One of the Worst Stephen King Adaptations Still Offers Plenty of Pulpy Fun
Buckle your seatbelt.
In one of those bizarre twists of Hollywood synchronicity, 1983 gave us two Stephen King adaptations about typically innocuous possessions developing murderous tendencies. While Cujo transformed a cuddly St. Bernard into a rabid homicidal maniac, Christine turned a 1958 Plymouth Fury into a lean, mean killing machine. In another coincidence, both raked in $21 million at the domestic box office. But thanks to its impressive pedigree, and we’re not talking the canine kind, the latter has better stood the test of time.
Christine was the first (and still the only) time King’s words were transferred to the big screen by another horror titan: John Carpenter. The filmmaker had previously been lined up to direct the 1980 novel Firestarter, but following the disappointing response to his now-cult classic The Thing, he was ruthlessly replaced.
The behind-the-scenes drama perhaps explains why neither party appears to hold the crazed car movie in high regard. Carpenter admits he took the gig simply because he needed the work, and recently damned it with faint praise (“It’s not one of my favorites of mine, but that’s OK”). The famously outspoken King, meanwhile, has shamed it alongside The Shining on the list of adaptations he considers “sort of boring.”
Admittedly, Christine doesn’t live up to the expectations of what, on paper, looks like a match made in horror heaven. Unless you suffer from a severe case of motorphobia, it’s not remotely frightening. And despite an R-rating, it’s surprisingly bloodless, often cutting away when the automobile delivers its final blow.
It was always going to be tough to induce palpitations from such an absurd premise. Treat the film as a ballsy high school revenge movie instead and it’s a consistently fun ride, from the on-the-nose rock and roll needle drops (the squeamish assembly line sequence, for example, unfolds to George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ “Bad to the Bone”) to the inventive ways Christine repurposes its features as death traps.
In one of many changes from the book, the vehicle is essentially born evil rather than becoming possessed by its wicked future owner, and its macabre powers are made abundantly clear in the opening manufacturing scene, where one poor mechanic loses his hand, and another his life. Step forward 21 years to 1978, and the car has added said owner, his sister-in-law, and, most brutally, his five-year-old niece to its kill list. When bullied senior Arnie (Keith Gordon) picks up the now-rundown vehicle for just $250 and lovingly restores it at a local junkyard, it’s given the freedom to embark on a new reign of terror.
Christine subsequently picks off each and every one of Arnie’s tormentors, cleverly manipulating its frame to squeeze through an alleyway and crush Moochie (Malcolm Danare), and then in the film’s most visually spectacular scene, chasing down gang leader Buddy (William Ostrander) fully ablaze after blowing up a gas station. Its ultimate victim, though, is Arnie himself.
Arnie initially cuts a sympathetic figure, apart from when he’s salivating over new girl Leigh (Alexandra Paul) (“She looks smart but has the body of a slut,” he tells his jock best friend, in a line that’s aged worse than all the mullets). Yet as his beloved first set of wheels works its sinister magic, he develops an arrogance and aggression that makes him indistinguishable from Buddy and the rest of his pathetic cronies.
While Arnie’s climb up the high school ladder helps land him the most popular girl, he only has eyes for his inanimate pride and joy. Clearly intended to skewer America’s motoring culture and the way men will objectify and fetishize their cars, the former nerd soon forms an unshakable bond with the pile of metal. In the closest the film gets to a sex scene, he even drools over it like a sleazy strip club patron as it showcases its regenerative abilities to the sound of seductive jazz. This from a film slammed as “boring.”
Ultimately, Arnie’s obsessiveness leads to his death, and a painful one at that, thanks to a climactic battle between Christine and a bulldozer that leaves him with a shard of glass through his heart. Of course, you can’t keep a malevolent two-door red hardtop down for long, and despite being crushed into a cube, its twitching grille in the closing shot suggests it rose from the junkyard dead to wreak havoc once more.
The hinted-at sequel failed to materialize, although a Blumhouse remake has reportedly been in the works since 2021, with director Bryan Fuller promising a more layered Tiramisu to Carpenter’s cookie. He certainly has plenty of room to up the scares, but while King will no doubt disagree, he’ll find it tough to overtake the original’s full-throttle charms.