Tuesday, September 12, 2017

John Carpenter Revisited: CHRISTINE (1983)

Stephen Gervais cover art for Stephen King's novel CHRISTINE (https://suntup.press)
A few weeks ago, I saw John Carpenter’s CHRISTINE at The Egyptian Theater in Hollywood…. and the experience made me giddy.  Honestly, I was more excited seeing this movie writ large than I was seeing THE THING in 70mm on the same screen a few weeks earlier.  Why?  Not because I think CHRISTINE is a better film.  It’s not.  But I love it more.

When the movie was over, a group of cast and crew members went up on stage and tried to explain why CHRISTINE has developed such a strong cult following in recent years. William Ostrander, who plays Buddy Repperton, gave the best explanation.  He suggested that the revival is largely due to the enthusiasm of those who saw CHRISTINE for the first time when they were in middle school or early high school.  This explanation, at least, rings true for me.

I purchased a used VHS copy of CHRISTINE from my local video store when I was in 7th or 8th grade, and watched it until the cover fell apart and the tape broke.  There’s an easy explanation for why I loved it so much.  At the time, I identified with Arnie Cunningham, and related to his frustration with the world around him—a world largely defined by idiotic bullies and condescending authority figures.  

In a way, CHRISTINE is a film that derives its power from the ugliness of its characters—not just straight-ahead villains like Buddy Repperton and his goons, but ancillary characters like Roberts Blossom’s sleazy misanthropist George LeBay and Robert Prosky’s blustery hardass… Even Arnie’s control-freak mother, played by Christine Belford.  All of these characters exert an oppressive influence on Arnie, until his world practically begs to be destroyed. I think it’s safe to assume that most viewers my age got off on the “revenge of the nerd” scenario that follows.  CHRISTINE is an enthusiastic middle-finger to the reality of being an insecure teenager dealing with constant feelings of powerlessness and misdirected rage.  In that respect, it’s a pretty ugly film.

Roberts Blossom in CHRISTINE
But the ugliness is counterbalanced by Carpenter’s stylistic beauty—which is especially impressive in the second half of the film, as spit-polished Christine cruises perfectly-lit, rain-soaked streets in search of victims.  Reflections and camera flares give an alluring dreamlike quality to the escapist fantasy.  In the Q&A at The Egyptian, musical collaborator Alan Howarth noted that each camera flare has its own music cue, which further enhances that dreamlike quality.  Did I mention that the score for this film is one of Carpenter’s very best?  It’s simple, entrancing, unforgettable.  In short, CHRISTINE is a brilliant exercise in style, made by a cinematic genius at the top of his game. 

Regardless, John Carpenter himself has always expressed dissatisfaction with the film, citing it as one of only two films he’s directed that he doesn’t “own (MEMOIRS OF THE INVISIBLE MAN being the other).  In 2008, I pressed him on the subject—while professing my own love for CHRISTINE.  Carpenter basically shrugged and said, “It was a job.”  In a 2001 interview with Gilles Boulenger, he was harsher.  “Whether people think it’s good or bad,” he said, “I know in my heart I fucked it up because I was still wounded from THE THING.”  Obviously, I disagree.  

Stephen King and Christine
Despite my love for the film, however, I’m aware of its shortcomings—and two shortcomings in particular, which I think might sink the film for less nostalgic viewers.  Both are problems related to screenwriter Bill Phillips’ adaptation of Stephen King’s novel.  Carpenter has essentially claimed that CHRISTINE is Stephen King’s story, not his—but that’s not entirely fair, because of these deviations.

#1.  In King’s novel, the titular 1958 Plymouth Fury called “Christine” is literally haunted by the ghost of former owner Roland LeBay.  As Arnie Cunningham becomes obsessed with the car, LeBay’s ghost becomes a strong presence in his life—until Arnie begins to see LeBay’s rotting corpse sitting in the back seat, urging him to kill. 

Fearing that such imagery would be “silly,” Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Phillips decided to eliminate LeBay’s ghost from the screen story.  They crafted a new opening scene to suggest that the car was simply “born bad.”  According to producer Richard Kobritz, the new scene came about because “John recalled something Hitchcock had said about an assembly line sequence that he had always wanted to do.”  What Hitchcock wanted to do was make a scene where viewers watch a car get built from the ground up.  When the car is fully constructed, the door opens and a dead body tumbles out. 

I’m not sure why Carpenter thought this scene would be less silly than seeing a ghost in the back seat.  Today, he says he regretted the decision to eliminate LeBay’s ghost.  Bill Phillips apparently came to the same conclusion even sooner.  Almost immediately after finishing CHRISTINE, Phillips used a variation of the corpse-in-the-back-seat imagery in a 1983 PSA about drunk driving.

