I’m promising to publish at least one Midnight Film review every Friday or Saturday this year, starting with two underrated John Carpenter classics, one of which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary, while the other is nearing forty. Both, though, summon dark energies against idealist vistas, reanimating American folklore to render it monstrous, implying that the nation’s cultural norms and iconography will be its own undoing.
By 1983, tackling a Stephen King adaptation had already become a fertile testing ground for horror auteurs to flex their cinematic muscles and interrogate their idiosyncrasies within ostensible crowd-pleasers and corporate products, to infest cinematic hallowed ground with exploratory personal devils and fixations. A King adaptation was sort of like the old Cahier du Cinema proof about auteur theory, which suggested that a director’s personality, their difference, could be gleamed best when they were most mediated by various corporate interests rather than left to their own devices to construct a film from the ground up.
King was all the rage, and he certainly made for good cinema in many different registers: from Brian De Palma’s psychosexual urges (which, of course, were not exactly the same as King’s psychosexual urges but resonated with them) in Carrie to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, an omnipotent, metaphysical cinematic manse of Wellesian madness and portent closer in sensibility to concurrent Italian giallo films (with their focus on unclassifiable cosmic chaos) than King’s own exploration of decidedly more personal and quotidian demons like alcoholism.
Of course, these adaptations weren’t always to King’s delight. The writer famously disowned The Shining, directing his own (much lesser) miniseries version almost twenty years later. But it’s easier to understand why King didn’t react so similarly to John Carpenter’s Christine, even though its cinematic concerns are also very different from King’s personal demons. Unsurprisingly, and befitting its director’s name, Christine is more craftwork than artwork, and it doesn’t insist on itself as a “visionary” work to wrestle with in the way that Kubrick’s or even De Palma’s wild-eyed films do. While each of Carpenter’s previous films benefitted from his interest in infesting quotidian spaces with malevolent undercurrents, Christine is the first that honestly feels like a work for hire.
There’s no shame in that: Christine is a sturdy edifice, and an effective film, and in some ways it might be more interesting because it superficially seems so much less personal. Because he isn’t so overtly focusing on them, the things that Carpenter cannot but be drawn to and cannot but do are that much more apparent. Christine lacks that patented Carpenter-centric chilliness, outside of its wonderfully frostbitten theme tune (of course, also composed and performed by Carpenter). But it makes up for it with a thoroughly evocative inversion of the early ‘80s fixation on ‘50s era Americana, a spirited critique both in that the film is haunted by its past and attempts to terrorize the very past that animates it by perverting it, exposing its inner demons.
Indeed, much like the titular killer car given life by some demonic collective fixation on cultural media from yesteryear, Carpenter’s Christine both reanimates and is reanimated by the past, allowing it to spirit us away and intoxicate us and then enervate us, turning us into cardboard characters and typographical figures. In a very different milieu from Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish (released less than two months beforehand in 1983), the most exploratory effort in that trend late ‘70s – mid-‘80s trend, Carpenter’s more straightforward film is also descended from Kenneth Anger’s occult exploration on the rituals and images of mid-century American masculinity. Joining the likes of David Lynch’s off-the-rails Wild at Heart and Tim Burton’s canted carnivalesque Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (and, to a lesser extent, the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark), Christine imbibes in and toxically spews up the demonic and sinister juices of a youth culture figured, here, as fetishistically in adoration of material objects and technological products that (ostensibly) don’t question and can’t resist. Christine does, with a vengeance.
Focused on initially good-natured nerd Arnie (Keith Gordon) and his infatuation with a 1958 crimson-red Plymouth Fury, Carpenter’s adaptation clamps down on some of King’s melodrama, tempering it with Carpenter’s workaday pragmatism, his interest in the minor-key and the quotidian. A cracked mirror image of concurrent teenage nerd romances like Revenge of the Nerds (not to mention too many John Hughes films), Arnie is an early cinematic “nice guy,” bullied and ostracized and turning his victimization into an excuse for entitlement and abuse. Arnie’s soul is Christine’s moral force, but it’s modern technology that haunts the film most of all. By which I mean both that technological anxiety hovers around the film and that it recognizes technology’s allure and power, that it haunts technology, always returning to it, exploring it, turning its camera sensually on Christine’s inside and outside, exploring the car’s nooks and crevices in search of some ultimately recognizable answer to the mysteries that have created it.
In fact, Christine is almost defiantly opaque, almost defiantly thin, so much so that it might feel like a failure of execution rather than a courageousness of vision. Arnie’s transformation, for one, is essentially inexplicable as a question of personal psychology, as is his initial attraction to a broken-down Christine for that matter, both playing like an inevitable magnetism of cultural determinism. The whole film functions like a pantomime, with broad characters that are unthinkingly typographical, icons in a poetic montage. One memorable chase scene begins with a character inexplicably being dropped off under a highway overpass. Why? Because it fits the mood! Carpenter remains a poet of post-industrial American malaise, at home in the darkness of wayward loners unable to muster the energy to connect with the world. Resonating with King’s long investment in gothic doubles, the central narrative is essentially a story of how Archie’s psychic attachment to mid-century American materialist masculinity kills his opponents while turning Archie into them, a stray cat becoming a junkyard dog.
Nostalgia, especially concurrent cinematic romances reanimating ‘50s types, becomes an unforgiving spectral force channeled into rituals of self-immolation, such as several greasers pulverizing a car. In its feverish archetypes and fetishistic shots of mechanical affection and destruction (including truly phenomenal shots played in reverse, such that a car being compressed and destroyed is made to look like the car rebuilding itself from the inside), Christine becomes nothing less than a film about the dangerous infatuations with cinema itself, about the way film can warp space and time, can reverse and invert the given, can cast banal objects in glows that seem alternately reverent but also self-critically demonizing or even ambivalent. (It is criminal that cinematographer Donald M. Morgan has barely any career to his name.) It is only through the film’s act of self-witness and critical complicity, though, that Carpenter can attempt to exorcise these demons.