Christine(Twilight Time Blu-ray)

Directors - John Carpenter

Cast - Keith Gordon, John Stockwell

Country of Origin - U.S.

Discs - 1

Distributor - Twilight Time

Reviewer - Bobby Morgan

Date 07/09/2013

The Film: 5/5

 

A new school year has begun but for Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon), a sweet but awkward social outcast, things are the same as ever. Girls ignore him, his parents treat him like a child, and a gang of bullies led by the hateful Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander) terrorize him mercilessly. His only friend is Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell), a handsome and popular jock who has everything in life that Arnie doesn't. One day during the drive home from school Arnie spots a beat-up red 1958 Plymouth Fury for sale. The cantankerous owner George LeBay (Roberts Blossom) offers to part with the automobile for $250, a price the smitten Arnie gladly pays despite Dennis' protests. When his parents refuse to let him park the Fury, which carries the nickname "Christine", at their home Arnie is forced to store it at a garage and salvage yard owned by the eternally grouchy Will Darnell (Robert Prosky). Arnie begins spending all his spare time at Darnell's fixing up and restoring the car to its original pristine beauty, and as the car changes so does he. Arnie becomes less geeky and more self-assured and even starts dating Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul), a beautiful new transfer student, much to everyone's surprise - especially Dennis'. But Arnie's one true love in life remains Christine and anyone who dares to come between him and "her" find out the hard way that this particular car isn't fueled by gasoline but by a malevolent force that plagued its previous owner to his death. Dennis and Leigh must risk everything to save Arnie's life and soul from that same dark destiny, but they may already be too late.

 

A film adaptation of Stephen King's 1983 novel Christine - published a mere eight months before the release of the movie - came into the life of John Carpenter just as it looked like his career as a director of energized, classical action, sci-fi, and horror films was kaput in Hollywood. The Thing had been released in the crowded summer of 1982 that had been dominated at the box office by the likes of E.T. and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and performed far below the expectations of its studio Universal Pictures. On top of that audiences that casually dismissed the critical crotch stomping the movie had been receiving since its debut were less than impressed by the oppressive atmosphere, unsettling visual effects, and ambiguous ending that later helped endear The Thing to future generations of fans via cable television, VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray viewings of the movie.

 

In their irrational fury Universal dismissed Carpenter from his next project for the studio: Firestarter, an adaptation of a Stephen King book ironically enough, and one that would be brought to the screen the year after Christine was released to even less admiration than The Thing, if such a thing could be believed at the time. Carpenter took on the job of making King's terror tale of the tragic head-on collision between teenage obsession, "gearhead" culture, and the soul consuming for personal satisfaction at the cost of the lives of all else. The latter element has its roots in Alexandre Dumas' literary classic The Man in the Iron Mask and stories about besieged youth trying to maintain their sanity as the walls protecting them from the pains of adolescence are nothing new either if you've ever watched the likes of Rebel Without a Cause or even Massacre at Central High. The universal themes of Stephen King's Christine were just ripe for the big screen treatment, and whether he chooses to admit it or not John Carpenter was the perfect man for the job.

 

John Carpenter built his career on his ability to deliver top-notch entertainment that stood out from the majority of the genre ilk and would remain beloved classics to this day. He started out with the caustic sci-fi satire Dark Star, graduated to the tense actioner Assault on Precinct 13, cemented his reputation with the indie horror blockbuster - and slasher movie forerunner - Halloween, and banked on his newfound clout in the film industry to make smash hits out of the moody ghost story The Fog and the post-apocalyptic race against time Escape from New York. I just named five good reasons why Carpenter is not only one of the best genre filmmakers there ever was, but also why he is one of my absolute favorite directors of all time. Now here's a sixth: The Thing may have nearly ruined the man's career but it has survived the decades to become a certifiable cult classic and one of the most terrifying films ever made. Christine would be reason number seven. In a way it was a divine providence that this particular project came along when it did. With a budget slightly lower than what he had to work with on his previous film and a narrative that was honestly dense for a story of this type, Carpenter was able to transcend the expectations of the genre and deliver a film that eschewed shock horror for a more subtle form of putting the frights in his thrill-hungry audience. It was also a film that featured the most three-dimensional characters in a Carpenter feature since Dark Star, as opposed to the fleshed-out archetypes that populated his more beloved films.

