I went through a big phase in high school, not long after becoming a Stephen King fan, where I devoured movies based off his books. It didn’t take long, though, to realize how bad most of them were. Mind you, all were bad in different ways – some butchered the books, some missed the point, some forgot to focus on the characters – but whatever the case, I quickly realized that most of them just plain sucked. And so I brought that phase to an end, deciding just to cut my losses. And the result is that I had never seen John Carpenter’s film of Christine until this weekend – and that’s a shame, because it’s really a pretty solid piece of work on the whole, a bad ending excepted.
Christine has always been a bit of “lesser” King to me, although I’ve often thought that I owe it a re-read to see if that’s as true as I remember it being. In broad strokes, it’s a silly concept – a boy buys a car and becomes obsessed with it, and taps into something much darker, letting the car become murderous – but it works, thanks in no small part to King’s characterization and work on his main characters. In King’s hands, the car becomes a metaphor for adulthood, for growing up, for losing your friends and growing apart; more than that, it allows him to tap into the primal appeal of something like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde while keeping it updated.
And by and large, Carpenter does a better job with that material than you might expect. Carpenter is a pulpy director, a craftsman who works within genre frameworks, but he spends enough time on Arnie and Dennis to make us care about them. More than that, he allows Keith Gordon to turn Arnie into a fully realized character, and lets him transition smoothly and slowly from nerdy outcast to cruel Alpha male. Gordon takes his time, but more than that, he lets both halves of Arnie work, so that the transition feels genuine and believable, and invests us in Arnie’s dark side. The rest of the cast is generally solid, with a few really great standouts. Harry Dean Stanton is awesome, as usual, even though he’s in a role that doesn’t really give him much to do beyond being himself. But the real treat is Robert Prosky as garage owner Will Darnell, who drew off of King’s book to give himself some more colorful, entertaining dialogue, and turns his role into a curmudgeonly blast.
And, of course, when it comes to the scares, Carpenter does every bit as good as you’d expect, staging the scenes beautifully and wringing the tension out of them. There’s a fantastic scene involving Christine pursuing one of Arnie’s bullies down a narrow alleyway that just works like gangbusters; meanwhile, on a more subtle plane, a late film conversation between Arnie and Dennis oozes menace in all the right ways.
And then, with about fifteen minutes to go, it all turns terrible. And I really don’t understand why. Maybe, as my friend Ryan argues, they started the film before the book was finished, and just had King’s broad outlines to go off of; maybe it’s that they wanted a showier ending than the book might have provided. But it’s a fizzle of an ending, one that feels cobbled together, lacks the great performances of the rest of the film, and doesn’t even feel as competently shot as the film around it (there’s a moment where a major character dies where it’s not even clear what happened, when he arrived on the scene, or how exactly he died). And that’s before the goofy, silly final moments, which feel like they’re from a far worse movie.
All that being said, it’s still a pretty solid adaptation, and one I enjoyed a lot more than I expected – Gordon’s performance really is spectacular, the car is beautiful, Prosky is a hilarious scene-stealer, and Carpenter’s direction is really solid. Shame about that ending, though.