BUTCH: You ever ridden in a time machine before?
Philip shakes his head.
BUTCH: Well, sure you have. What do you think this is?
PHILIP: A car.
BUTCH: Yer lookin’ at this thing bassackwards. This is a 20th-century time machine. I’m the captain and you’re the navigator.
Butch points forward through the dash.
BUTCH: Out there…that’s the future.
Butch taps on the rearview mirror.
BUTCH: And back there…well, that’s the past. If life’s moving too slow and you wanna project yerself into the future? You step on the gas right here. See?
He does so and the Impala surges forward.
BUTCH: And if you want to slow ‘er down. Well hell, you just step on the brake here, and you slow ‘er down.
Butch brings the car to a complete and dusty stop.
BUTCH: This is the present, Philip. Enjoy it while it lasts.
—John Lee Hancock, A Perfect World (1993)
“Here inside I like the metal / Don’t you?”
—Gary Numan, “Metal”
Time is a kind of beast—some broadbacked and inexhaustible thing, snorting and strong, a beast of burden carrying for us the innumerable weights of our memories past and hopes future, those two oppositionally crushing pressures that wedge us forever into a constant present in which we yearn for one or lament the other, in either order.
And the beast never allows us to let either of those motherfucking things go.
In John Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s haunted-car novel Christine, the road to hell is paved not with good intentions, but with time—our desire to control it, and its power to control us instead. We see it in the film’s most horrifying, heartbreaking scene: not when the titular 1958 Plymouth Fury, its sleek body lapped with fire, hurtles out from an exploding gas station to run down local bully Buddy Reperton (William Ostrander); not when Christine roars out of alleyway darkness to split teen hood Moochie Welch’s (Malcolm Danare) body in half; not when Christine, having earlier been demolished by the two dirtbags above, demonically, seductively reconstitutes herself within seconds to display her mastery over time itself to her teenage driver Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon); rather, we see it during a quieter moment very late in the film, a sequence rarely folded into the highlight reel of Christine’s pop iconography.
“Let me tell you a little something about love, Dennis,” Arnie sneers to his passenger and former best friend (John Stockwell). The scene is dark, cocoon-like, as Arnie and Dennis speed recklessly along the blackness of the highways that tangle around their small town in the late, late hours of New Year’s Eve, 1978—the night that time runs out for the calendar, the night in which one reflects on what has passed and what is past, and what has been lost or gained in the last 365 days and nights. Dennis squirms in agony, recognizing that his best friend has been twisted into something cruel and hateful over the last several months. Arnie froths as he downs can after can of beer, bitterly decrying all the things that have gone wrong in the last year and how in the future those who wrong him shall pay. Christine alternately purrs and growls forward, waves of light rolling over her sensuously unique paint job (“Autumn Red”—even her color is timebound, named for a season that with its beauty distracts us from endings to come) as her tires roll over the nightblack asphalt that leads somewhere, anywhere, nowhere. The green-hued odometer clicks steadily, maddeningly forward (in the book it rolls backwards, subtext becoming text). Arnie, half-crazed and tortured, thinks he’s talking about his love for Christine and hers for him, but instead reveals that his relationship with Christine metaphors the obsessive, destructive relationship with time.
“Let me tell you a little something above love, Dennis. It has a voracious appetite. It eats everything—friendship, family. It kills me how much it eats. But I’ll tell you something else: you feed it right, and it can be a beautiful thing, and that’s what we have.”
Dennis quietly weeps in the passenger seat.
Arnie, decked in his red suede jacket and black jeans and pompadour like a twisted James Dean (who, just as Arnie soon will, died a vicious and violent death in a car), looks back over his shoulder and screams at the cars who pass.
Christine pushes forward into the dark.
The night, like the wetslick and iridescent road, continues onward, as time cruelly does.
It’s not a flashily choreographed moment made for a film trailer, or a standout sequence of cinethrill terror. But it is a scene that contains and comments upon so much of Christine’s—and Christine’s—horror. With one frightened boy rooted in the present and riding shotgun inside a vehicle of time itself, another boy screaming behind the wheel and thinking he’s in control of his future while clueless to the fact that he’s regressing into the past, a rumbling, metal version of the beast throws them dangerously fast into the unknown future that awaits them.