Whether the change was “wrong” or not, Carpenter was unquestionably committed to making a horror movie that didn’t rely on cheap shocks.  Instead, he wanted to make a character-based horror movie.  That’s why the second big adaptation problem is so glaring.  Although Carpenter got some great performances out of the lead actors (especially Keith Gordon, who is on fire here), the movie essentially abandons the main character arcs. 

The novel CHRISTINE is one of Stephen King’s most insightful character studies. Arnie Cunningham, Dennis Guilder and Leigh Cabot are fully fleshed-out teenagers, easy to empathize with and easy to love.  When their story turns to tragedy, it hurts—and the pain doesn’t come all at once; it comes on gradually, over a few hundred pages, as Arnie falls under the corrupting spell of Christine, and his friends and family realize that their loved one is slipping away forever.

In the movie, this shift happens abruptly, and off-camera.  One moment, we are watching pre-Christine Arnie (making nice with Darnell when the old fart offers him a job) and the next we are watching post-Christine Arnie (looking cool at the football game).  There’s nothing in between, and so viewers don’t get the emotional experience of Leigh and Arnie falling in and out of love, or of Dennis loving and losing his best friend. 

Bill Phillips reportedly wrote more character-building scenes, but they got cut at some point.  Recent DVD/Blu-Ray releases of the film feature some deleted scenes, but none of them do much to flesh out Arnie’s transformation.  Instead they focus on Dennis and Leigh’s budding romance.  In the book, that plot development pushes Arnie over the edge.  In the movie, the scenes are unnecessary because Arnie has already gone over the edge. 

In his response to the film, Stephen King essentially pinned the adaptation problems on the actor who plays Dennis (John Stockwell) and the actress who plays Leigh (Alexandra Paul), opining that their performances are “just sort of forgettable” and fail to “generate any real magnetism” with Arnie.  That may be true, but it’s not the biggest problem.  CHRISTINE the novel and CHRISTINE the movie are simply two very different beasts.  King’s story is mostly a melancholy tragedy and Carpenter’s movie is a stylish revenge story.  Once you recognize each version for what it is, I think it’s possible to enjoy both.  I love Stephen King’s CHRISTINE because it’s so heartfelt.  I love John Carpenter’s CHRISTINE because it’s so cool.  In my opinion, it has just as much style and panache as Brian DePalma’s CARRIE. 

Carrie and Christine (blood relatives?)
Although the Egyptian Theater paired CHRISTINE with MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, that's why I decided to make CARRIE the second film on my double bill.  I realize that this is a different kind of double bill than the ones in my previous “Stephen King Revisited” essays—primarily because it de-emphasizes Carpenter’s authorship.  Pairing CHRISTINE with CARRIE reiterates the idea of CHRISTINE as a King movie rather than a Carpenter movie.  It also aligns Carpenter with a filmmaker that he doesn’t particularly like.

In a 1978 interview, Carpenter dismissed DePalma’s early horror films (SISTERS, OBSESSION, CARRIE) as unimaginative imitations of Hitchcock.  He opined, “Those pictures aren’t making creative use of the lessons Hitchcock has taught us.  They’re just trying to be copies of Hitchcock originals.”  During that early stage of in his career, DePalma was frequently maligned as a Hitchcock imitator.  But, then, so was Carpenter.  To a certain extent, DePalma embraced the label while Carpenter rejected it. 

Certainly, Carpenter learned the techniques of suspense from Hitchcock (as HALLOWEEN demonstrates), but the filmmaker insists that he is not the same type of storyteller.  In conversation with Gilles Boulenger, Carpenter criticized Hitchcock as a “cold” director, explaining, “His suspense scenes are just devoid of anything surprising.  As soon as you get his trick, there he is.  That’s just not my way of doing it.  I entertain much more connection with the Hawksian school.”  Hawks worked more closely with actors, and was generally inclined to throw out a detailed shooting plan in order to improvise and find the depth and warmth of his characters and their story. 

By 1997, Carpenter seemed to have modified his opinion of DePalma, including him on a list of revered filmmakers who have all had “bad days.”  He concluded, “It’s really all in your story.  If you have the right kind of story that lends itself to suspense, then you have it made.  When the story is something else, you’re kidding yourself.  You can play all the tried and true techniques, but they won’t work.”  That seems to sum up his feelings about CHRISTINE.  For him, it was too much of a cold stylistic exercise.  Simply a “bad day.”

For viewers who haven’t read the source novel, or who don’t instinctively identify with Arnie, he might be right.  On the other hand, if you love Carpenter’s unique style of visual storytelling, there’s plenty to love about CHRISTINE.  Even Stephen King, despite his completely understandable reservations with the story changes, concluded, “There’s still a lot of Carpenter […] the excitement that he can generate.  When the car’s going along the road, and it’s in flames, and it’s chasing these people, that’s pretty good.”

Damn right.

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