Christine (1983)


Bad to the Bone

Main Cast: Keith Gordon, Alexandra Paul

Director: John Carpenter

While I’m not a car person, the themes found in John Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of the Stephen King novel CHRISTINE can be relevant to anyone. The idea of feeling slightly out of the loop of regular life, of feeling even the smallest bit outcast from those around you, sometimes you just need to find that one thing to grasp that makes you feel good about being who you are, that one instance of unconditional acceptance. 

We find these totems in our lives and we personalize them so they feel more real to us, so we feel as if we have a companion in our loneliness. I’ve never named a car, but I name all of my guitars, so when I pick one up and play it, I’m not holding a piece of wood, I’m holding a friend. While I’m not very good at playing them, there’s a symbiosis that happens there, and I believe it’s this personification that helps make that possible.

CHRISTINE is the story of nerdy Arnie Cunningham, a high school senior in 1978, whose best friend Dennis Guilder drives by a house on the way home from the first day of school (a day which started with Arnie being cornered in the school auto shop by bully Buddy Repperton, leading to Buddy’s expulsion) and Arnie spies a for sale sign on a junked out heap of red that doesn’t appear to be worth the $250 George LeBay is selling it for, a 1958 Plymouth Fury. But love at first sight is a real thing, and that’s what happens with Arnie. The car, LeBay tells him, belonged to George’s brother, Roland, the only thing he ever loved in his life, and its name is Christine.

Arnie’s parents are very controlling, and they refuse to let him keep the lemon in their driveway. Arnie takes it to Darnell’s, a local do-it-yourself garage, where he is able to raid the junkyard for parts, and soon has Christine looking just as good as she did the day she rolled off the assembly line. 

Things seem to be going pretty well for Arnie after that. He has an amazing car that he pretty much built himself, he’s been hired by Will Darnell to do odd jobs and make deliveries for him, and now he’s dating the newest student, Leigh Cabot. 

On the downside, Dennis gets injured in a football game and winds up in the hospital for a month. Real tragedy strikes when Buddy and his friends break into Darnell’s one night and trash Christine. And they don’t just bang her up and break a few windows, it looks like a giant hand came down and crushed the car like an empty beer can.

Arnie freaks out, naturally, but Christine has a secret that even Arnie didn’t know about until then.  This isn’t a normal car. After all, Stephen King wrote the novel, so you know there’s some malevolence going on.  And it’s a John Carpenter movie, so you know there’s sinister things and awesome effects about to go down. 

The theme of the novel, which hadn’t even been published yet when the movie went into production, is a love triangle between Arnie, Leigh, and Christine. That idea is still in the movie, but it’s not as prominent, as the movie has other issues to focus on. While the book was about relationships, the movie is more about acceptance, and mutual love and respect. 

Arnie’s parents love him, but they don’t want him to grow up or be independent. Dennis loves Arnie as a best friend does, but in the real world that only goes so far. Leigh loves Arnie, but she hates Christine and after nearly choking at the drive-in, refuses to get in her again, almost giving Arnie an ultimatum. 

Christine, however, loves Arnie. She accepts Dennis and Leigh, but only as long as they don’t hurt Arnie.  This is the belonging Arnie has wanted his entire life, this is the support of another he’s needed in order to find the confidence to finally come into his own. And when he does, the change is like night and day. 

By the end of the movie, the Arnie of 103 minutes ago is but a bad memory. Keith Gordon plays that Jekyll and Hyde thing perfectly.  The ticks and mannerisms he develops as Arnie becomes more and more possessed by Christine add mystery to the character and keep the viewer guessing about what’s really happening to him.

A very young and inexperienced Alexandra Paul adds a quietness to Leigh.  She comes across as very introverted and shy in general, but in the few moments alone between she and Arnie, you can see her warming up to him as she becomes more comfortable with the process.  Paul was, at the time, still relatively new to Hollywood and that added to her character and her performance.

John Stockwell as best friend Dennis Guilder, the jock, also fits into his role pretty well.  He doesn’t play Dennis too cocky, he comes across as the guy Arnie could be if he weren’t so shy.

But I think the thing that makes CHRISTINE work so well is the direction of John Carpenter.  Through movies like HALLOWEEN, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING, he had developed a particular style and had learned a lot about suspense and atmosphere, and this movie’s got both to spare.  There’s really no mistaking the John Carpenter style, and it’s his signature that made this movie what it was.

As far as Stephen King adaptations goes, CHRISTINE is one of my favorites and I’ve always thought Carpenter should adapt more of his works.  It seems like such an obvious pairing, it’s a shame it never happened again.

King on Film

Carrie (1976)

‘Salem’s Lot (1979)

The Shining (1980)

Creepshow (1982)

Cujo (1983)

Disciples of the Crow (1983)

The Woman in the Room (1983)

The Dead Zone (1983)

The Dark Half (1993)

The Tommyknockers (1993)

Needful Things (1993)

The Stand (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995)

The Mangler (1995)

Dolores Claiborne (1995)

The Langoliers (1995)

Sometimes They Comes Back … Again (1996)

Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996)

Thinner (1996)

The Shining (1997)

Ghosts (1997)

Chattery Teeth (1997)

The Revelations of ‘Becka Paulson (1997)

Trucks (1997)

The Night Flier (1997)

Chinga (1997)

Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)

Gerald’s Game (2017)

1922 (2017)

The Stand (2021)

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