Film: Christine (1983)
Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: Stephen King (story)
Starring: Keith Gordon as Arnie Cunningham
John Stockwell as Dennis Guilder
Alexandra Paul as Leigh Cabot
By Shelley Stillo
Pre-screening memories: The first novel I remember reading for fun was by Stephen King. It was Cujo and I picked it up from around the house after my mother had finished reading it. I was intrigued by the cover: a snarling snout with teeth bared emerging from a dull beige background. I was nine, I was terrified, and I loved every minute of it. In these post-PMRC days, when parental warnings air even before shows on the Family Channel, some Natsukashi-readers might be horrified by the idea of an elementary school student reading Stephen King novels cover to cover, one after the other (or, given that you’re a fan of this site, maybe you aren’t!).
There was strong violence, horrific imagery, indecent language, and a surprising amount of sex (I’m still a little bit traumatized by the pre-pubescent gang bang in It). But this was the 80s, and King was, well, king. It seemed that every novel he published was more acclaimed and more successful than the last. And far from corrupting my youth or warping my psychology, being a pre-teen King fan gave me entrée in the adult world. It was something I could talk about with my family and my parents’ friends.
My mother was a King fan (this was how I gained access to all of those novels—they were just there), my uncle was a King fan. For the first time, I had something in common with adults. We could talk about King novels on something like equal ground. I felt like I had knowledge and authority about a subject for the first time. It is likely significant that this equality was achieved through literature; I am sure it is no accident that I am an English professor today, even though some of my peers might balk at applying the “L” word to King.
Some of my earliest cinematic memories are thanks to King as well. Despite the appellation of the label “misogynist” to the horror genre, King often wrote about strong female characters a young woman, especially one who didn’t quite “fit in” could identify with. There was the intensely sad, yet satisfying, prom scene in Carrie, there was little Drew Barrymore, just about my own age at the time, in Firestarter. Amidst this mini-King storm of my childhood was Christine, a novel and a film in which the strong female character is imagined with a hemi-sized twist: “she” is a car, and one hell of a car. I really don’t remember the particulars of my first viewing of Christine. It was just a part of my “King phase,” and the details have blurred together with all the other King films I saw around the same time. I wouldn’t be surprised if, at that age, I preferred Maximum Overdrive to Christine: the evil car in that film was almost cartoon-like, which I am sure would appeal to children more than the Detroit muscle car beauty of Christine. Besides, I was going through a bit of an Emilio Estevez phase back then as well, so I am sure his presence in Maximum Overdrive appealed to me on a completely different level.
New memories: In some ways, Christine is the male version of Carrie. The nerdy, effeminate, and consistently bullied Arnie (Stuart Gordon) undergoes a transformation as a result of his relationship with Christine that allows him to become the coolest guy in school, to get the girl, and to avenge his enemies, but all of this comes at a tremendous cost. Christine is a possessive lover, and she makes it difficult for Arnie to take full advantage of his new-found popularity by killing anyone who garners even the slightest of Arnie‘s time and affection.
I’ve been reading a lot of Poe and Hawthorne lately, so the first thing that struck me as I re-viewed this film for the first time in 20 years was how frequently male anxiety is displaced onto the female body in the Gothic genre. In Poe and Hawthorne, men grapple with scientific advances, with male competition in the workplace, and with their own psychology in the presence of dead and dying women. In Christine, Arnie and best friend, popular jock Dennis (John Stockwell) grapple with their emerging sexualities, their position in the intense social hierarchy of high school, and male competition through their highly charged relationship to a feminized automobile. In a way, the character of Christine turns this male-centered Gothic trope on its head. In one sense, it is very traditional—the female, sexualized body, Christine, serves as a sort of lynch pin for male anxiety.
From another perspective though, Christine is a highly ironic feminized symbol, being that cars, especially sexy cars like the stingray, have long been associated with male sexual and social identities. King is able to parody the Gothic’s use of femininity and America’s “masculine” obsession with the automobile in one character. This parody troubles the typical 80s high school stereotypes in the film. As a friend of mine pointed out to me (Christianne from http://krelllabs.blogspot.com/), Arnie and Dennis look like traditional types initially, the cool guy and the loser, with the cool guy as white in shining armor.
But not only are their roles quickly reversed by Christine’s influence on Arnie, King immediately emasculates Dennis’s jock hero when his character suffers a debilitating injury during a football game early in the film, a scenario that could be read as a symbolic castration. As with many of the 80s films we have discussed on this site, Christine provides an ironic commentary on the genres—horror, teen flicks, high school dramas—from which it is fashioned.
In addition to the complex gender issues in the film, the other thing I will take away from my recent viewing of Christine is how beautifully made it is. Christine is a exquisite car, she is the kind of car any exploitation film fan dreams about at night (eat your heart out, Quentin Tarantino), and she is photographed beautifully throughout the film. The camera angles early in the film render familiar scenes, of high school hallways and family living rooms, uncomfortable and hint at the horror to come, suggesting to viewers that terror is always lurking at the edges of the familiar. One scene in particular, of Christine, engulfed in flames, running down one of Arnie‘s tormentors, is one of the most beautiful sequences of film I’ve seen in a long time. And I couldn’t help but wonder, as I watched this moment, if it was the inspiration for Radiohead’s ethereal “Karma Police” video?
(Ed. note: I was extremely happy to re-view this, as the first car I ever owned had an appearance in the film, briefly. It was a canary yellow 1975 Honda Civic with a pull choke. And yes, she had a name: Charo, for she shook when she got really excited.)
Download the ‘Christine’ with Alexandra Paul podcast here
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Our featured guest: Alexandra Paul
Christine marked one of Ms. Paul’s first big-screen outings, where she played Leigh, the new girl in school and the “other woman” to a 1958 Plymouth Fury.
Since then, Ms. Paul has been active both on screen and off, starring in such big-screen films as American Flyers, Dragnet, 8 Million Ways to Die, and Spy Hard. On television, Paul has performed on Melrose Place and has hosted Outdoor Life Network’s Wild Watersand We’s Winning Women.
But perhaps her biggest pop-culture legacy is that of Lt. Stephanie Holden on the globally popular Baywatch series.
But Paul’s passions run deep and she has carved a formidable path for herself away from the camera as well, signing up voters well before she was age to cast her own ballot, co-writing and producing JamPacked, a documentary on overpopulation, as well as The Cost of Cool, about simple living. As an owner of an electric car since 1990, Paul was also featured in the riveting documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, where she strapped herself to the last GM EV1 to be taken off the Burbank lot.
And if that were not enough, Paul is an award recipient from both the ACLU and the United Nations.
And dare you doubt her Baywatch athleticism, she is a finisher in the grueling IronMan Triathlon competition (Ed. note: time to rethink the title of that race!), an accomplished swimmer who has propelled herself in distances ranging from 6.2 to 10 miles in the water (and preparing for another this year, as you will hear in the podcast).
We are truly honored to have Ms. Paul join us to reflect on a film that many of our listeners recall so fondly and wish her the best in all her future endeavors.