In John Carpenter’s Christine, the road to hell is time.
The first 45 minutes of Carpenter’s adaptation of King’s novel isn’t a horror film as we generally accept the term, or in how we apply the taxonomy to the other unnervingly moody creepscape chiaroscuros that form the bulk of Carpenter’s ruefully smirking, synth ‘n’ dread-soaked filmography. Rather, the first near-hour of Christine surprisingly traverses time as a kind of missing link, a shock-absorbing suspension system of teen agonies that binds and aligns the midcentury adult hangout films of Carpenter inspiration Howard Hawks to the high school hangs of later flicks like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, a first hour all acne’d and dented with the daily horrors not of the supernatural sort but instead the crucibled, hormonal hell of highschooldom and the last engine-sputtering days of teenhood.
The film’s second half, though, redlines through a series of hairpin murder setpieces, a visually sumptuous accretion of vehicular stalk ‘n’ slash mileage that erupts forth from Arnie Cunningham’s psychosexual turmoil like a pinched volcanic blemish or pressure-blown radiator hose, a corrosive wash of gnashing, gear-grinding angst that cascades over Christine’s back end in time to the revving, increasingly throbbing synthesizer pulse of Carpenter and co-composer Alan Howarth’s chrome-cold score.
It’s a by-necessity structural schism, a front-seat/back-seat dichotomy that mirrors Christine-the-novel as well as the typical structure of King’s at-times rangy but ravenously readable works overall—books in which so much ink is dedicated in the first half to ensuring we fall for and care about the characters (and their day-to-day dramas) who will be terrorized in the second half—but it’s a rather odd storytelling arrangement for a film. It works (and works phenomenally well, so astoundingly that Christine is the underrated jewel in an oeuvre in which all but a few movies vie for that title) for two reasons: the first being that Christine-the-film reaches back in time to build itself upon the chassis of an earlier, extremely successful Carpenter film with a similar structure; the second—and most important—is that these two halves of Christine-the-film are not disparate or disconnected at all, but are instead shot through by the thematic and character obsession with the subject of time. Throughout beginning, middle, and end, the film is cat’s-cradled together by characters who are desperately reaching backwards and forwards for the past, for the future, for the present, scrambling atop and fighting and killing one another to grasp whichever time period that promises them salvation, with each character’s reach acting as a binding that holds the whole thing together like the twine straining to keep a rust-shod muffler from hurtling itself out the bottom of a teenager’s first beater set of wheels.
It’s a design—structural, thematic, obsessional—that hardtops the film with an irony that’s been easy to miss in its 40 years of life. Having drifted into a fog of blithe critical dismissal, the film has long been regarded as midlevel-at-best Carpenter, a coolly impersonal hired-gun gig and a crassly commercial King adaptation in a market saturated with them (cinematic takes on Cujo, The Dead Zone, Children of the Corn, and Firestarter would all be released within a year of Christine) that’s short on scares and the expected aesthetic flourishes Carpenter is known for. The irony is that, when viewed with high beams on, Christine reveals itself to be a pained and painful meditation on time lost and time looming, a visually beautiful film that mostly mutes the expected genre thrills and instead unexpectedly cruises deep into the heartache and horror of aging and change, of time’s unstoppable drive forward.
Before Christine even begins its popcorn-film meditation on the nature and power of time, its creators were exploring and playing tricks with the subject. Carpenter has made no secret that, following the baffling failure of The Thing to win over audiences or critics in 1982 (some 40 years into the future, the film is now viewed as a seminal classic of horror filmmaking), he rather desperately needed a job (and hopefully a hit) and viewed Christine as just a job rather than a personal project. That said, even a cursory glance at Christine’s hard, shining body reveals that screenwriter Bill Phillips—looking to translate King’s long, mysterious novel into a typically lean and mean Carpenter thriller—consciously or unconsciously reversed into Carpenter’s past, and built Christine atop the extraordinarily successful form of Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece, Halloween.
Halloween takes place in the “present” of 1978, but begins with a reach back into the past, a prologue well over a decade earlier in which a never-explained evil (in the unassuming form of a child) takes its first two victims. The film then gearshifts forward into 1978, in which we meet, cruising in cars, the characters who will face the evil when it returns. The next 45 minutes or so of Halloween track its teen and adult characters—who never seem to truly exist in the same world together, or see eye-to-eye with one another from their vantages across age and time—as their personal dramas unfold across a bland, middle-class suburbia (actually: Pasadena, California), all while a menacing evil force winds between them in a speeding car.
Christine takes place in the “present” of “1978,” but begins with a reach back into the past, a prologue well over a decade earlier in which a never-explained evil (in the unassuming form of a car) takes its first two victims. The film then gearshifts forward into 1978, in which we meet, cruising in cars, the characters who will face the evil when it returns. The next 45 minutes or so of Christine track its teen and adult characters—who never seem to truly exist in the same world together, or see eye-to-eye with one another from their vantages across age and time—as their personal dramas unfold across a bland, middle-class suburbia (actually: Pasadena, California, with Carpenter returning to his Halloween stomping grounds), all while a menacing evil force winds between them in a speeding car.
Christine rolls back in time, using the frame of Halloween to roar forward in a new direction. On that road, we meet Arnie and Dennis, the nerd and the jock, best friends since childhood and beginning their last year of high school together as the summer of 1978 comes to an end: football star Dennis rolling into the Cunningham driveway to pick Arnie up in his badass—if aging—‘68 Dodge Charger, while the sweet and gentle Arnie, all glasses and clumsy missteps and scrawny body, accidentally soaks himself in rain puddles, spills a bag of trash, and nearly forgets his lunch, all while being henpecked by his mother, Regina (Christine Belford) on the way to Dennis’s ride. We see the car from her POV, nestled in the shadows of a massive treeline, and it seems less a car than the black silhouette of some dangerous killer, calling to mind Halloween’s Michael Myers lurking behind bushes more than a teenager’s cool-ass car. To Regina, cars and kids equal death, but not for the teens. It’s a rumbling reminder that Arnie is aging into adulthood, a time that will, eventually, signify her death. It’s something Arnie suspects, noting how Regina selects his classes for him, and even refuses to allow him to use adult words like “fellatio” to win at Scrabble (thematically, even Arnie’s name leaves him perpetually broken-down by the side of the past—“Cunningham” is the main family’s surname in the TV series that literally denotes his mother’s generation’s past as Happy Days, a show in which all the teens hang at a diner called “Arnold’s”). Regina has seatbelted Arnie to the past, to his childhood, in her own need to stave off the future that holds her death.
Meanwhile, Dennis, the contented everyman trailed by girls and secure with his own ride, happily glides through the present as easily as he does the halls of Rockbridge High School, where everyone else seems rooted in misery. The other boys of the school are all busy aping (ape-like) the myths of manhood from the 1950s generation—scoring “pussy” and cars is top priority, with no discussion of anything else; the boys often describing them as one and the same (the phrase “she looks smart, but she’s got the body of a slut” uttered early on that first day could just as easily describe Christine’s arcing fins and outsized curves as it does the school’s new It Girl, Leigh [Alexandra Paul]), with the acquisition of both sex and wheels like the tumblers in some cosmic key into adulthood. Arnie has neither a car nor a girlfriend, and is thus a child even to those in his own age group, like thugs Buddy and Moochie, who make his life even more hellish at school than it is at home.
Lured by an invisible call that’s at first sadly sweet (“Maybe it’s just that for the first time in my life, I’ve found something uglier than me,” Arnie later confesses to Dennis) but then gradually reveals itself to be something supernaturally awful, something sensing Arnie’s need to master time, it’s love at first sight when he finds the rotting wreck of Christine for sale by the side of the road. Trunk wedged open, fenders hanging low and curved like numb lips, her paint dulled to the pinkish hue of bloody spit, Christine is a ruin from another time. Arnie senses a partner both vehicular and sexual (“Just about the finest smell in the world, except maybe for pussy,” her soon-to-be-former owner George LeBay [Roberts Blossom] muses about Christine’s once-potent “new car smell,” the film again forging a union between sex and cars that acts as a vehicle to the future that is adulthood) who can make him strong enough to no longer idle in the present. Who can rebuild him as he would rebuild her, each acting as the other’s beast of burden.