 

At its core Christine is a story of a kid and his car. Many of us remember fondly the highs and lows that came with buying our first car - the joy of looking at that fine machine and realizing its all yours, the consternation of taking the car for its first inspection and getting the pricey estimate and....realizing its all yours. Good times, eh? But some people take the love of their cars far beyond its logical zenith to the point where that love becomes the all-consuming focus of their lives. In King's original novel the titular killer car was possessed by the vengeful spirit of its previous owner, who also materializes as a spectral presence in the back seat to talk to and encourage the car's new owner Arnie to become the literal vehicle of vengeance against those who did him wrong. Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Phillips removed that aspect of the story and made the dark force that powers Christine an unknown entity, just like the faceless evil that dwelled beneath the cold blue mask of Halloween's iconic invincible psychopath Michael Myers. As we see in a 50's-set prologue (scored with the early 80's FM rock radio smash "Bad to the Bone" by George Thorogood and the Destroyers) the car is pure supernatural malevolence from the moment it comes off the assembly line.

 

Those of us who were social misfits in their youth can certainly relate to the plight of Arnie Cunningham. I know I could. Even though by the end of the movie he has irrevocably embraced the evil and savagery that also overcame Christine's previous owner, Arnie still comes off as a sympathetic character whose actions you can understand if not endorse. Then again, maybe you could - this is after all just a movie and the characters who ended up road pizza stuck in Christine's tires or worse were not exactly the most and loving of human beings. We are talking about a satisfying revenge story with overtones of the fantastic here. In the hands of a lesser action Arnie could have come across as a whiny, pathetic nerd who almost begs to be humiliated constantly, but it is to actor Keith Gordon's credit that even as Arnie is hell bent for death to all those who would come between Christine and him you never really stop liking him completely. Gordon's performance is a very soulful one that handily embodies the fear, loneliness, and longing of the character without becoming his defining traits. When Christine begins to take him over Arnie's entire attitude changes but Gordon goes whole hog with his newfound sense of liberation. It's one of the finest performances in a John Carpenter movie.

 

His co-star John Stockwell, another actor who scored a lot of big roles in mostly forgettable films throughout the 1980's before retiring from the profession and becoming a director, matches Gordon's performance with his own skillful turn as Arnie's lifelong best friend Dennis. Stockwell doesn't get the opportunities bestowed upon Gordon to fully test the limits of his acting range, but he still delivers a haunting and credible performance and makes Dennis a true friend who tries to help Arnie any way he can before finally realizing that his pal may be beyond salvation. Alexandra Paul's performance starts off decent but grows as the film progresses and her character takes on vital importance to the plot proceedings. She makes a fine love interest and thankfully never becomes a damsel in distress. Robert Prosky, in what was at the time only his fifth feature film role, is a real hoot as the garage and junkyard owner Darnell. Looking like he uses his jowls as makeshift chaw tobacco pouches, Prosky plays the lovable cuss as the kind of cantankerous old bastard who Archie Bunker would cross the street to avoid. Harry Dean Stanton arrives late in the game but still makes a valuable impression as the wily detective Junkins, a man who is always two steps ahead of everyone else while never letting on. Roberts Blossom of Deranged and Close Encounters of the Third Man looks like he crawled right out of the ninth circle of Hell and immediately asked for a cigarette and plays his character accordingly. William Ostrander, Malcolm Danare, Steven Tash, and Stu Charno all make wonderfully hateful bullies whose inevitable demises are bound to elicit cheers.

 

Though Carpenter's usual cinematographer Dean Cundey was unavailable at the time, Donald M. Morgan does a hell of a job filming Christine. His own style of shooting seems well suited for a Carpenter as he knows how to frame a beautiful scene and take full advantage of the widescreen picture. His visuals are clean and look fantastic, especially on this HD transfer. Carpenter once again composed his own music score and though this efforts here are not as instantly memorable as his compositions for Halloween and Escape from New York the Christine score is eerie, minimalist, and at times honestly emotional. It compliments the on-screen proceedings without competing with or overwhelming them, which is just what a movie like this needs.

