Monday, October 5, 2009

Hell Hath no Fury

When I decided that I wanted to explore the passionate side of horror this October, from love to obsession to madness and back again, I knew I wanted to include Christine, John Carpenter's 1983 film version of the Stephen King novel. The story takes the idea of love, obsession and madness and places it between a boy and his car. It's different I thought. Why not mix things up a bit? I wasn't expecting much as I had seen it upon its release back in the day and found it a rather lackluster, run of the mill genre flick. I bought a copy to watch again and prepared myself to write a half-hearted review of a mediocre movie I could neatly pigeon-hole into my October theme. I wasn't even utterly convinced I should watch it again. Would a viewing 26 years later reveal anything new? Would my opinion of it really change all that much? Yes and hell yes. Much to my surprise Christine is a damn good little film. No all-time horror classic mind you, but pretty damn good nonetheless.

One thing that surprised me, and continues to surprise me every time I pop in a genre flick from the late seventies through the mid-eighties, is the deliberate pacing. Genre flicks, from action (especially action) to sci-fi to horror, have eschewed pacing in the last ten years in favor of the adrenalin rush. Smash cuts, ramping, shaky-cam and blurred macro-closeups can all be expected in the first five minutes of a genre flick today with the beauty of the sustained shot ever receding into the past. But Christine builds slowly and beautifully before losing its nerve with a rushed ending that runs counter to all the build-up that came before.

For those unfamiliar with this story of boy meets car Christine begins in 1958 as the Plymouth Fury named Christine rolls off the production line fully painted in sharp contrast to the unpainted models surrounding her. Christine is special which doesn't escape the notice of the men working the line one of whom gets his hand smashed under her hood before another gets killed, presumably by suffocation as he makes the grave error of tipping his cigar ashes onto her seat. Christine doesn't like being mistreated.

Flash-forward 25 years and we meet Arnie (Keith Gordon) and Dennis (John Stockwell), local nerd and football star respectively and friends since childhood. Arnie is a beaten character, dominated by his mother at home and bullys at school. Dennis does his best to defend and protect Arnie from both but it's a losing battle. Then one day Arnie sees Christine, broken down and beaten, just like Arnie, rusting away in the back yard of LeBay, played splendidly by that National Treasure of a character actor Roberts Blossom, an actor in desperate need of a Wanderers write-up. LeBay tells Arnie Christine is special but he's preaching to the choir: Arnie knew Christine was special the moment he saw her. Much to Dennis' and his parent's dismay, Arnie buys Christine and begins to fix her up. Not long after Arnie's behavior changes, dramatically.

There's not much more to tell after that. Arnie fixes Christine up, bullys destroy her, Christine kills bullys. And so on. The last third of the movie is a rush job that does a great disservice to the build-up that precedes it. Consider, in a movie one hour and 46 minutes long, it is not until the 46 minute mark that Christine does anything physically harmful to anyone in the present day story and not until the hour mark that the audience finally gets to see with their own eyes that Christine is indeed possessing of supernatural abilities. This build up contains great creepy moments where hints and suggestions are all the audience has to go on to know something is wrong. Take the moment when Dennis goes back to try to talk LeBay into taking the car back. LeBay refuses and tells Dennis of his late brother, the original owner of Christine. He tells Dennis of the great love his brother had for that car. How his brother's wife and daughter both perished in it and still he drove it. Finally LeBay says he made his brother get rid of the car for decency's sake. He pauses, then looks at Dennis and says, "Of course three weeks later the car came back." That's a great moment but once Christine starts exacting revenge on those around her the great moments disappear into a blur of attack sequences.

What remains impressive about the film despite the rushed conclusion is the visual artistry of John Carpenter and the impressive lead performance by Keith Gordon. Carpenter frames each shot with care and takes the now (and even perhaps then) cliched gimmick of lens flares in the camera and turns it into a character marker for Christine with each flare becoming a sparkling ray of life shining from Christine's "eyes." The film never loses interest visually and the sight of a blazing Plymouth Fury roaring down the highway begs for a second look.

As for Gordon, his performance is as tightly screwed as any in a horror film I can remember. He plays nerdy Arnie so dead on that when he gets into Dennis' car and recounts a story of Scrabble from the night before one can't help but cringe at the awkwardness of his delivery and the fact that he ever thought the story might be of any interest to anyone in the first place. Later when madness and obsession take over Gordon makes the courageous decision to play Arnie as an all-out prick. His character is unlikeable in the extreme and yet sympathy for the plight of this bewitched teenager remains when his pathetic demise occurs.

Christine is a movie that comes pre-packaged with one strike already against it: It's a story about a possessed car. In other words, good luck finding a non-horror fan that's going to give that premise any respect. Its all too by-the-numbers ending, with Christine becoming a non-stop death machine, delivers strike number two. But strike three never comes thanks to a great setup based on suggestion and mood, sharp striking visuals and a great lead performance by Keith Gordon (as well as fine supporting performances by Blossom as LeBay and Harry Dean Stanton as a nosy detective). It's not a great horror film but it's probably a lot better than most people remember.