Stephen King was a pretty hot commodity back in 1983. That year saw the publication of the novels Christine and Pet Semetary, as well as the release of John Carpenter's film adaptation of the former. I myself was a big fan of King's work, having read all of his novels and many of his short stories, and news that Christine was being directed by John Carpenter of The Fog and The Thing (I hadn't yet seen Halloween) fame was exciting news indeed. John Carpenter teaming up with Stephen King? How could we lose? I saw the film during its theatrical run and it proved to be a bitter disappointment. I hadn't seen the film since, so when I watched Christine again for this review it was my first viewing in twenty-four years.
Christine is a '58 Plymouth Fury, and since most of the film takes place in 1978, the car has just passed the 20-year mark, making it an antique car. The film actually opens in the 1950s as Christine is coming down the assembly line. Even at that tender age this is one bad ass machine, and the fact that "Bad to the Bone" is playing on the soundtrack is no coincidence. One worker has his hand smashed by Christine's hood, giving the appearance that the car has bitten him, while another dies mysteriously inside the car after having the audacity to drop cigar ashes on her newly minted seats. Twenty years later, we meet the nerdy Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) and his best and only friend Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell). Between the torments inflicted by school bullies (a theme King has used off and on since his first novel Carrie) and his domineering parents, Arnie's existence is not a happy one. When he and Dennis come across a piece o' crap '58 Plymouth Fury for sale, Arnie immediately and inexplicably falls in love with it. George LeBay (Roberts Blossom), the creepy old guy who is selling the car explains that it belonged to his brother and goes by the name Christine.
Since Arnie's parents won't allow him to park a junker like Christine at their house, he takes her to Darnell's Do It Yourself Garage, where he sets about restoring her. A glitch in Christine's wiring has the odometer moving backward, more or less mirroring the fact that Christine is getting younger with each mile. At the same time Christine induces a personality change in Arnie. He's able to stand up to his parents now, violently at times, and he's now dating Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul) the pretty new girl in town who said no thanks to all the jocks who asked her out. Christine has a jealous streak, though, which does not bode well for Leigh, and when a gang of high school thugs demolishes the car, they have no idea what kind of hell they've unleashed upon themselves.
The past twenty-four years has done little to alter my opinion of this movie one way or another. While this is a more or less faithful adaptation, the spirit of King's book is lost through the over simplification of the characters, particularly Arnie. In this respect Christine fails on the same level as Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. In Kubrick's film, Jack Nicholson takes his character from level-headed family man to axe-wielding lunatic without showing the gray area between the two. Carpenter and Gordon make the same mistake, having Arnie go from put-upon nerd to confident lady's man and slayer of bullies in the blink of an eye. I think the key to making Christine at least moderately more watchable would be to re-cast the leads. Stockwell has the acting range of a two by four, while Gordon goes in the opposite direction and overdoes both his uber-dork and tough guy personae, giving neither any degree of subtlety or believability.
In the plus column the film has the always interesting to watch Harry Dean Stanton as Detective Rudolph Junkins. The effects scenes in which the car regenerates itself after being demolished are really good, and since they were done in the pre-digital age I found myself wondering how they did it (Carpenter explains it on the commentary track). In particular, the scene in which Arnie first learns that Christine can repair herself is powerful and downright chilling. Ultimately, though, the film doesn't work.
The DVD sports an audio commentary with John Carpenter and Keith Gordon. Some of the discussion of the special effects is interesting, but generally the dialogue between the two doesn't add much to the experience. There are also quite a few deleted scenes included on the disc.