As noted in my review of Carrie, Stephen King is the biggest name in horror fiction, and there is no shortage of films based on his works. What’s truly impressive is that many of these films are regarded as either cult classics or just plain classics, no cult required. Christine may be in the former category rather than the latter, but given the rather cultish nature of the horror genre in the first place this can hardly be considered a knock against it.
Of course, classic car aficionados can be rather cultish too, and therein lies the plot…
Arnie Cunningham, played by Keith Gordon, is a kid in high school who is going through a tough period in his life — that period being “all of it”. He’s socially awkward, and a few glimpses into his home life indicate that this isn’t entirely due to his base nature. His parents browbeat him over the smallest things. They never get physical, and seldom directly attack him verbally, but they’re the types of parents who don’t yell in anger but merely say they’re “very disappointed in you” — unfortunately any soft touch this might involve is completely eradicated by them being disappointed in almost everything Arnie does. He has one friend, Dennis, who is one of the popular kids in school and a genuine all-around nice guy. Dennis, played by John Stockwell, tries to get Arnie to come out of his shell more. He eventually gets his wish when Arnie spots the car of his dreams; an old 58 Plymouth that is almost rusted out, but which Arnie can see the potential in.
I wonder what percentage of 1983’s reviewers used the “Hell on Wheels” pun. Gotta be at least 70.
As Arnie restores the car, dubbed “Christine”, he undergoes a transformation. Keith Gordon does a terrific job showing the gradual change in Arnie’s personality. He becomes increasingly defiant toward his parents. He acquires the confidence to ask the most desirable girl in school (Alexandra Paul) out on a date, and she accepts. But as Arnie and Leigh start dating regularly, Leigh starts to become concerned. Arnie’s transformation hasn’t stopped with him becoming confident; he walks around with a chip on his shoulder constantly. And he’s obsessed with keeping Christine in great condition. He seems like a man possessed… and Christine is like a car possessed. Arnie and Christine become implicated in acts of violence against those who wrong them. Soon it’s up to Arnie’s best friend and girlfriend to try and figure out how they can stop something that was never truly alive to begin with, before it takes them out of the picture.
When John Carpenter directs a film based on a Stephen King novel, one expects a thrill ride, and Christine delivers on that front. Keith Gordon’s eyes are absolutely haunting in the last few acts of the film. And when Christine goes and runs down punks who tried to trash her, the scenes play out in ways that are both exciting and believable, even when they verge on being over-the-top. By the time the truly unbelievable stuff occurs, the viewer has already bought into the premise of the film. And special mention has to be made of the scenes of Christine repairing herself; in an era before CGI was even in significant use, let alone good enough to fake real mechanical parts, the practical effects on display here are fantastic and hold up to the best of what today has to offer.
There is, however, one flaw with the story, and that’s the character of Detective Rudolph Junkins. There’s nothing wrong with the performance; he’s played by Harry Dean Stanton, who is terrific as always. And it’s perfectly logical to include a detective character in a story where numerous people are being killed. The problem lies in the questions that Detective Junkins asks. When he asks Arnie for his alibi at one point, he questions whether the paint that Arnie claims to have bought is even available any more. He continues to try and poke holes in Arnie’s claims of having spent time repairing the car after the vandalism from the punks. The problem with this is that he can see the car is fully repaired. As difficult as it may be to obtain the necessary parts and paint, the evidence is before him (and Arnie did, after all, restore Christine from poor condition originally, so he was obviously able to get the supplies before the vandalism). Junkins’ skepticism of Arnie’s alibi is reasonable for the character, but his skepticism of Arnie’s ability to restore the car a second time only makes sense if Junkins is already aware of the car’s supernatural abilities.
Perhaps he eventually transfers to the FBI and starts the X-Files project.
The general weirdness in the Junkins subplot isn’t enough to keep Christine from being an entertaining film, though. It’s just a film with a few puzzlers that might occur to the viewer while watching it. Overall it’s just a simple story about a boy and his demonic car. As long as the main characters are believable and interesting and the vehicular homicide is done well, it’s going to be satisfying for the viewer. And in those respects, Christine delivers.