 

Audio/Video: 5/5

 

For its debut on Blu-ray Christine has been given a high-definition 1080p transfer and is presented in its original 2.35:1 theatrical widescreen aspect ratio. Carpenter shot most of his movies in 2.35:1 to take full advantage of the anamorphic 35mm Panavision frame. The transfer for Christine is one of Twilight Time's finest to date, but given that it is also one of their few catalog titles that does not predate the Nixon administration it does not seem all that surprising that they had better film elements to work with here. If there was a modern director whose movies were just born for Blu-ray it must be John Carpenter. While Christine is one of the least visually extravagant movies Carpenter ever directed it still remains a beautiful movie to look at with rich colors and details enhanced by the upgraded picture quality. Certain shots have an pastoral elegance about them that recalls Terrence Malick at times. Suburban scenery retains their lushness, the rain-soaked city streets shimmer under the menacing moonlight, and Carpenter's lens flares are less intrusive and thus much more amazing to behold than J.J. Abrams'. Plus Christine "herself" has never looked more eerily attractive.

 

Christine has always looked great in its various home video incarnations, but the lack of a strong sound mix has kept any one of those previous releases from seeming essential. Until now. Twilight Time has provided the movie with an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that is absolutely amazing. Seriously, the movie has likely not sounded this good since its theatrical release. With its minimalist score by Carpenter, soundtrack peppered with hit songs from the 50's through the late 70's, quotable vulgar dialogue, and a highly detailed sound effects mix, Christine has long begged for an audio channel to do it justice. The 5.1 track really knocks it out of the park. The Fury's engine roars like the monster straight outta Hell it is, the onslaught of metal crunching against metal and bone is given an almost operatic boost, and the rest of the audio elements are nicely balanced out so that the music and dialogue are never overwhelmed by the other and volume adjustments between the quieter scenes and the action set pieces are rarely necessary. English subtitles are also included.

 

Extras: 4/5

 

The only extra feature exclusive to this Blu-ray is Twilight Time’s customary isolated score track in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Carpenter’s original music sounds practically MP3 quality here with perfect clarity and zero distortion. The rest of the supplements were ported over from Sony’s 2004 Special Edition DVD, starting off with an audio commentary featuring Carpenter and actor Keith Gordon. The track is a very amiable affair with the director and his star - now a director in his own right - sharing their memories of making Christine and exchanging stories and ideas regarding their own filmmaking adventures. Carpenter always gives good commentaries but he is even better when he has another person in the booth to bounce off. Though his track with Gordon doesn’t scale the entertaining heights of his various commentaries with Kurt Russell or his They Live track with Roddy Piper it still serves to be an engaging and informative listen.

 

Also making a return appearance are twenty deleted scenes (26 minutes) of workprint quality. Most of the cut footage is little more than minor extensions of scenes that are already in the movie but there are a few interesting beats scattered throughout. Plus by watching this montage of footage left on the cutting room floor you get an insight into Carpenter’s sparse but effective editing style.

 

Closing things out is a retrospective documentary from 2004 featuring interviews with Carpenter, Gordon, co-stars John Stockwell and Alexandra Paul, producer Richard Kobritz, screenwriter Bill Phillips, and stunt coordinator Terry Leonard. This feature is divided up into three parts: “Ignition” (12 minutes) covers the inception of the project and the casting of the key roles; “Fast and Furious” (29 minutes) focuses on the physical production of Christine, from working with the actors to better shape their characters and performances to executing the difficult and occasionally dangerous auto stunts; and finally, “Finish Line” (7 minutes) breaks down the release and reception of the final film. Between this documentary and the commentary track you learn practically everything you have ever wanted about this movie but were afraid to ask.

 

Twilight Time has also included an insert booklet of liner notes written by Julie Kirgo.

 

Overall: 4/5

 

Despite its current unavailability - Twilight Time's limited edition run of 3000 copies all sold out - I highly recommend the Christine Blu-ray. A sorely neglected entry on John Carpenter's directing resume that values the careful development of characters and relationships over pyrotechnic action sequences, though there are plenty of those to keep viewers more than satisfied, looks and sounds better than ever before in high definition with a host of fantastic and informative supplements carried over from a previous DVD release. Please excuse me for saying this, but the Christine Blu is truly bad to the bone.