No one would confuse Christine as the best effort of anyone involved. Not author Stephen King, who hit upon a brilliant notion and then struggled to bring it to conclusion, and not director John Carpenter, who adapted an uneven text to equally uneven results. Shards of brilliance shine through: parts where you can see what they’re going for and thrill with the excitement of it. But they never last too long and when they fade, you’re left with a lot of unwieldy plot threads married to inadequate exposition. You can’t hate it for the great things it does, but you can certainly be disappointed by the haphazard way it does them. It is, at the end of the day, a mess… though certainly a mess with its share of good qualities.
King envisioned the story as a male version of his classic novel Carrie, only this time with a haunted car instead of telekinetic powers. His protagonist, Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) is the ubiquitous picked-on nerd, with a gaggle of bullies making his life miserable and controlling parents for whom nothing quite seems good enough. And yet Arnie isn’t quite as beaten down as Carrie White was. He has a loyal friend, after all – a football player named Dennis (John Stockwell) who grew up with him and doesn’t give a shit whether he’s popular or not -- and his future looks fairly bright if he can survive the travails of high school. But that’s before he catches sight of a 1958 Plymouth Fury rotting in some old man’s yard. Something about the car calls to him, and once he buys it – in defiance of his parents – everything starts to change.
The devil’s bargain helps set the storyline apart from Carrie, as does the haunted car notion that numerous schlock horror authors had attempted, but no one grasped quite as well as King did. That Fury is bad news, of course: a sentient vehicle possessed of its own will that seduces Arnie by transforming him into everything he wishes he could be. Those bullies meet a nasty end of course, and suddenly the most beautiful girl in school can’t keep her hands off of him… but the changes it makes in Arnie himself are unsettling to say the least.
King managed the story by inserting the ghost of the former owner into the car, turning it into a sort of wheeled variation of the Overlook Hotel. Carpenter jettisons the notion and focuses on the car itself, simplifying the basic idea at the expense of some of the tension. The film can’t quite recover from the decision, though it comes very close at times.
Its best moments arrive when Carpenter and King move in sync. The two were raised in the same era (King is one year older) and though they remain boomers to the core, they never quite surrendered that rebellious streak that marked them as outsides. They both understand the allure of being cool, the desire to be the stud on the block, and the way muscle cars and rock and roll seem to make that possible. They also understand what an illusion that is, and what it can do if you go chasing it too hard.
That gives the story a fine sense of tragedy, as well as tingeing the horror with something more than button-pushing blood and guts. There’s definitely a boomer wistfulness to it as well, with the 70s kid looking back to the 50s when he believes things made sense. In Arnie’s case, it swallows him up, and you can sense the two auteurs flirting playfully with that desire before pulling back and showing us the cost. When Christine discovers those instincts, it’s an amazing piece, and Carpenter is too good a director to let them escape without relishing their beauty.
Unfortunately, the nuts and bolts never quite come together. Too many story threads are left hanging in the breeze, and too many lost opportunities pile up without resolution. The novel held its share of awkward moments – so much so that King had to switch from first-person to third-person narration and then back again just to get through it. Carpenter can’t quite dodge the obstacles swiftly enough, leading to periodic dead scenes and a climax that can’t punch us in the gut the way he wants it to. The cast is competent but largely unremarkable (though Harry Dean Stanton knocks it out of the park as a suspicious cop), and while they do fine with the material, they need something smoother to hit their stride.
That doesn’t necessarily make for bad viewing. The car is intimidating, the money shots are tasty and a few weird milestones pop up every now and then. (This is, among other things, the first onscreen use of George Thorogood’s tragically overexposed “Bad to the Bone.”) Its charms remain quite durable and by setting the film in a specific time and place, it avoids aging the way other horror movies of the era have. In a pinch, you could do worse. But considering the pedigree in the credits, we expect something better. Christine shows us what great filmmakers can do with flawed material, and how even their greatness can’t solve every problem.