Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Some Things Can't Be Helped
I could go on and on about how much I love the films of John Carpenter. I probably have at some point and I really should write about my favorites in the future. His use of the Scope frame, the music he provides, that roving camerawork, that basic feel that pervades them at his best can be like a drug that I want to continually return to for another hit. And they’re just a lot of fun as well. But though there are several Carpenter movies that I’ve seen almost countless times over the years, his film of CHRISTINE, based on the Stephen King novel, isn’t one where that has been the case. Released during Christmas of 1983, I can remember going to see it with my father one night and though I have a nice enough memory of that occasion for whatever reason I don’t have any particular sentimental attachment to the film. It’s entirely possible that I haven’t even looked at it since the eighties, a big difference from how many times I’ve seen HALLOWEEN, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA or even THEY LIVE. It makes for a decent viewing, but doesn’t feel particularly notable in any way and on the lists of both Carpenter’s films and also of Stephen King adaptations it pretty much falls somewhere in the middle.
It’s also been a very long time since I’ve read the Stephen King novel it’s based on—briefly, it’s the story of nerdy high school kid Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) who buys an old beat up 1958 Plymouth Fury named “Christine” that, as he fixes it up, seems to transform him as well. Though the new Arnie manages to acquire new student Leigh (Alexandra Paul) as a girlfriend, his best friend Dennis (John Stockwell) becomes worried about how his friend is changing. Eventually when Arnie is past the point of reasoning with, Dennis and Leigh begin to believe that it may be Christine who is behind it all. The main difference between book to film that I can vaguely recall, beyond the obvious condensing of the plot, is how the novel seemed to make much more of the spirit of Christine’s previous owner Roland LeBay being a part of the car and what was happening to Arnie. Here, the car is evil from the moment it rolls off the assembly line which we see in a prologue set in 1957 (introduced in a scene which John Carpenter says is a homage to a famous never-filmed scene from NORTH BY NORTHWEST). One of my more vivid memories of the book is the rather terrifying New Year’s Eve section involving the rotting corpse of Roland LeBay. Possibly hurting from the negative response he received the previous year to his remake of THE THING (fortunately, the tide has turned in favor of that one by now), Carpenter holds back on the gore in CHRISTINE possibly more than any other horror or suspense film he ever made.
On the DVD special features, Carpenter mentions how the scene where we actually see Christine restoring herself back into a perfect form in front of Arnie was added after shooting in an attempt to give the film “more juice”, something I understand because the overall effect of the film is…a little dry. I can’t think of a single thing that I dislike about CHRISTINE, but I can’t think of much that I’m all that passionate about either. It reminds me of the old Howard Hawks axiom saying how a good movie is “three great scenes and no bad ones.” CHRISTINE doesn’t have any bad scenes, but it doesn’t really have any great ones either. Things click along throughout in that cool, laconic Carpenter style, with his impressive Scope imagery present throughout. I was consistently impressed by various things, like how the football game where Dennis is injured doesn’t have a single wasted shot—no extraneous shots of cheering crowds or the game being played, just exactly what is needed to tell the story. I also appreciated how within the genre elements, much of the film stays at the level of a relatable character drama and Carpenter doesn’t see the need to make it into more than that. The film version of the New Year’s Eve drive, a straight-ahead portrayal of the event as opposed to the terrifying rotting corpse of the novel, plays more effective than I remember, maybe because by this point in my life I know that being out on the road late at night can sometimes be scary enough. The interplay between the two friends here who are drifting apart hammers home how much of the story is really about the disintegration of a friendship during the period when each person grows and changes and maybe one of the reasons that the films seems to unfortunately fall short is that Carpenter doesn’t make more of this. The way the climax is structured (no spoilers) seems to forget that story element in favor of the machinations of the action and the effect the film has is less because of that. And why is the film set during 1978, anyway? It doesn’t bother me and maybe I’m missing something but it just seems unnecessary. The concept of a relationship between man and machine also made me think of David Cronenberg (at the time making his own King film with THE DEAD ZONE) and how he would have approached this basic material. Would there even have been rock n’roll songs? I will say that returning to this film after so long, I found the basic sound and feel of Carpenter’s score (composed “in association with Alan Howarth”), much of a piece with the music from his other films around this time very comforting, like revisiting a favorite street from my childhood that I’d completely forgotten about. The brief beat of Leigh leaving Dennis’s house crossing the street to her car feels like vintage Carpenter right out of HALLOWEEN, particularly when Christine turns onto the street way in the background. It’s that sort of injection of pure mood that the director was always great at achieving. The moments leading up to Christine actually rebuilding herself in front of Arnie, containing only the dialogue, “O.K. Show me,” is one of the best examples of visual and music in the film in that spare, cool style that we expect from Carpenter but…yeah, it feels like there could be some more juice. The shots of Christine in flames, shooting down the highway after a potential victim, are very impressive and it’s almost enough. But not quite.
Some very good acting definitely helps keep things grounded. Gordon is excellent in a very difficult role, pulling off going from one extreme to the other in a pretty short amount of screen time. Stockwell and Paul both do very nice jobs even if it feels like the script could give them more to work with and Kelly Preston (all condolences to her right now) makes a nice impression as Rosanne, a cheerleader who Dennis turns down to go after Leigh. The late Robert Prosky chews a lot of scenery as Darnell, owner of the garage Arnie keeps Christine in and Harry Dean Stanton delivers some quirks to the fairly colorless role of the cop investigating Arnie. Christine Belford, a familiar character actress from the time, brings a surprising amount of depth to what otherwise may have been a cardboard role as Arnie’s strict mother and Roberts Blossom from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS just about steals the movie in his few appearances as LeBay’s brother George (“That’s just about the finest smell in the world…”).
I have a theory about the end of many John Carpenter films and again, I say this while stressing how much I positively love his films and hope that we get something new from him in the near future. But it has occurred to me that the very end of a number of them are the equivalent of Carpenter himself turning to the camera and basically saying, “Hey, man, that was pretty cool, wasn’t it? Now let’s ROCK OUT!” And a rock song plays over the end credits whether it fits or not. Sometimes it feels like it slightly undermines the effect of what we’ve just seen. Sometimes, as in the case of CHRISTINE, it just feels like there’s not much more to be said about the whole thing, so why not. As a result, not enough of the film lingers in the brain. There’s a lot that’s good about CHRISTINE, but it feels like there could have been even more.