Tuesday, March 27, 2012
MOVIES MADE ME #41: CHRISTINE
“I have told you that it is impossible to be objective about that ride; if there was a logical progression of events, it is lost to me now, blocked out. That journey through the cold black night really was like a trip on a boulevard through hell. I can’t remember everything that happened, but I can remember more than I want to. We backed out of the driveway and into a mad funhouse world where all the creeps were real.” - Stephen King, Christine
When I was a teenager, Christine was one of my favorite Stephen King novels - not because it’s his best-written novel or his scariest, but because I could identify with the characters. To me, Christine was not a novel about a killer car. It was a story about best friends, Arnie Cunningham and Dennis Guilder, and the way their friendship gradually falls apart. I could relate to Arnie’s anger as an outsider, and therefore his attraction to Christine. I could relate to Dennis’s sense of loss, and even fear, as the dynamic changes. In short, I found the novel much more powerful than King’s glib description of it as “HAPPY DAYS gone mad” would suggest.
I also love John Carpenter’s feature film adaptation of the novel, even though it’s a very different beast. Everyone talks about the differences between Stephen King’s The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING -- how the filmmaker turned the conflicted father Jack Torrence, struggling against the malefic influence of the ghosts in the Overlook Hotel, into a man who has been and always will be batshit crazy. Kubrick’s film, as brilliant as it might be, decisively eliminates the good versus evil struggle that is the core of King’s novel. (Hence King’s desire to make a new screen adaptation in 1997.)
John Carpenter’s CHRISTINE does something similar. It eliminates the idea that Christine is infested by the spirit of Roland LeBay, and that LeBay subsequently takes possession of Arnie. Carpenter’s model of the killer car is simply “born” evil. In the very first scene (a scene invented by screenwriter Bill Phillips, not drawn from King’s novel), Christine claims her first victim -- a hapless factory worker -- just moments after she rolls off the assembly line. LeBay and Arnie become her subsequent victims. And, like Kubrick’s Jack Torrence, they never really have a chance.
I spent this past weekend at the Mad Monster horror convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, where my friend John Muir and I got into an extended conversation about how the most successful films based on King’s work come from visionary filmmakers who hold true to their own personal obsessions, rather than being slavishly loyal to King's intentions. THE SHINING is an obvious example, as are Brian DePalma’s CARRIE and David Cronenberg’s THE DEAD ZONE. These films fit more easily into substantive discussions about the sensibilities of the filmmakers than into conversations about the thematic concerns of Stephen King. Kubrick, DePlama and Cronenberg take ownership of the material, which is to say that they don’t just reinvent the story aesthetically... They reinvent it thematically (with a little help from their humble screenwriters, of course).
According to various interviews over the years, John Carpenter had a vision for adapting Firestarter. That’s the project he was working on in 1982, when THE THING came out and briefly hobbled his filmmaking career. Though it has since become one of the undisputed classics of modern day horror, Carpenter’s monster movie remake was an unmitigated commercial and critical disaster at the time of its release -- and the experience remains a bit raw for the filmmaker, as I learned when I interviewed him in 2008. He reflected: “Boy that movie was hated. Wow! And by fans! By the fans! Boy, they turned against it. It was unbelievable. It was an unbelievable experience to go through it. It was stunning. I could never figure it out. What did I do? What was so terrible about it? Why do you hate this so much? I don’t know. It was like I raped their mothers or something.” Universal executives responded to the backlash by firing Carpenter from his next project. “I was gonna do FIRESTARTER,” he remembers. “We had a screenplay. We were scouting locations at Universal. After THE THING’S performance, they pulled the plug on it... Somebody else did FIRESTARTER, for a lot less money.”
I for one would be very curious to hear how Carpenter intended to make FIRESTARTER his own. I re-read the novel last year, and I can say that the most interesting thing to me was the father/daughter relationship in the first third of the book, which is not only under stress from external forces (government agents who want to study Charlie's gift and use her as a weapon) but from internal forces as well. Charlie’s power is growing as she matures sexually. When she starts a fire, she is literally ecstatic (in the original sense of the word: “standing outside of oneself”), and the narrator tells us that she burns her victims from the inside out. In other words, Charlie literally gets inside of people before she kills them. And what’s even scarier: she likes it.