As Arnie spends months at Darnell’s Auto Wrecking gloriously restoring Christine to her 1958 majesty, reconstructing the past one part and piece at a time, Christine soups up Arnie—his confidence begins to overflow, his voice deepens, and his awkward glasses disappear. And most importantly, he begins wrenching the steering wheel of his life from his mother, a bitter and emotionally violent fight for time as Arnie tries to steer his life into the future while his mother keeps whiplashing it towards the past, both of them nastily feuding as if their lives depended on the outcome, which, inevitably, they do. This simmering tension in the tug-of-war over time in Christine’s first hour snaps with a brutal collision of past and future in the present, but not for Regina, nor for Arnie, nor for Christine. Rather, it happens for that everyman of the present, Dennis. And it happens not on a road, or in a car, but on a football field.
The other of the film’s unsung setpieces, there is a hazy sadness to the afternoon football game at Rockbridge High School, the camera coolly gliding alongside the field with the dreamy pace of a melancholy memory one cannot forget no matter how hard they try. The football field is surrounded by the older-model cars of Rockbridge students—it’s a middle-class town, and none of these kids can afford a car outside of their parents’ generation, the past once again refusing to relinquish its grip on these children. Elsewhere, the mascots of the Rockbridge “Indians”—white kids dressed as racist 1950s movie versions of Native American chiefs—whoop and holler from the sidelines, another vision from the previous generation’s youth, the past constantly threatening to swallow these teens whole. Until the past itself—quite literally—shows up.
As Dennis charges down the football field to make a touchdown, time slows as a red fury (and Fury) materializes just beyond the goalposts—Christine. She quietly rolls up to the edge of the field to park, with Arnie getting out of the driver’s side, looking more…more adult than Dennis has ever seen. His best friend, whom he has seen less and less of this year, lets the beautiful Leigh out of the passenger side, and the two passionately kiss. In one devastating second, Dennis sees his entire past—his friendship with Arnie, in which they felt as if they were the only two people in the world—dissolve, as Arnie has moved on with Leigh…and with Christine. Distracted, Dennis doesn’t see members of the opposing team hurl their bodies at him, snapping and breaking multiple bones in his legs, leaving him permanently unable to play football again—effectively destroying the future of college ball he had envisioned for himself.
It’s a collision—literal, metaphorical—that leaves Dennis trapped only in the present. His past gone, his future wiped clean, he spends most of the rest of this story in a hospital as Arnie and time move on without him. Indeed, the film, and Arnie, will only check in on Dennis intermittently, around the holidays, curiously skipping Halloween and going straight to Thanksgiving—a holiday celebrating an unreal, wished-for vision of the past. During one such visit, Arnie lays out for Dennis why he’s forced to side with Christine over his parents, especially his mother, with a sad, solemn confession of a man selling his soul to survive:
“They just don’t want me to grow up. Then they’d have to face getting old…Has it ever occurred to you that part of being a parent is trying to kill your kids?”
Halloween’s final hour is an onslaught of absolute dread fully realized, transitioning from a garagehouse building up teenage hopes and anxieties into a slaughterhouse of their lives and futures as the unexplained killer force from the past massacres as many of them as it can, before finally being defeated…only to hint at a possible supernatural survival just before the credits roll.
Christine’s final hour is an onslaught of absolute dread fully realized, transitioning from a garagehouse building up teenage hopes and anxieties into a slaughterhouse of their lives and futures as the unexplained killer force from the past massacres as many of them as it can, before finally being defeated…only to hint at a possible supernatural survival just before the credits roll.
In King’s novel, Dennis learns that Christine’s previous owner—a hateful, evil man named Roland LeBay (George’s brother)—sacrificed his wife and daughter to the car he loved, infusing her with a kind of malevolent sentience while also guaranteeing himself a literal vehicle to house his spirit after his death. Roland frequently possesses Arnie’s body, controlling his actions and focusing his hatred, while also murderously driving Christine and killing Arnie’s enemies when Arnie is away.
The film, however, streamlines and eliminates most of this, as Carpenter found the idea of a rotting ghost chauffeur to be distasteful and silly (for the record, Christine-the-novel is rather terrifying and sad, a vehicular analogue to King’s similarly disquieting and depressing The Shining). Instead, Christine in the film is simply, inherently, elementally evil; like the blankfaced and whitewashed mask of Michael Myers, Christine is emptied of meaning, and can thus be projected upon with that which scares us. And what scares the characters of Christine-the-film is time.
