Thursday, October 9, 2014

Christine

I remember tearing through the pages of Stephen King's novel Christine during the summer of 1983.  It was compulsively readable and highly suspenseful. I devoured King's books in those days. Christine had the novelty of shifting points of view: the first and third sections were narrated by the main character's best friend while the middle was icily omniscient. It made for interesting comparative takes on this spine tingling tale of obsession. Both portals clearly observed a high school nerd named Arnie, your garden variety loser who was crater faced, bad at sports, inept with girls, etc. Until he buys a junked out old 1958 Plymouth Fury from a hayseed named George Lebay.

The book goes to great length over its many pages to explain why this rust bucket has a life of its own, how it can suddenly gleam with beauty as if right out of the showroom and repair itself after accidents. The automobile is possessed by the spirit of its original owner, George's deceased brother Roland Lebay, a real old cuss, a jackal. 1983's CHRISTINE jettisons this idea by making the vehicle, named "Christine", inherently evil, right down to its spark plugs. That's it, no further explanation. In the opening scene, set to George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone" (a song so overused in early '80s movies it deserved a moratorium), the car injures one guy and kills another while still on the assembly line.

Arnie (Keith Gordon) is given a serious confidence boost by his new ride. He wins a cheerleader girlfriend Leigh (Alexandra Paul) but also gains considerable arrogance. The sweet kid becomes a real cocky SOB, even cussing out his poor parents. And soon, those punks at school who bullied him end up under Christine's grill. Was Arnie at the wheel? Can Leigh and Arnie's best friend Dennis (John Stockwell) save him from the deep end, the evil (and possession) emanated by Christine?

King wrote a few stories like this, of inanimate objects taking on a murderous lives of their own. If you want a real trash classic, watch MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, a film King directed himself (none too well).

CHRISTINE has John Carpenter, in what feels like a "director for hire" gig, ably steering this movie for a satisfying couple of hours. As King adaptations go, it's pretty good. Certainly better than the awful CUJO or the so-so FIRESTARTER, though not as good as THE DEAD ZONE or CARRIE or STAND BY ME. Carpenter again sports a strong visual sense, aided by Donald M. Morgan's crisp cinematography and excellent special effects. Bill Phillip's screenplay of course has to pare down miles of exposition and backstory but the pains of high school life are effectively evoked in the early scenes, before the spectacle overwhelms the picture. What is lost is the dynamic of Arnie's shift from pimply loner to near psycho. It happens too quickly in this movie. The book allowed us to see the sad metamorphoses with uncommon insight.  But there were a lot of pages in which to do it.

So we're left with a slick, good looking Hollywood entertainment that remains watchable after 30 years. Splendidly spooky.  And way better another other thriller involving a homicidal vehicle, 1977's THE CAR, though not as compelling as 1971's DUEL, an early Spielberg picture. I'm a bit curious to see how well King's novel reads these days.

No comments: