Despite this film's tagline, Judge Mitchell Hattaway knows hell hath no fury like his old college girlfriend...who wasn't named Christine.
Hell hath no Fury…like Christine.
Originally released back in the early days of the DVD format, Columbia TriStar is now offering Christine in a new Special Edition (surprise, surprise). So, is this new edition worth the money and the wait?
Facts of the Case
Arnie (Keith Gordon, Back to School) is a textbook example of the entertainment industry's idea of a high school outsider, right down to the Woody Allen glasses and pocket protector. His only real friend is Dennis (John Stockwell, Top Gun), the star of their school's football team. Arnie's life changes the moment he sees Christine, a 1958 Plymouth Fury. The hottest girl in school is suddenly interested in him, his vision improves, and the bullies who have been terrorizing him suddenly start dying. Wait, what was that last one? Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention tell you…Christine's a demonic 1958 Plymouth Fury.
1983 was a pretty good year for films adapted from Stephen King novels. That year gave us David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone, and the film currently under consideration, John Carpenter's Christine. (There was another King-based film released in '83, but the less said about Lewis Teague's Cujo, the better.) Both films were 180 degree turns from their directors' previous efforts (the exploding heads of Scanners in the case of Cronenberg, and the exploding everything else in his remake of The Thing for Carpenter), and both films have something else in common: they both work. Let's face it, most adaptations of King's novels fall flat, so to have two successful efforts in one year is almost enough reason to break out the party hats and noisemakers.
Christine the film began its road to the big screen before Christine the novel had even landed on bookstore shelves. Producer Richard Kobritz had previously worked on Tobe Hooper's miniseries adaptation of King's 'Salem's Lot; King, pleased with the outcome, offered Kobritz first shot at optioning his future works. The producer saw both Cujo and Christine in manuscript form, wisely passing on the former. Kobritz recommended the latter to Carpenter, who at the time was working on an adaptation of King's Firestarter at Universal. After the commercial and critical failure of The Thing, Universal pulled Carpenter off Firestarter, at which time the director and his screenwriter, Bill Phillips, hopped aboard the Kobritz production. Filming on Christine began as the hardcover release of the novel hit bestsellers lists, and the movie hit theater screens just as the paperback was released. (Firestarter ended up being directed by Mark Lester, and featured George C. Scott as an eye-patch sporting Native American; nice job, Universal.)
I can remember when this film was released; the image of Keith Gordon standing in front of a nearly totaled Christine as the car's headlights flare to life (and Carpenter's electronic score starts thumping) was seared into my thirteen-year-old brain. I can also remember my older brother having a copy of the book; I would sneak into his room and thumb through it while he was at college. (He also had a copy of Cujo, but just the cover of that one made me uneasy.) There was no way I'd ever get to see the film in a theater, but the VHS release coincided with the purchase of my family's first VCR, and back then video stores were pretty lax in their rental policies, so I was finally able to see it. Sitting down to view the film for this review was the first time I had watched Christine in the twenty years since that initial viewing, and I was surprised at how well the film has aged.
Admittedly, the premise of this story is pretty hard to swallow. I mean, come on, a possessed car? (The film wisely never attempts to explain the origin of Christine's powers; what explanation could possible work?) To his credit, Carpenter is able to achieve the right tone for this film right off the bat. The opening scene, in which Christine rolls off the assembly line in 1957 and claims her first victim, quickly transitions to a series of scenes establishing the relationship between Arnie and Dennis; we also meet Arnie's primary tormenters, and Leigh (Alexandra Paul, Baywatch), who will become Arnie's girlfriend and victim of the car's hellish jealousy. King's novels, when successful, work primarily due to his ability to create believable, recognizable characters. (Who cares what kind of hell characters are subjected to if you don't care about them?) This film is smart enough to take the same approach. In fact, there's a 45 minute gap in between the death of Christine's first victim and her next attack. At the same time, Carpenter maintains a brisk pace; you know going in you're here to see a car kill people, but there's never a point you just want him to get on with it. There are also very few directors working today who can fill an anamorphic frame like Carpenter; of late his talents haven't been put to the best use, but he'll always be a master of visuals. (I still wish someone would let him shoot a western; Assault on Precinct 13 is close, but it's not enough.)
