Looking back now, it’s almost hard to believe that John Carpenter’s career was in such a rough state back in 1983 that he needed to take on a project like Christine just to keep it afloat.
Carpenter was coming off The Thing, which while rightfully regarded now as one of the best horror films ever made, was a massive critical and financial bomb upon release. He needed his next film to turn a profit and find a larger audience or else, and at the time, no one commanded more attention in the horror genre than Stephen King. His popularity was so immense that production on Christine began before the novel was even published. When the film finally hit theaters in December 1983 — less than eight months after the novel’s release — it was already the third Stephen King film adaptation of that year, following Cujo and The Dead Zone, respectively.
Christine was by no means a passion project for Carpenter, and in the years since, he’s referred to it as his worst film. Strictly speaking, it’s kind of clear why: the premise is gimmicky and by the numbers, a total retread of some of King’s already better known works. In many ways, Christine is like a spiritual sequel to Carrie (1976), but for tortured teen boys.
And while some horror films — like The Hitcher (1986) and even Cujo — have been able to transform the automobile from a symbol of infinite freedom to a claustrophobic death trap, Christine isn’t one of them. It’s simply not a very frightening film. It’s so bloodless, in fact, that screenwriter Bill Phillips has since said he added the word “fuck” as many times as he could just to get the film up from a PG rating (PG-13 hadn’t been created yet) to an R rating.
Yet despite all that, Christine somehow manages to be one of the better, more serviceable Stephen King film adaptations ever made, right up there with Pet Sematary (1989) and It (1990) (top-shelf entries these films are not, but they are undeniably enjoyable). Part of that is because of Carpenter’s score, which is too damn good to be denied.
The other reason is the car itself, a red and white 1958 Plymouth Fury that Carpenter successfully manages to turn into a believable antagonist. Right from the beginning, we know she’s up to no good, and it doesn’t even matter why. We witness her birth in 1957 on an assembly line in Detroit, where she’s quickly responsible for two accidents — one claiming a man’s fingers, the other claiming a man’s life after he foolishly ashes on her front seat.
From her red leather seats to her sleek chrome trim, every part of Christine’s curvy body is fetishized. Her engine doesn’t purr – instead, it sounds like a heartbeat, steadily thumping with a power that can be controlled, but only for a time. She revs up, and the engine’s roar has a cascading effect, washing over and engulfing the audience. In an instant, it’s easy to imagine yourself being trampled over – not just by the sound, but by her.
To know Christine, we soon learn, is to love her — or to be stricken with a cold, creeping sense that something isn’t quite right. For dorky high schooler Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon), it’s the former. She’s the first thing he’s ever turned on, and there’s no turning back once he does. From the moment Arnie spots Christine, battered by age and coated with dirt on the side of the road, it’s love. It doesn’t matter that his devotion quickly isolates him from his best friend (John Stockwell) or his girlfriend (Alexandra Paul). The car offers up the kind of love that for him, promises to wipe away a lifetime of feeling weakened and emasculated at home and at school.
When a group of bullies try to destroy the car, it allows Arnie and Christine to take their relationship to the next level. As he runs his hands along her mangled frame and surveys the damage, he notices something strange. “Show me,” he finally says. Suddenly, the score turns lusty and burlesque-like, and Arnie watches with satisfaction as the car begins to repair itself for him, piece by piece.
Carpenter was supposedly reluctant at first to include the car’s regeneration in the film, but ultimately decided in favor of it. Beyond being an impressive special effects feat, Christine’s self-triggered restoration is a crucial move for the film, serving as the culmination of all Arnie’s devotion, and the consummation of the relationship between him and Christine.
Although Christine isn’t much of a horror film — and at times seems more effective as a love story — the car is a malevolent, jealous, larger-than-life presence throughout the film, stalking in silence and swallowing men up whole. Sometimes, this is through violence, but more often than not, it works through seduction. By the finale, the car’s metal grille has been so warped it resembles teeth, which gleam out in the darkness and seem ready to sink their sharpness deep into whatever human flesh draws nearest. It’s the only time we see the car’s sinister nature personified, and it doesn’t disappoint.