The 1970s and 1980s produced an ocean full of memorable horror films. Some are still highly celebrated, and others are often undervalued or lost at sea. One such film came out 40 years ago in 1983, bringing together two legends of the genre, John Carpenter and Stephen King. That film is simply titled, Christine.
No other author has had as many films based on his books and stories as Stephen King. His stories have been adapted by some of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history. The first of King’s novels that was turned into a movie was 1976’s Carrie, which was directed by Brian De Palma. In the world of fright, perhaps King’s most famous story that was adapted was by legendary director Stanley Kubrick with The Shining.
During what would later be considered a tremendous and historic run of monumental films, John Carpenter took on the task of directing Christine as more a job than a passion project. Although today, 1982’s The Thing is heralded as a classic in the horror genre when it was first released, it was criticized for its violence and gore.
“It just wasn’t very frightening,” Carpenter said in an interview with British Magazine SFX. “But it was something I needed to do at that time for my career.”
Producer Richard Kobritz would be the bridge in having Carpenter direct one of King’s stories. Kobritz worked with King on the 1979 miniseries Salem’s Lot, which was also based on one of the writer’s novels. Based on that experience, King began to send Kobritz manuscripts, one of which was Christine. Kobritz also worked with Carpenter on the television film Someone’s Watching Me. He felt that the director would be the best fit to direct the King story.
Adapting a novel into a movie, especially one written by King, is a challenging task. Turning the 700-page behemoth of a book into a film was the job of Bill Phillips. The screenwriter would eliminate and change some of the aspects of the novel to better fit a movie.
The film follows the character of Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) along his journey through high school as his friends and family witness the physical and mental metamorphosis he undergoes after purchasing a 1958 Plymouth Fury called Christine.
The most significant alteration made from the book was to enhance the focus of the vehicle, making Christine the film’s central character. Rather than the car being a possessed spirit of its previous owner, the now classic car is its own sinister entity.
Christine remains an underrated horror classic
Carpenter would say in the behind-the-scenes feature Christine: Fast and Furious that it was vital for the audience to witness Christine as more than just an ordinary vehicle from the start. Displaying the titular vehicle’s origins as a medium for wickedness would enhance the audience’s views on Christine’s influence on Arnie.
“One of the things that we wanted to do is establish that this car was the star, as well as the human cast. So we decided to have a scene where you see her birth or at least her emerging from being put together. And even at that point, she is an evil creature.”
The progression of Arnie’s change in personality is slow and deliberately paced, with the audience taking the ride with his friends and family. Juxtaposing Arnie to push a nerd-like image further was pairing him with his best friend Dennis (John Stockwell), who is a football player.
Most of the audience’s outlook is through Dennis’ perspective as he has a front-row seat to Arnie’s life. From being bullied at knifepoint, his increasingly strained relationship with his parents to his transformation after purchasing Christine.
Through the years, Christine has gained a cult following not because of its violence but because of its story of a good kid heading down the wrong path. Phillips highlighted in the Christine: Fast and Furious feature that one of King’s greatest strengths as a writer was his ability to make relatable characters.
“I think one of Stephen King’s achievements in writing is that he really understands how people feel. And certainly, to some degree, everybody feels like a geek when they’re in high school.”
Christine has its share of unique and stylized kills, especially those done directly by the killer vehicle. One scene that stands out is Christine’s hunt for Arnie’s bullies. The visual of the car on fire while chasing down a bully to Carpenter’s synth-wave score is outstanding.
Just as poignant and focused on is the pseudo-romance between Arnie and Christine. Much like a romance between two people, there is some jealousy shown by the living car when Arnie takes a new student, Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul), on a date to a drive-in movie. When she starts choking on her food, Christine locks the doors, not allowing Arnie to enter the vehicle, almost causing her death.
There is even what can be likened to a striptease scene where Christine reveals to Arnie that it can repair itself after an attack from some of Arnie’s high school bullies. It’s after the car is damaged by the bullies that the audience knows he is completely lost. The way he treats his mother during dinner, cursing at her and grabbing his father by the throat, is almost shocking at how far gone he is. The car has taken over his life and is the most important thing to him.
The music in the film is used masterfully. It’s used as part of Christine’s ability to communicate or warn anyone it deems as a threat, adding a sense of dread to scenes. Songs such as ‘Bad to the Bone’ by George Thorogood, Little Richard’s Keep a-Knockin, and Richie Valens’ ‘Come on, Let’s Go‘ all play a role in adding elements to Christine as a character.
Carpenter looks back at his time, making the movie in a positive light. It wasn’t a film that brought him notoriety like Halloween, but an experience he would remember fondly at his time as a full-time filmmaker.
“I love my cast in that movie,” Carpenter said in an interview to Variety. “Keith Gordon was fabulous, and Alexandra Paul, I believe she’d been a model, and she’s just a terrific actress. And the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton was on that. Harry Dean is quite a character. I really loved him.
“But it was a fun movie to make and easy, nothing tough about it. And it did OK, you know, it opened alright. So people were kind, which is nice.”
What makes Christine special is that it brought together and perfectly blended the styles of two horror icons. It is a story that could only have been manifested by the mind of King with the visual style and score of Carpenter, creating a unique experience.
The tale of Arnie Cunningham and his 1958 Plymouth Fury is one that can be told for generations. There are different interpretations that can change from era to era, but in 1983, it was an underrated gem by two auteurs of horror.