John Carpenter’s Christine: An Introduction

Here is the transcript of Darrell Buxton’s introduction from last weekend’s Fright Club screening of Christine. 

Hello and welcome to Fright Club, QUAD’s regular monthly horror film presentation bringing you fear on a Friday. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a particularly scary edition of ‘Top Gear’, mind you, since this evening is all about violent vehicles, motorway mayhem, highway horror, road rage, and killer cars.

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Tonight’s offering is CHRISTINE, John Carpenter’s hastily-released 1983 big screen adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, with the film hot on the heels of the book, arriving in cinemas just seven months after publication. CHRISTINE exemplifies a fairly modern tradition in horror, that of the lethal motor vehicle. This concept takes many forms – we’ve seen piloted killing machines such as the motorcycles steered by British bike gang The Living Dead in the camp classic PSYCHOMANIA, and the specially-fitted and modified crashbar jalopy with Stuntman Mike at the helm in DEATH PROOF; we’ve had unseen or creepily helmeted psychos on wheels in the likes of DUEL, DEATH CAR ON THE FREEWAY, or THE WRAITH; and we’ve had the just plain supernatural affairs with no driver required, where the fuel-propelled mechanical beasts have torn up the Tarmac all on their own, in titles such as KILLDOZER, THE CAR, and Stephen King’s own MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, the latter based on his short story ‘Trucks’.

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Indeed, King’s life in both fictional and factual realms has featured strange, sinister or deadly vehicles on numerous occasions. Besides ‘Trucks’ and ‘Christine’, he authored ‘Cujo’, which is set almost entirely inside a stationary Ford Pinto where a mother and her four year old son are menaced by a slavering, rabid St. Bernard; ‘Mr. Mercedes’, which opens with a stolen car being plowed into a crowd of unemployed jobseekers, with fatalities galore; ‘From a Buick 8’ in which the titular roadster is revealed to be some kind of mysterious portal from our world into another; similarly, his story ‘Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut’ has a woman so obsessed with saving valuable minutes and cutting distances that she manages to transport her car through a wormhole in the fabric of time and out the other side back to our reality. Co-written with his son Joe Hill, ‘Throttle’ was a 2009 King novella somewhat inspired by Richard Matheson’s classic short story ‘Duel’, here pitting a trucker against a band of desert motorcyclists. His masterpiece, ‘Pet Sematary’, pivots on the tragic demise of a little toddler wandering into the path of a powerful 18-wheeler, and was a novel inspired by the King family’s pet cat Smucky meeting its death as roadkill, and King’s young son Owen almost experiencing the same fate. And on a June afternoon in 1999, Stephen King was himself run over by a van driver in the town of Lovell, Maine, leaving the author with multiple serious injuries – luckily surviving not only to write another day, but to also purchase the very van that had knocked him down, apparently with a view to smashing it to pieces, although it eventually merely found its way to the local car-crusher.

 

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By 1983 Stephen King had become a superstar in the world of paperback writing, with each new book selling in the millions globally. Hollywood had already come calling, with successful screen adaptations of CARRIE, SALEM’S LOT, THE SHINING, CUJO, and THE DEAD ZONE in the bag. His star had risen at much the same time and at the same frantic rate as the crop of young new American horror movie specialists – indeed, Brian de Palma, Tobe Hooper and David Cronenberg all had a King movie on their resume by that time, and King had forged a working partnership with zombie-master George A. Romero, the fruit of which was 1982’s entertaining anthology comic-book shocker CREEPSHOW. Rumours were rife that Romero was planning a screen version of King’s apocalyptic epic ‘The Stand’, but sadly that one never made it to the cinema and wound up being made for TV a decade later in a somewhat watered-down fashion by Mick Garris. One of the red hot directors of the late seventies and early eighties was John Carpenter, whose filmography already included DARK STAR, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, HALLOWEEN, ELVIS, THE FOG, and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK – Carpenter’s then most recent offering was THE THING, considered a flop at the time but now regarded as one of the all-time horror classics. It seemed inevitable that King and Carpenter would soon cross paths, and so it was no surprise when Columbia Pictures hired John to film King’s new novel.

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‘Christine’ the book didn’t look like a good fit for Carpenter – a chunky and extremely bloated doorstop of a novel, running in at over 600 pages, didn’t lie well with the director’s own trademark lean and mean style. For me the movie is far superior to the book, extracting the core of the tale and dismissing much of the excess fat. It’s not Carpenter’s greatest ever motion picture but it purrs along nicely, and the gleaming red 1958 Plymouth Fury can certainly be added to the list of cinema’s eeriest killer vehicles. Columbia wanted Brooke Shields to play the female lead, but Carpenter declined, preferring to seek and use new talent – the appealing Alexandra Paul wound up with the role of Leigh, while an up and coming twenty-something named Kevin Bacon was sought for the major role of Arnie, the geek who turns cool under the baleful influence of the deadly car. Bacon suddenly got offered the lead in FOOTLOOSE, and in stepped Keith Gordon, so impressive in Brian de Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL at the beginning of the decade and proving equally effective here.

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Carpenter really strives hard to mould the source material and make this movie his own, and although this assignment is merely a workaday job rather than a personal, meaningful project for the director, he succeeds to a large extent. It really does look and feel like a Carpenter flick, and oh boy does it sound like one – the electronic score by Carpenter and his regular musical partner Alan Howarth might just be their greatest sonic achievement, and as a neat counterpoint, Christine herself frequently goes retro and plays hits of the rock’n’roll 1950s over her inbuilt radio.

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So, time to buckle up, turn on the ignition, and prepare for a bumpy ride down the highway to hell. Enjoy the trip.

Next Time On Fright Club – The Love Witch – Friday 10th and Saturday 11th March

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