It’s not hard to view Charlie as a prepubescent version of CARRIE, and I have always wondered what might have become of Charlie as a teenager. I discount the half-hearted sequel FIRESTARTER 2: REKINDLED entirely, because Drew Barrymore should have rekindled the role. Just imagine a pyrokinetic version of the seductress she plays in POISON IVY! Since Stephen King is currently writing a sequel to THE SHINING, can I also request a real sequel to FIRESTARTER? But I’m getting off track here...
Carpenter's previous film was entirely about men and male-on-male conflict (the tagline for THE THING: “Man is the warmest place to hide.”), and I think it would have been interesting to see him follow up with a film about female empowerment -- something that might have related to Laurie Strode’s character arc in HALLOWEEN. Whether Carpenter's take on FIRESTARTER worked or not, I think we can all safely assume that it would have been more engaging than Mark L. Lester’s. Unfortunately, THE THING transformed Carpenter from Hollywood’s wunderkind (HALLOWEEN had been the most successful independent film of all time) to box office poison.
Ironically, however, there were so many Stephen King projects circulating in Hollywood at the time that he was able to jump onto another adaptation. He made CHRISTINE, he admits bluntly, because “I just couldn’t get another job. It was the only job that was offered me.” From the beginning, he had problems with the story: “I wasn’t a fan of the haunted car stuff. I thought, Well how are we gonna do this? This could be sort of silly.”
In other interviews, he has said that he regrets making the decision to get rid of the Roland LeBay character. In the novel, the spirit of the sadistic LeBay is alive and well inside Christine (and eventually Arnie). He even appears, as a rotting corpse, in the back seat of the car. Sounds like a perfect horror movie image, right? But Carpenter was worried that it would be silly instead of scary. I agree that talking corpses is a tricky conceit. Tom McLoughlin’s SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK later adopted this Stephen King story element and did a pretty good job of balancing horror and humor, but I'd argue that it's pretty hard for anyone who's ever seen AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON to take this stuff seriously. What it comes down to, I think, is whether or not the storyteller can convince himself that what he's showing us is real. If he can’t do that, then he probably can’t convince an audience that it's real and he should steer clear of the idea. King has said that he gets so wrapped up in the reality of his stories that he has to sleep with his bedroom light on. Carpenter, however, had to replace LeBay’s ghost with the idea that the car itself is evil.
Personally, I think this idea is an even tougher sell. A "haunted car" or a demonic possession story is one thing, but the idea of an inanimate object being inherently evil doesn’t really jive with Western religious ideas... so it takes a lot more convincing than the typical ghost story. Carpenter's change requires a new internal logic to explain Christine's "evil." His shot selection implies that Christine is responsible for Dennis’s crippling football accident. We could interpret this to mean that Christine is indirectly responsible, because she brought Arnie and Leigh to the game and thereby “caused” the distraction that led to his injury. Or we could interpret it to mean that the car exerts a direct influence on the world around it. At this point, we might think that Christine's power manifests itself as “bad luck”... like a black cat crossing your path. Before long, however, it's clear that Christine has her own distinct consciousness. She selects her victims and methodically hunts them down. She seems to gain power as she "feeds," until -- in the final reel -- she can even power down a bulldozer by flaring her headlights.
So what exactly is the consciousness inside Christine and where does it come from? I don’t need all the answers, but I need a little bit more information than Carpenter's film provides before I can get scared. Maybe Carpenter did too, and that’s why he has regrets. In a 1991 interview with Cinefantastique writer Mark Wood, he said, "I made a big mistake by taking out Roland LeBay's rotting corpse in the back seat. I guess I was just tired of rotting corpses at the time, and tried to do it all with the car. I failed." Looking back on the film in 2008, he said, “We did the best we could with CHRISTINE. I just gave it my all. I don’t know that I’m passionately in love with that film. It’s okay.”
Aside from the glaring “possession problem” at the heart of the story, I still -- as I said -- have a soft spot for the film. It might not affect me on the same level as the book, but it's nevertheless a fun ride. The main reason is the captivating performance of Keith Gordon. Today, Gordon is a well-established writer/director. After acting for more than a decade, he made a couple of very respectable independent films, THE CHOCOLATE WAR (1988) and A MIDNIGHT CLEAR (1992), before moving into television. Most recently, he’s directed several episodes of Showtime’s DEXTER. In an interview with Mike White, however, he says he is still recognized as the nerdy hero in Brian DePalma’s DRESSED TO KILL (1980), “nerd gone bad” Arnie Cunningham in CHRISTINE (1983) and Rodney Dangerfield’s son in BACK TO SCHOOL (1986).
