#15 in my ranking of John Carpenter’s films.
The Thing bombed horribly both financially and with the critics, and John Carpenter retreated to safety. Some of the harder edges of his voice got sanded off, and he made a mostly routine monster movie based on an unpublished Stephen King novel. His voice seems muffled, in favor of the kind of weird story about a man falling in love with his possessed car.
I’ve read that the opening of the film set on the assembly line that created the titular car, Christine, was a reshoot to better establish her villainy and history, and I think the movie would have played better without it. She attacks a couple of inspectors, and the movie skips forward twenty years to 1978. We meet two high school friends, Arnie (Keith Gordon) and Dennis (John Stockwell). Dennis is a football player and Arnie is a bit of a nerd with huge glasses and a propensity for being the target of Buddy (William Ostrander) and his gang. Both are also enamored with the new girl in school, Leigh (Alexandra Paul), but neither are quite brave enough to simply walk up to her.
One day driving home from school, Arnie forces Dennis to stop the car when he notices an old red car marked for sale in a lot. The old man sells it to him for $250, but not without ominous portents of the car’s history with his brother, the former owner. Both his brother and sister-in-law died in that car, but Arnie buys it anyway with a gleam in his eye. So begins the central relationship in the film, that between Arnie and Christine, the car.
Arnie takes Christine to a garage and dump where he’s allowed to use whatever he finds to fix her up in exchange for some small chores around the place. He takes her from rust bucket to a shiny dream, and along with Christine’s physical transformation comes Arnie’s own. He goes from nerd to suave greaser, winning dates with Leigh and just looking confident and cool in a throwback sort of way, similar to Christine herself. The central success of the film is this symbiotic relationship where they need each other.
Where I find the movie much more typical and rote is almost everything else. Christine ends up being a pretty generic monster. She chases down Buddy and his gang one by one after they take sledgehammers to her (which she fixes herself of in a rather cool special effects moment), and the sequences are perfectly competently made. Most of the thrills come from the pure destruction Christine wrecks on her victims as well as herself as she goes, turning her into this unstoppable force. I suppose that this unstoppable force of a 1958 Plymouth Fury just doesn’t interest as much as the unstoppable force of Michael Meyers or the Thing from another world. I suppose the jealousy and vengeance parts of her acts makes her less threatening and unknowable to me. She ends up feeling like a jealous lover, which is the point, of course.
So the central point of the film is a relationship where one side is a murderous car, and the other side is an increasingly abrasive and unlikeable guy. Along for the ride is Dennis and his increasing concern for his friend. Everything goes wrong for him when he sees Arnie and Leigh making out on the sidelines of a football game, distracting him so that he gets horribly injured to the point where he will never play again. Spending most of the rest of the film in the hospital, allowing Arnie to descend further alone without his friend to help him, Dennis can’t do anything to help his friend.
Arnie and Leigh’s relationship frays because Arnie is really in a relationship with Christine and nothing can get in between them. Everything ends up crescendoing in a monster movie climax that involves a bulldozer, and it’s quality genre thrill stuff. I have nothing against the execution of this, I just never really got invested too terribly into it. I wonder if it’s because of the core relationship, the focus on Christine herself despite her being just an emotionless vehicle. There’s thrill to be had with how she chases down those who wronged her and Arnie, but I feel like the real focus really should have been Arnie. As it stands, the relationship feels like an excuse for monster mayhem rather than trying to do something more interesting with the idea. The thrills never become extraordinary, and it feels like a near miss.
It’s still a safe genre movie for Carpenter to sink his teeth into after the critical and commercial failure of The Thing, but that safety ends up numbing its effect for me a bit.