You have nothing to lose but your virginity.
It shouldn’t be surprising to see parallels between John Carpenter‘s Christine and today considering we live in an era where phrases like “boys will be boys” are used to full stop sanitize the increasingly deplorable actions of young white American men. Back in the 1970s when this film (and Stephen King‘s novel on which it is adapted) is set, we would laugh at the so-called “locker room” talk of teenage boys sexualizing their female classmates and knowingly chiding the nerdy kids chiming in from the periphery with no real desire or prospects of joining in. It was “harmless” fun. To watch that scenario now, however, carries hindsight moving well beyond stupid kids being stupid. Now we see Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) as the incel terrorist gaslighter he is.
Here’s the pushover “nerd” being domineered in a puritanical and matriarchal-led household who wears big glasses, gets bullied around, and would rather make fun of the pretty teens (Kelly Preston in an early role) behind their backs than engage them as people removed from the latent frustration of knowing he has no shot of being romantically involved with them. So we know straightaway that Arnie isn’t some saint mixed up in a situation for which he has no control. This isn’t going to be some story about how the repressed virgin gets led astray on some path towards coolness before realizing the error of his way. No, Christine very intentionally lets its killer 1958 Plymouth Fury empower this kid to let the truth of his malignant nature out.
Screenwriter Bill Phillips allows this to occur by refashioning King’s origin (the car was possessed by the evil of its previous owner) to prove more abstract. Here the vehicle simply earns its violent intent from the moment it’s assembled on the factory line. A worker opens the hood only to have his hand slammed. Another sits in the driver’s seat and lets cigar ash jeopardize the upholstery before being suffocated to death inside. The car knows when someone isn’t worthy of its presence. And it knows when the person getting in is too headstrong to be manipulated by its muscular allure. Christine fosters the type of machismo a greaser like Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander) adopts on his own—that hardened façade of aggression. It amplifies that projected rage.
It therefore gives Arnie a voice within a world where he had none. Just look at how the owner (Robert Prosky‘s Will Darnell) of the cesspool of a garage he parks Christine in bullies him upon introduction. He takes one look at this scrawny kid and lays into him with the fury of an unearned superiority. But as soon as the beat-up car anyone else would have dismantled for scraps starts looking like the cherry version of its prime, Darnell lets Arnie into the fraternity. Christine becomes a sort of initiation fee letting him in the door to devolve into the cretinous misogynist he always was thanks to a hatred for his mother and resentment towards the cheerleaders who never looked his way. Arnie is awakened, not bewitched.
We experience the power of that entitlement through this film. The car becomes a metaphor for his privilege as a red-blooded American male who’s confident enough to exist of two worlds—that of the nerds with a brain able to win over Leigh (Alexandra Paul) and that of the jocks with an automobile able to turn heads his way. Whether or not he wields that privilege with his own two hands proves inconsequential. He doesn’t have to be behind the wheel to be guilty when Christine murders the “shitters” who do nothing but destroy the lives of “good, decent” people because he gave this Plymouth Fury life. He fostered it through vanity and ego to achieve what he desired without fully understanding the overarching consequences of those actions.
So it’s Arnie’s best friend Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell) who ultimately becomes the protagonist. This is the kid who genuinely lives in these dueling worlds with humility and compassion. He’s a football player fawned over by girls and guys alike who joins in the “locker room” talk as more “yes man” than ringleader. And he’s also the loyal friend who works to include Arnie instead of tossing him aside and defend his well-being instead of look on while doing nothing. Dennis is who Arnie aspires to be without the pent-up anger driving him forward. Where Arnie has a chip on his shoulder to achieve his transformation, Dennis merely adapted to the struggles of adolescence and found he could be more than one cliché above the next.
How the story handles this truth is sadly not great (shelving Dennis for half the movie before then letting romantic overtones enter the fray upon joining an under-developed and paper-thin Leigh to save their friend), but the commentary born from it is effective enough to succeed regardless. We need the parallel between Dennis and Arnie to understand their characters’ differing psychologies. This isn’t therefore a “fun” movie where we enjoy the rush that comes with a vehicular kill as villains cackle and heroes lament. Carpenter and Gordon’s treatment of Arnie’s rage is way too severe for all that. We conversely pity the boy’s devolution, knowing full well his fate isn’t destined to be one of happy endings. The murders aren’t vindication, but the by-product of toxic masculine pride.
The way they’re presented is pretty dark too. We may laugh when Moochie (Malcolm Danare) is cut in half because of the over-the-top screams, but seeing Christine inflict pain upon itself to get him suppresses them fast. It’s willing to destroy itself on this quest for vengeance because it believes itself to be righteous and immortal. It’s performing its homicidal cleansing as evidence of its message and mission, martyring itself to a cause it believes people are too afraid to admit they also possess. Change the inanimate object from car to AK-47 and you should be able to recognize how King’s vision is only made more terrifying in its prescience. Carpenter thought Christine lacked horror and supposedly took the “job” for money. I wonder what he thinks now.
Watched in conjunction with Season Six of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo by Josh Flanigan.