As Arnie, he is pitch-perfect. He captures the character’s nervous energy in the beginning and exudes menacing cool in the second half. There are two scenes in particular that have always impressed me. One is the dinner table confrontation with his parents. Arnie, distressed by the recent attack on Christine, casually and cruelly tells his parents (who are at their most sympathetic in this scene) to go to hell. His delivery is not that of a petulant teenager. He is composed and deadly earnest, which makes him seem like a sociopath. Moments after this conversation, he forcefully grabs his father by the throat -- the ultimate transgression for a teenager. It’s a clear and decisive threat that demonstrates two things: (1) a redistribution of power, from father to son, (2) Arnie’s now-complete lack of conscience. Arnie walks away smiling, satisfied with his newfound power and independence. His father stays behind, obviously terrified at what his son has become.
The second scene that always gets me is when Arnie draws the battle lines of the future for Dennis. He's pounding beer as he drives Christine down a dark highway at 100+ miles per hour... except, as Dennis learns, Arnie isn’t really driving at all. Christine is driving. There’s a faint blue light on Arnie’s face in this scene. It comes up from below and makes the actor’s eyes look old and sunken in. Keith Gordon is able to do the rest by flashing a look of sadistic glee from inside those dark pits, as he toasts, “Death to the shitters of the world in 1979.”
This is as close as the film gets to showing us a corpse in the back seat. Arnie is as dead inside as Roland LeBay, as hopelessly crazy as Jack Torrence in Kubrick’s THE SHINING. His struggle is already over... which is unfortunate, since it leaves us only Dennis (played by John Stockwell) and Leigh (played by Alexandra Paul) to empathize with... and neither one of them are particularly interesting. Stockwell and Paul do get a little help from their fellow thespians. Roberts Blossom is wonderfully sleazy (you can almost smell the booze on his breath) as George LeBay, Robert Prosky is entertainingly gruff as Will Darnell (though he deserves a better death scene), and Harry Dean Stanton is amusingly quirky as Detective Junkins. All three of these characters help to place us in a bitter world that perhaps deserves to burn.
I once attended a sci-fi convention where an attendee was continuously asking people what they thought of the movie CHRISTINE. It didn’t matter if the question was irrelevant to the setting. A panelist might be talking about BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, and this guy would ask about CHRISTINE. What made this indiscrepancy so unnerving was the fact that this guy looked like he should have been one of the sleazy supporting characters in Carpenter's movie. He would have given Blossom and Prosky a run for their money, with his dirty tan trench coat, scruffy beard, indoor sunglasses and labored speech. Maybe it was the ghost of Roland LeBay. Which is why I'm writing about what I think of CHRISTINE, so he doesn't come for me next.
Again, I digress... This story makes my mind wander. I suppose Stephen King could say the same thing. The basic idea of a car consuming an insecure teenager’s identity obviously made him remember some of the sordid details of his own past, his own personal “HAPPY DAYS gone mad.” There is a haunting dreamlike quality to the novel -- it reads like a recurring memory of some horrible event that can never been changed or erased. Christine is the vehicle of fate. I remember one scene in which she emerges from a violent snowstorm, headlights shining like demon’s eyes, and crashes through the wall of one character’s house. She is, in a word, unstoppable. I pictured this scene taking place at the house I lived in when I was a teenager. I could even picture the car... because my neighbor owned an old Plymouth Fury. It was a huge car that took up the entire driveway. When she started it up, the exhaust system rumbled like distant thunder. The car was painted blue, or I would have been really nervous.
This past weekend, at the horror convention in Charlotte, I met the owner of one of the only two surviving models that were used in the filming of CHRISTINE. When I first approached him, I asked, a bit awe-struck, “Do you own this car?” He smiled and responded sharply, “No. She owns me.” Obviously this a guy who understands the power of the story.
When I drove home that night, I could hear John Carpenter’s pulse-pounding theme music playing in my head. In the film, that main theme kicks into high gear at the moment when Christine turns into a literal killing machine. I like to think that's also the moment when the story itself took the reins from author Stephen King, when he couldn’t steer the writing anymore. The monster was loose, and Christine was going to go wherever the hell she wanted to go from there. The author once said that’s how he likes to write. No outline. No road rules. No speed limit. “I’m driving through thick fog with the pedal all the way to the metal...”