Christine January 14, 2017
Christine is a cat, a jungle-red loving femme fatale who could lure any man into her clutches with just the right lighting and just the right sort of desperation. She gets off on manipulating those weaker than her; she’s a sadist with looks good enough to help establish her innocence when need be. Murder isn’t far from her brain when the relationship between her and her object of desire is threatened. She’d do anything to keep herself, and her most recent boy toy, protected in the cruel world in which we live.
Christine is also a 1958 Plymouth Fury. "She's" the type of car motor fetishists gawk at and purchase no matter the cost. And she’s alive, ready to kill anyone who isn’t her owner. Which is exactly why she’s so dangerous. We first meet her before she’s even off the assembly line, a place where she maims two men who push her over the edge. Little Richard and Buddy Holly blare through the stereo whenever she’s feeling especially bloodthirsty. The interior lights up like a Christmas tree when she’s in the mood to off whoever’s inside. Driving, it seems, is not as important as extermination. Wondering why this car has a mind of her own doesn't much matter to us.
So when the film jumps ahead twenty years, we’re more than disturbed — in the two decades since we last saw her, she’s probably slaughtered hundreds of men and women who didn’t much tickle her fancy.
In our reintroduction to her is she sitting in a scruffy man’s desolate yard, dusty and in pieces. She looks like the survivor of a brutal race against Herbie. No one should want her unless they’re cash-strapped and have a thing for automobiles that used to be great. So naturally, she attracts the attention of a pair of teenagers, one a wimp and one a stud.
The stud, footballer Dennis (John Stockwell), sees garbage when he steps in front of Christine’s cracked headlights. But the wimp, Arnie (Keith Gordon), sees a treasure in the making. Already socially inept, being the owner of a car Steve McQueen’d be proud to drive might propel him to a status comparable to Dennis’. And it’d be nice, anyway, to have the fixing up of a car help him take his mind off the unceasing psychological battles brought on by bullies and by his own skinny covering of self-confidence.
But not long after he hands his cash over — the man selling sympathetically drops the price to $250 — does Arnie metamorphose into the guy he’s always wanted to be: suave, self-assured, and a little cocky. He sheds his bulky glasses and begins to dominate conversations. He becomes kind of a dick. And kind of as convincingly tough as one of John Travolta’s cronies in Grease (1978). Clear, though, is that something’s very, very wrong. And Dennis, alarmed by the change in his friend’s demeanor and by the weirdly commanding presence of Christine, takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of the starkly unbelievable mystery.
Christine, of course, is starkly unbelievable, too. No matter how hard one tries, it’s impossible to have a car with a mind of its own serve as a villain without a laugh of disbelief to follow a death scene. Having not read the source material, which is, famously, a minor Stephen King novel, it’s difficult to tell how much better the story worked on the page as opposed to on the screen. Here, it’s involving but also slightly dizzy, the well-made dead teenager movie that doesn’t have the premise to soundly back everything around it.
John Carpenter, who directed and co-scored Christine as a contractual obligation following the financial failure of 1982’s now classic The Thing, wasn’t so enamored with the text being adapted himself. “It just wasn’t very frightening,” he lamented in a 2015 interview. “But it was something I needed to do at that time for my career.” That the film manages to be a classic case of cinematic professionalism that cannot overcome a middling story is impressive. Carpenter could have switched on autopilot. But instead, he makes Christine an admittedly ridiculous horror movie that surprisingly never puts forth a shoddy exterior. If we could more easily accept its antagonist, we’d have something stellar. But we can only kind of do such a thing, and so the movie’s competently produced though modestly unnerving. C+