The three lead actors all do admirable work. Gordon had experience as a nebbish before he signed up here (take a look at Dressed to Kill), but hadn't really been given the opportunity to play an outright bastard; his performance here, which takes him to both extremes, is nicely balanced. Stockwell conveys warmth and concern in his role as Gordon's best friend. Paul, in one of her earliest roles, evolves from window dressing to a person who ultimately takes charge; not bad for a woman best known for running along a beach in a red bathing suit. The youngsters are also aided by three veteran character actors. Robert Prosky (Gremlins 2: The New Batch) is absolutely hilarious in his scene-stealing work as Will Darnell, owner of the garage where Arnie repairs and stores Christine. Roberts Blossom (Home Alone) is George LeBay, the man who sells Christine to Arnie. His late brother was the car's original owner, and LeBay ostensibly wants to be rid of the Christine so he can put a down payment on a condo; Blossom could probably pull off his patented brand creepy-funny in his sleep. Harry Dean Stanton (Alien) appears briefly as Rudolph Junkins, a detective investigating the mysterious deaths of Arnie's (and Christine's) enemies, proving once again no film ever suffers from the presence of Harry Dean Stanton. Kelly Preston has a small role, and the cheerleader she plays here could later very well become her character from Jerry Maguire. This was Preston's second film, following her work in Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, a film I'm ashamed to admit I did see in a theater.
Not having seen Columbia's original DVD release of Christine, I'm unable to compare the two versions. What it presented here, though, is pretty sweet. Colors in the anamorphic video pop of the screen; Christine, in all her Ford Red glory, looks amazing. Blacks, and there are plenty of them, are deep, and shadow detail is very good. (This is one of those titles best viewed in a pitch-black room). There is a bit of grain in some shots, and a noticeable flicker in two or three scenes, but this a way beyond the quality I was expecting for a relatively low budget film of this age. Video in the opening scene is very soft, but this is a stylistic choice, as director of photography Donald Morgan used Fuji rather than Kodak film in the flashback sequence in order to achieve a more nostalgic look. For the remainder of the film the picture is quite sharp. The audio doesn't fare as well; there are five soundtracks available (including the commentary), so I imagine the bitrate for each is probably quite low. The 2.0 Dolby Surround track is clear and detailed, but you'll need to crank it up a bit. The only real surround activity involves the score (by Carpenter and frequent collaborator Alan Howarth), and there's very little bass response. It's not bad, but it probably could have been better. Extras include three featurettes chronicling the film's production, from the purchase of the rights to the novel, through casting, filming, and release. It's apparent these were originally intended to be one documentary, and for some reason they're presented out of order. There's not a whole lot of information to be had, but what's here is pretty nice. (I never knew Kevin Bacon was interested in the film until he was offered Footloose. I also didn't know about Alexandra Paul's twin sister; thinking about the Paul twins is a little more than I can handle. Carpenter also reveals why he sometimes employs pseudonyms in his films' credits.) The lack of depth to the featurettes could be a blessing, as there isn't much room for overlap with the information presented in the commentary. If you're familiar with John Carpenter's previous commentaries, you know there's usually a good time to be had, and this is no exception. Here the filmmaker is reunited with Keith Gordon, and this particular track is all the more enjoyable given the fact Gordon has since become quite the director himself (check out A Midnight Clear). This commentary isn't quite as enjoyable as the Carpenter/Kurt Russell track on Big Trouble in Little China (probably because here both participants appear to be sober), but then again most commentaries aren't. Given that, it's still nice to here two guys so in love with film sit down and talk for almost two hours. (It's also interesting to note John Stockwell has also moved into directing. His Crazy/Beautiful could have been a dark, engaging teen drama had Miramax not gutted Stockwell's cut in an attempt to fashion a cutesy Kirsten Dunst vehicle. His last directorial effort was Blue Crush, for which he deserves credit for casting Michelle Rodriguez's bikini.) You also get twenty deleted and extended scenes, and previews for other Columbia TriStar releases, but, oddly enough, no trailer for Christine.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Let's see. The story can be a little choppy at time; Arnie's transformation from nerd to ladies' man seems to occur overnight; and we don't get to see how he and Leah initially get together. There's also not enough Harry Dean Stanton.
If you're a fan of this film and/or John Carpenter, this Special Edition release of Christine is pretty much a no-brainer. Unless Columbia decides to release a Superbit version (and, no, that's not a hint), you'll never see the film look or sound better. If you own the previous release, you'll probably want to chuck it and pick up his one. It's definitely worth it.
Not guilty! The defendants are all free to go. The court hopes, however, Mr. Carpenter will find future projects worthy of his abilities. Let's also hope the remake of his Assault on Precinct 13 won't blow, but we're betting it will.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with John Carpenter and Keith Gordon
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