As culture becomes more fixated on nostalgia, we’re going to have to spend a lot of time reassessing what happened two or three decades ago. At the moment that means the Eighties, with everything from Stranger Things to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles drawing from The Me Decade. Comparing nostalgia for the eighties to the state of nostalgia during the eighties, though, reveals an interesting shift. Almost all current eighties throwbacks treat the decade with starry-eyed affection, with only queer cinema (Pride, Holding the Man) daring to suggest things might have gotten better since then. When films made in the 1980s looked back to the 1950s, on the other hand, they didn’t always like what they saw. On the one hand you have the innocent, nostalgic ’50s of Back to the Future, where returning to that decade is the key to solving the problems of the present. On the other, you have the first wave of films about the Civil Rights struggle, a counterweight to the idea of the Eisenhower era as utopian.
Then you have films like John Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine, reissued on a fine Blu-Ray restoration by Powerhouse Films’ new Indicator imprint. Christine is set in the ’80s, though you’d be forgiven for missing this. It begins with Buddy Holly on the soundtrack as the film’s title character – a vintage 1958 Plymouth Fury – rolls off the production line. The car is filmed so adoringly, you’d think David Cronenberg (then working on his own King adaptation, The Dead Zone) was behind the camera. Yet the film wrestles with the romantic idea of the 1950s. The final line spoken is “I hate rock and roll”, and that beautiful car gets vandalised as much as it’s fetishised.
Stephen King has a sweet tooth for stories about possessed machines, which tend to look ridiculous on screen; Tobe Hooper (The Mangler) and King himself (Maximum Overdrive) have come unstuck trying to realise them. To say Carpenter fares better shouldn’t be considered faint praise. He happily embraces the idea that the film is about the car, even to the extent of changing King’s explanation for its supernatural abilities. In the novel, Christine is possessed by the vengeful spirit of its former owner. In Carpenter’s version of the story, it’s just an evil car, with nothing other than its vaguely uncanny retro style to offer an explanation for its sentience.
The 1950s theme continues when the film’s heroes Arnie and Dennis, teenage misfits played by Keith Gordon and John Stockwell, go to school. Here Carpenter’s film resembles a kind of debased version of the sugar-sweet nostalgic sitcom Happy Days, right up to giving Arnie the surname Cunningham. There’s liberal use of the c-word (still an oddity outside British gangster films), thwarted lust for classmates (including future Baywatch star Alexandra Paul) and school bullies wielding switchblades. Arnie and Dennis are definitely way down the school’s pecking order, and the former is symbolically castrated when a bully knifes his packed lunch. The resulting spill of milk is foleyed with such repulsively gloopy sound effects, even a Scientologist would struggle to resist a Freudian reading.
Then, about forty minutes in, the car appears somewhere it shouldn’t, Carpenter’s famous synths kick in, and all the ground work starts paying off. Carpenter later admitted Christine was a job for hire for him after the commercial failure of his now-revered The Thing, noting that he didn’t find King’s novel scary. He claims not to have been concerned with scaring the audience in his film either, pointing to the early shot of a factory worker’s corpse falling out of Christine; if he’d wanted to make a horror film, he said, that body would have fell on someone.
Watch Christine as a horror film and it’s enjoyable but tame; watch it as an action movie with a way-out concept and it’s a blast. The violence is accented towards kineticism and suspense more than terror or gore, and the paranormal angle means Carpenter can include some stunts even the Fast and the Furious franchise would consider a bit outlandish. Donald M Morgan’s cinematography makes the car’s headlights blast through the night like floodlights, and there’s a reliably cool supporting performance by Harry Dean Stanton. Most of all, there’s the sheer joy Carpenter takes in smashing the car up, then having it rebuild itself. It does unavoidably recall the bodily distortions of The Thing, as though Carpenter realised that was too much for multiplex audiences and decided to replay his visual triumphs in bloodless metal instead. A little ghost in the machine, aptly enough.
Finally, let’s hope Indicator are starting as they mean to go on, if this is the kind of extras package they’re including. There are deleted scenes – a rare treat in a movie made before the DVD age – special features about the script, score and pre-production, and a full commentary with Gordon and the ever-entertaining Carpenter. For too long Christine has been the ugly duckling of Carpenter’s extraordinary 1980s run; it’s great to see someone give it the respect it deserves. A quick paint-job and it’s as road-worthy as it ever was.