Christine: Special Edition Review

Many filmmakers have had problems following their masterpiece but few have stretched out the agony for quite so long as John Carpenter. It should be said that, at the time, this didn’t seem so apparent since it took two or three years for The Thing to be recognised as a classic. But in retrospect it’s clear that Carpenter has spent the last 22 years trying to recover his magic touch and failing, sometimes more honourably than others. Given these circumstances, we have to make the best of what he has managed to offer us and try to find the good in amongst the large quantities of mediocre and, let’s face it, the just plain bad.

Christine is, thankfully, pretty good and deserves reappraisal. It had the misfortune of not only following Carpenter’s best work but also being released at the same time that a new Stephen King adaptation seemed to be appearing every other week. It wasn’t a major surprise that Carpenter and King came together eventually; both have a peculiar talent for showing small communities under threat from a malevolent force is. However, Christine was a surprise. For a long time it was reported that Carpenter had been wooed by Dino De Laurentis to make Firestarter and anyone who saw the misbegotten result, eventually directed by Mark Lester, will agree that an on-form Carpenter touch was urgently required. Yet I think, on the whole, Carpenter made the right choice. Christine combines many of the elements from his previous successes – cars, teenagers, a supernatural threat, small-town America, rock and roll. It’s not a great film by any means but it is a good deal of fun and stands up, alongside Carrie, The Shining and The Dead Zone, as one of the best King adaptations for the cinema.

The film is about Arnie (Gordon), a nerd who is going through hell at high school, helped only by his friend Dennis (Stockwell). One day, he passes a junkyard and sees an old 1958 Plymouth Fury which seems to call to him. He buys it, against the advice of Dennis, and gradually starts to change. He loses his glasses, gains a strange 1950s greaser look, gets a girlfriend – Leigh (Paul) – and seems to be heading towards a new life. But he’s also becoming obsessed with his new car and this soon begins to impact on his relationships – with his parents, with Dennis and, particularly, with Leigh.

At heart, Christine is a love story, albeit a rather distorted one, and Carpenter recognises this with a great romantic introduction shot when Arnie first sees the car. Christine is the girl that Arnie has waited all his life for and it’s hardly surprising that his relationship with Leigh falls apart – he’s already found his perfect partner and both he and Christine know it. Carpenter pulls off some lovely moments of unease, especially the scene where Leigh is made to choke on a hamburger while the radio plays “All Mine”. There’s a filmmaking precision here, a dead-on targeting of emotional and visual effects which is very impressive and is one of the things which is missing in his failures, where you can see what was intended but it’s all too clear how far Carpenter is from hitting his target. He also pulls off an interesting switch in loyalties. Christine’s jealousy is scary but it’s also funny and when she goes after the yobs who have vandalised her (in order to get at Arnie), there’s no question whose side we’re on – especially since she has the good taste to play rock and roll classics before mowing down the yobs.. Indeed, when we see her in pieces after the attack, we respond to her damage with genuine sympathy. Yet later on, she seems to be evil incarnate. Carpenter juggles with our sympathies with great skill and that’s one of the things which makes this film more interesting than it perhaps should be. It’s certainly a more emotionally complex piece of work than the original novel, although in some respects it’s also been streamlined.

Perhaps the most interesting change made by Carpenter, along with his writer Bill Phillips, is the nature of Christine. In the book, she is possessed by a previous owner, Roland D. LeBay, but in the film she is shown as being malevolent right from the moment she appears on the production line. In a sense, this decision weakens the central point of the original story, namely that Christine reflects and heightens the desires of her owner, but it does serve to make Arnie more of a victim than a villain. Keith Gordon’s excellent performance is very skilful in its evocation of a nerd turned faux-1950s greaser and his relationship with Christine is allowed to dominate the film, pushing Dennis – who narrates the original novel – and, to some extent, Leigh to the sidelines. We see Arnie’s humiliation at high school and, I suspect, most of us can empathise to some extent with the hell he goes through. Gordon makes Arnie the classic nerd without making him either embarrassing or unintentionally comic. His character change is handled very gracefully. The extent to which he controls Christine is left ambiguous – does she go after Buddy Repperton’s gang because they were cruel to Arnie or because they had the nerve to trash her ? Indeed, the blackened windows of the car during her rampages of retribution seem intended to make us wonder whether Arnie might actually be behind the wheel, a demonic driver of an avenging automobile. More importantly however, leaving alliterative exuberance aside, the love affair between Arnie and Christine is made very satisfying and the final moments are genuinely affecting.

