Bad to the Bone
Can cars be scary? That's a question that's been asked more than once in the works of Stephen KingRising to fame with the release of his first book, Carrie, Stephen King is one of the most prolific, and most successful, American authors (in any genre, not just horror)., but the first time it came up (at least in theaters) was in 1983's Christine. Cars are, of course, regular fixtures in movies, not only because they're our primary mode of transportation across distances but also because cars are cool. They're wild, they're maybe a bit sexy, but they are, generally, very cool to look at. And when you get cars racing each other, cars can be suspenseful.
But can they actually be scary? in the case of Christine, a film about a malevolent car hell-bent on killing people, the movie really wants us to think a car can be scary. Unfortunately the film, just like the book it's based on, never really does a good job of effectively selling us on the idea of a "killer car". It's an idea that could be interesting, but this story is more goofy and silly than actually scary. Maybe a car could be a convincing movie monster, but at least in this 1983 work that idea never comes to fruition.
In the movie we're introduced to Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon), a nerdy kid in his senior year of high school who has one friend: football player Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell). Dennis is cool and popular in all the ways Arnie is not, but the two have been best friends since forever, and whenever Arnie is in a fix, like when the bullies at school pick on him, Dennis shows up to have his back. That's just what friends are for and, leading into this senior year, it seems like they'll be friends forever.
But then Arnie finds a car, a junky old 1957 Chrysler, that he absolutely falls in love with despite it being a complete wreck. He overpays for the car and, after being told by his parents that he can't keep it at the house, takes it to a junk yard and garage so he can pick for parts and repair the car (which was called "Christine" by its previous owner, a name Arnie keeps for the car). As Arnie works on the car he ends up maturing as well, becoming less nerdy, dating the hot new girl in school, Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul), and becoming something of a cool-guy greaser. But his changes aren't all good, as he becomes mean, cold, and at times cruel. Soon Dennis and Leigh begin to suspect that Christine is behind his changes, and maybe is also might just be alive. As bodies start to drop around town, the teens realize Christine might be more than Arnie, or any of them, can handle.
As I said, Christine has an interesting idea at its core: what if a car could be malevolently possessed? The movie never addresses why the car is just bad -- it comes fresh off the line already trying to hurt, and kill, people for no reason -- and that might be the first issue I have with the film. While normally I'm perfectly fine with a film keeping the motives of a monster close to the chest, we could have done with some reason for why Christine was the way she was. The lack of explanation means we never understand what happen to the car, why it acts the way it does, or why its driven to kill. It's an inanimate object that, for some reason, has a malevolent personality, and that's that.
Note that the original book implied that the previous owner of the car (who bought it off the lot) had died in the car after his daughter, and wife, both died in the vehicle as well. He was a hard, cruel man (and, over time Arnie begins to act more and more like the old owner) so the assumption is that Christine, and eventually Arnie, become possessed by the old codger. None of that is implied here, though, and the car is evil even before it gets bought, so what little reasoning we could have been given for the malicious motor-vehicle is never given in this film. That certainly doesn't help matters.
Also not helping is the fact that, due to the limitations of the effects for the era, Christine simply isn't scary. I'm sure a lot of that is down to the fact that it's hard to convincingly chase down, and then run over, a living human being without, you know, running over a living human being. Now we'd just use CGI for it but those kinds of effects had to be done the practical way in 1983. This film didn't exactly have the largest budget, just $10 Million (which wasn't meager at the time but also not huge), so likely a number of corners had to be cut to make the kills as effective as they could be. Still, the film ends up oddly bloodless, a film trying to be scary without any bite (or gore) to sell the deaths it's trying to imply. It's hard to be scary when a film can't show anything, for whatever reason.
The most convincing effect, certainly, are the sequences of Christine repairing herself. This is when the film manages to build any tension as the characters realize that the car can heal, meaning any damage it sustains might just be limited before it's back up and running again, stalking them on streets on for rubberized white-walls. How do you killer a monster-car that can repair any damage (given enough time), ready and revving to go once again. That's an effective idea that, even in the climax, the film still doesn't quite manage to really convey properly.
It's not like the director at the center of the film isn't talented: This film was made at the height of John Carpenter when he was in true "master of horror" mode. The music has the right tones to it, that Carpenter creep that can properly underscore scenes, but where that worked so well in coordination with Carpenter's filming style and directorial sense in films like Halloween it doesn't amount to much here. There's just no tension, no spark.
Not that the cast does try for it. I give credit to the teen actors for handling their characters as well as they did. Gordon is great as Arnie, a doofy kid who steadily becomes a hard-edge asshole. Stockwell is likable as best friend Dennis, and he's a decent leading man for what the film needs, someone sweet but not to dominant, a likely guy that would be friends with Arnie. Alexandra Paul isn't as good as Leigh but that's in large part because the film isn't that interested in her. Her character has a much larger plot in the book, falling in love with Dennis after she and Arnie break up, but most of that was excised here for some reason. She's fine, but I really wish the film would do more with her.
End of the day, though, what really fails the film is the fact that the movie monster just isn't that interesting. It's a cool idea, but the Christine at the heart of Christine never grows beyond a lot of implied ideas on a 1957 Chrysler. More villainy needed to be ascribed to the car, more story needed to be developed, and we needed to really see Arnie fall into evil. Without that we just have a car driving around for a while, supposedly killing people before everyone just moves on to the next scene. I don't know if a car can truly be scary, I just know that Christine isn't.