” which is somewhat nicely adapted from the Stephen King best-seller of the same title. “Christine” is quite interesting, but just missing something. Judge for yourself…
(1983; 110 minutes; rated R; directed by John Carpenter and starring Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul and Harry Dean Stanton)
EVIL WORMS ITS WAY INTO A BOY’S SOUL
In my opinion, “Christine” is simply Stephen King’s best work. It has an outstanding plot, is intricate in its detail and with an author’s huge canvas can paint the best picture. Some of that can be said of the film “Christine,” but there’s just something missing from the movie that I cannot identify or quantify.
“Christine” has an excellent cast (especially since it doesn’t have an A-list star) and is an intricate story well-told on film, but still … there’s just something not there. Or should I say, just something keeping it from having become the horror classic it should have been. Re-watching the film this past weekend I was looking for specifics about which to be critical, but, other than a few nits to pick, I couldn’t identify the single thing that sinks the film.
As for the acting, you get an under-appreciated performance from John Stockwell, a truly nice turn from supporting actor (and he has the best name) Roberts Blossom and such great work from veteran actor Harry Dean Stanton you wish they had put more of his character into the film. Toss in the remarkably beautiful Alexandra Paul as the love interest and the unfortunately uneven work by co-star Keith Gordon and the film should grade out no lower than B+ or even achieve an A-. However, it doesn’t.
Director John Carpenter, whose “Halloween” set a horror standard five years earlier, does a wonderful job of compressing King’s lengthy novel into film form. While some directors would bog themselves down in one area or another of a work, Carpenter manages to keep the film on track while not wasting time at any one juncture of the story.
“Christine” is the story of evil as represented by a car. It is a 1958 Plymouth Fury (apt name, huh?) and from its birth on an assembly line it is cruel and vengeful. Carpenter then speeds the film forward to the two stars: Gordon as “Arnie Cunningham” and Stockwell as “Dennis Guilder.” The two high school boys represent two worlds: Gordon is the nerd and Stockwell the football star who’s used to reeling in the beautiful girls.
Things begin to change when Gordon finds the Plymouth. It’s a wreck and it barely runs, but he’s on it like the first girlfriend he’s never experienced. Soon, he’s caught up in it … and turns confident and manages to take out the new, most beautiful girl in schools (Paul as “Leigh Cabot”). It’s no surprise that the car’s personality is taking over Gordon and the film charges through a series of violent encounters as the car protects itself and works to keep Gordon under its spell.
The key encounter scenes are when “Christine” extracts revenge on three delinquents who vandalize it as a way to get back at Gordon. In the film’s climax, Stockwell and Paul use a bulldozer to first disable and then crush “Christine,” but the obvious doomed character here has since met his fate.
Here’s a rundown of the work of the principal cast:
- Gordon tries to do the nerd-turned-psycho, but ultimately doesn’t do a very good job. He does a nice job as a nutcase, but it is different in a horror film that the “bad guy” isn’t really bad (just an enabler to a car) and an inanimate object (albeit with a soul and personality) is the evil presence. Gordon, who did a much better job in “Back to School” with Rodney Dangerfield (click here for my review), is good at the conflicted boy at the end – and especially when he’s riled up about “Christine.”
- Stockwell does a nice, restrained job as the friend who slowly loses connection with Gordon. Stockwell, whom you might remember as “Cougar” in “Top Gun” three years later, especially conveys well the high school boy confused by all that’s happening. Stockwell was also in “Nixon” and has gone behind the camera as a director in such films as “Blue Crush.”
- Paul, who would go on to fame on TV’s “Baywatch,” does a nice turn as the new-girl-at-school who gets caught up in a Stephen King plot. Her best work in the film is when “Christine” flexes its muscle and nearly causes her to choke to death. Her line at the end, “God, I hate rock ‘n’ roll,” is excellent. Paul was also in the movie version of “Dragnet” with Dan Ackroyd and as a beautiful hitchhiker in “American Flyers” (click here for my review).
- Blossom is tremendously effective as the sickly, somewhat evil old man “George Lebay.” He’s the brother of the dead man who previously owned “Christine” and sells it to Gordon. Blossom oozes the bitterness of his character’s obviously strained life (nice costuming idea to have him in a ratty, dirty back brace as an obvious metaphor) and gives a clinic on how to convey such a part to an audience. Blossom, who died in 2011 at the age of 87, is best remembered as the next-door neighbor in “Home Alone” and was also in “Escape from Alcatraz” with Clint Eastwood.
- Stanton, who plays “Det. Rudolph Junkins,” is another actor who knows how to convey a character. I’d like to have seen more of him here, but I’m not sure it would have worked. Stanton has had a prolific career of nearly 200 credits over seven decades and was in “Kelly’s Heroes” (click here for my review) as well as Carpenter’s “Escape from New York.”
- Robert Prosky, who plays profane, cruel junkyard owner “Will Darnell,” is also, like Stanton, somewhat lost here. But like Stanton, he is solid in his delivery and holds his end of the film up. Prosky was also in “ Doubtfire.”
See? Good work almost all the way around (with the exception of some lapse with Gordon), but something just isn’t clicking to make this one the classic it could be.
“Christine” was the 35th ranked film at the domestic box office in 1983 with $21 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It was just ahead of the holiday classic “A Christmas Story” (39th with $19.2 million – click here for my review) and was made on a budget of $9.7 million, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film was “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” with $252.5 million, which had more than twice the haul of the No. 2 film: the wretched snifflebag “Terms of Endearment” with $108.4 million (thanks, Ray Romano, for that most apt and descriptive term). Other films from 1983 that I’ve reviewed are:
- “A Christmas Story” (Christmas classic) – click here for my review
- “Easy Money” (hilarious Dangerfield) – click here for my review
- “Local Hero” (wonderful) – click here for my review)
- “Max Dugan Returns” (great Neil Simon) — click here for my review
- “Octopussy” (so-so 007) – click here for my review
- “Trading Places” (sensational comedy) – click here for my review
- “WarGames” (really solid) – click here for my review
Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- Kelly Preston has a small role here as a cheerleader and she would go on to do “Twins” (click here for my review), “Jerry Maguire” and the little-remembered “Space Camp” (click here for my review).
- Paul’s twin sister, Caroline, filled in for her in several scenes – including the one on a bulldozer. Caroline didn’t have a career to speak of in Hollywood, but she was one of the first women hired for the San Francisco Fire Department.
- Kevin Bacon was offered the “lead” role, but chose “Footloose” instead. I still can’t figure out if he was offered the part that went to Gordon or Stockwell.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “Stephen King‘s popularity was such at the time that the film went into production before the book was even published.”
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “According to Bill Phillips on the DVD Documentary, the movie technically didn’t have enough violence to justify an “R” rating. But they were afraid that if the movie went out with a PG rating (PG-13 didn’t exist yet) nobody would go to see it. So he purposely inserted the word “f***” and its derivatives in order to get the “R” rating. He then recalls that they were criticized at the time for their use of the word.” Note – I put the asterisks in since the IMDb.com entry has the full word.
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