And in the second half of Christine, time comes for everyone.
After the local bullies demolish Christine (once again merging sex with cars, the film’s musical score denotes this sequence as “The Rape”) in order to punish Arnie for, well, existing, she begins to slowly slaughter her way through the group and anyone else who stands in her way. Much as time acts as a beast of burden for us, carrying our hopes and dreams and pains and regrets, so too does Christine carry those for Arnie. But, like time, she ravages Arnie as well, draining him of the sweetness and soul that made us care so deeply for him in the first half of the film, regressing him into a violent, 1950s greaser hood. It’s a sad, pathetic irony—as Christine murders Arnie’s enemies (including, at one point, stalking Buddy Repperton while “Beast of Burden” literally plays on his car radio), clearing what he thinks is a path to his future, he falls further and further into the past. Because the more Arnie dwells on the slights, regrets, and pain in his rearview mirror, the more impossible it becomes for him to drive away from them. That is time’s simple, brutal secret, and it is the venom that acts as gasoline within Christine’s cold metal heart.
It costs Arnie everything: as he alienates his family and Leigh and Dennis, more and more becoming like some hateful teenage version of LeBay (even Christine, it seems, is hypnotized by nostalgia, slowly transmuting Arnie into her former driver/lover), he shifts into the lonely monster we see on that long New Year’s Eve drive with Dennis, paving his way to hell because of his obsession with time—the pain it holds in his past, the promise he hopes it holds for his future, the hate it festers in his present—muttering how it kills him, how much the beast can eat. And then it does, truly, kill him.
Dennis, impaired by his accident but recognizing that Christine will eventually, jealously come for Leigh and himself, challenges Christine to a duel. In a sequence that would be outright ludicrous in nearly any other director’s hands, Dennis squares off with Christine inside the cavernous Darnell’s Auto Wrecking garage, using Leigh as bait and a bulldozer as a battering ram for a crunching and pitiless series of collisions that Christine continually regenerates from—as if, like time, she cannot be slowed down or stopped no matter how hard we try. At one point, during a particularly nasty crash, Dennis and Leigh are shocked when Arnie—his eyes hollowed to burned out and blackened sockets, his face twisted with sadness—flies out of Christine’s windshield and is skewered upon her own glass. He had finally joined Christine on a murder run to erase the sorrow and hurt of his past, and was instead impaled upon it. His sad final act is to stroke the feminized and sensuous “V” that emblazons Christine’s grill with his bloodied and broken fingers as his time, everything he ever was and everything he ever could have been, pours and pools out of his wound and onto the floor, mixing with motor oil and concrete.
Furious, and now, like Arnie, unable to see beyond that fury and what caused it, Christine roars after Leigh, her hood torn so jagged as to resemble a fanged and hungry mouth. But, like Arnie, her pursuit is what undoes her—so focused on punishing Leigh for distracting her (and Arnie), Christine fails to see the bulldozer on her tail, fails to see Dennis plunge the thick metal blades of the bulldozer’s bucket into her body, twisting and gouging the metal into smoking ruin as Christine still drags herself across the dirty concrete, unable to focus on anything but Leigh, anything but the past in which she was hurt…and that’s when the bulldozer runs roughshod on top of her, crushing Christine, as the rock ‘n’ roll radio station (an oldies station, of course—like so many listeners, Christine’s ears are always tuned to the past) finally dissolves into a static scream and then—silence. Another victim of time’s deadly fucking secret.
Later, Christine is seen being crushed into a metal rectangle, a harmless piece of scrap to be tossed in the scrap yard. And yet, there is a moment—like Michael Myers disappearing just after being mortally shot at the end of Halloween—in which something inside the metal rectangle begins to groan, and then shift. One could dismiss it as a simple, Carpenter-styled stinger (as Carpenter, who tours playing his musical scores, likes to say before his closing song, “Christine Attacks [Plymouth Fury]”: “There’s only one thing I want to leave you with: please, please drive carefully going home. Christine is out there”), everything we have just seen in the film before this moment indicates that it is so, so much more.
Like a memory one can’t shake, a regret one just can’t forget, the fury of Christine—the fury of time—burns on.