Indeed, Keith Gordon carries the film. Although this wasn’t his first starring role – he played the lead in De Palma’s little-seen but very entertaining 1979 comedy Home Movies - it’s certainly the one which gives him most responsibility and he grabs the opportunity with obvious pleasure. Watching this, it’s easy to feel a pang of regret that he’s been diverted away from acting into a very impressive directorial career. Overall, Carpenter’s direction of actors is at its height here and this is, along with The Fog and The Thing, one of his best casts. Small supporting roles are filled beyond the call of duty by cult-movie greats such as Roberts Blossom and Harry Dean Stanton and there’s a fine study in scuzziness from Robert Prosky. Alexandra Paul is gorgeous and delightful as Leigh and John Stockwell does his best with the rather dire role of Dennis – a character who is never sufficiently defined in the film (or, to be honest, in the book) except in dialectical opposition to Arnie.

The main drawback is that this film, well made and evocative as it may be, is simply not frightening. There are disturbing edges to the story and Arnie’s love affair with Christine has unsettling overtones but, possibly due to Carpenter’s tact, the big set-pieces of revenge are more blackly comic than scary. There are a couple of good ‘jump’ moments admittedly but there’s little here to upset the squeamish. Having said this, despite the lack of blood and gore, special effects fans will be impressed by the mechanical wizardry engineered by the great Roy Arbogast during the scenes in which Christine ‘regenerates’ herself. But the horrific intensity and sense of dread that Carpenter brought to his great films such as Halloween and The Thing is oddly absent. Perhaps he was sensitive to the criticisms of the explicit gore in his previous film – ironically, Christine got much better reviews than The Thing, despite being the lesser film. It’s a professionally made, engaging and intelligent film which is respectful to the original novel without enbalming it. But it somehow doesn’t catch fire in the way Carpenter’s best films do and that, ultimately, makes it a little disappointing.

The Disc

Columbia released Christine way back in 2000 on a barebones disc and have only just got round to revisiting it as a Special Edition. Luckily, it’s a good one and fans of the film aren’t likely to have any serious complaints.

The film is presented in its original Scope ratio of 2.35:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s a very good transfer indeed. Colours are full and impressive, the blacks are satisfyingly deep and there is a suitably film-like amount of grain. The level of detail is appropriate for the different parts of the film – the soft focus opening is entirely intentional and the image becomes a lot sharper later on. Some artifacting crops up here and there and there is a little bit of print damage but, on the whole, this is very respectable work by Columbia.

The soundtrack is a Dolby Digital Surround presentation and is absolutely fine. Although some home cinema types will bemoan the lack of a remix into 5.1, I thought this track was more than adequate for the film and offers a good, natural sounding balance between dialogue, Carpenter’s score and the song soundtrack.

The extras are all valuable and go into plenty of detail about the film without looking like unnecessary filler. We get a generous making-of documentary, divided into three parts, a good commentary, lots of deleted or alternate scenes and a selection of trailers which don’t, for some reason, include one for this film.

The documentary is a Laurent Bouzereau production and it follows his patented chronological method of documenting the making of a film. It’s a tad dull as a method perhaps but it gets the job done so I won’t complain too much. The three featurettes run for a total of approximately 47 minutes and feature interviews with Carpenter, producer Richard Kobritz, writer Bill Phillips and the three young cast members. Not too many unnecessary film clips included, for a mercy, and some frank and honest reminiscences of making the film. I find the division into three parts a little irritating though, not least because they’re actually in the wrong order on the menu – “Ignition” comes first, “Fast and Furious” second and “Finish Line” third.

The commentary by John Carpenter and Keith Gordon is a very good one. Carpenter is always an engaging speaker and Gordon is very enthusiastic. The two have a laugh, remember the filming and make some intelligent observations about the finished product. This is an entertaining and informative track.

There are 20 Deleted or Alternate Scenes included. Some of these are excellent, notably an extended questioning of Arnie by Harry Dean Stanton’s cop and a poignant moment when Arnie’s mother looks in on him sleeping, and some are expendable. Most of the alternate scenes are obviously inferior to the ones included in the film itself. These scenes are presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1.

Filmographies for the major cast and crew are included along with trailers for Asylum of the Damned, Secret Window, Hellboy and Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital.

The film is divided into 28 chapters. The film is subtitled but the extra features, regrettably, are not. The menus are simple and nicely animated.

Christine is an enjoyable and mature piece of filmmaking, offering a insightful look at teenage life and a satisfying portrait of a love affair which goes horribly wrong. It’s not Carpenter’s best work, nor is it as scary as it perhaps could have been but it’s still well worth a look. This Special Edition DVD is very satisfying and highly recommended.

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