Even after directing Christine, John Carpenter would say in interviews that while he loved directing horror, he dreamed of directing a love story. And while Starman may have been a more mainstream, cut-and-dried love story, Christine does just as much genre-mixing and is ultimately a love story at its core. But Carpenter has never had much love for the film–calling it his worst for years after it came out and never warming up to it much as time passed. If this is a director’s worst work, then that’s the sign of a true artist, because Christine is a fantastic motion picture.
This isn’t solely from the mind of John Carpenter, however, as it is obviously based on the very successful novel by Stephen King. Of course, this was during the height of King’s success and it was obvious that the book was going to do great regardless of quality, so a movie was rushed into production.
The book and the film actually came out in the same year, the quickest adaptation period for any King work since. Nothing else has come close. The love story inherent in Carpenter’s Christine is also present in the source material. But like any good work of horror, it highlights the ugly side of its topic. This is a love story, sure, but it’s about the obsessiveness of love, as well as the destruction.
The scene where Arnie first lays eyes on Christine is so classic that it borders on being a parody of old love stories. There’s the head turn, the excitement, the need to go back and take another look at her. Part of what makes this scene work so well is that we don’t see what Arnie sees, at least not at first. Nor does Dennis, who actually thinks Arnie might have seen a girl who lives at the house they just passed. Instead, they back up and reveal the junkiest car at the junkiest house owned by the junkiest old man you could possibly imagine. George LeBay (wonderfully played by Roberts Blossom) is an intense man with the fire of insanity burning right behind his eyes. Everything about the situation is unnerving, scary, and anyone with any common sense (like Dennis, the persistent voice of reason) would get the hell out of there. But what’s love for if not stripping away common sense?
So Arnie buys the car and almost immediately begins to change. The transformation he goes through begins, in a way, like any first relationship. He’s instantly more confident. He talks back to his parents for the first time in his life. The more his family and friends hate his car, the more he loves her and the more he wants to take care of her. There’s dumb teenage passion and there’s dumb teenage jealousy, and those are mutual on the part of both Arnie and Christine.
It’s the extremes to which these intense emotions develop that lead to the horror in the film. Arnie Cunningham’s newfound confidence and posture (and somehow fixed vision) lead him to get an “actual” girlfriend, Leigh Cabot. Leigh is the girl in school that everyone wants to date and now she’s dating the guy who was known as the school’s biggest loser. Of course, Christine is very jealous. Arnie even admits, pretty openly as the movie goes on, that Leigh means nothing to him when compared with Christine.
Arnie’s obsession with his car boils over until he delivers a great monologue to Dennis while finally “showing” Christine to him. He shows Dennis the Christine he knows that no one else knows, the Christine who drives on her own and can survive any crash and he tells him that love “eats everything.” And that sums up the entire movie. It kills him how much feeding that love eats, but if you feed it, it can be beautiful.
This is the destructive relationship at the heart of the film. The one that leads Christine to kill. Part of what makes the movie so interesting is how linked Arnie and Christine are by the end of the picture. When local bully Buddy Repperton and his gang trash Christine, seemingly beyond repair, Christine takes deadly vengeance on every single one of them. But even if Christine is going after them, driving on her own, is it Christine who’s actually killing them or is it Arnie? Which one of them wanted that to happen more?
In the novel, Arnie is slowly becoming possessed by Roland LeBay, brother of George and previous owner of the car. While this is certainly scary, the feature’s ambiguous romance and lack of clear-cut origin for Christine’s supernatural nature make the whole story all the more intriguing. This is a movie that’s expertly made and definitely deserves more credit than it gets. People who love the work of both Carpenter and King have the most to gain from Christine as it is the perfect mixture of the two creators and their very different styles.