Wednesday, February 22, 2017

John Carpenter's CHRISTINE: Blu-ray reissue (Columbia 1983) Indicator/Powerhouse

Christine (1983) is the recipient of two formidable talents working at the peak of their powers: the first is author, Stephen King; the latter, director, John Carpenter, each a master of suspense in their respective medium; Carpenter, an undeniable artisan in crafting the spooky good chill. In an era before horror movies devolved into graphic illustrations of how many gruesome ways one deranged individual could split another deranged individual’s head open with an axe, Carpenter launched a valiant coup in defense of the genre, to prove to its pundits that ‘horror’ could be legitimatized, even elevated, to a fine, spine-tingling art, terrifying without turning off or bathing the front row theater seats in buckets of blood. For too many years before and since, the horror genre has endured unprecedented indignation from the B-meisters of schlock and silliness. After Universal’s initial introduction of the supernatural in the early 1930’s, even the studio that ostensibly ‘invented’ horror for the movies chose to turn simple fright into abject revulsion in order to perpetuate and promote its product. After Val Lewton’s cycle of success at RKO, psychological horror also took a backseat to the Hammer franchises of the late 1960’s; over-the-top grand guignol with a touch of Edgar Allen Poe or H.P Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. But by the early 1980’s, John Carpenter was facing even stiffer competition from the ‘slasher’ vein of horror; audiences tuning into the salaciousness of increasingly bloodier special effects to satisfy their appetite for fright.
Christine is the absolute antithesis of the slasher and quite possibly the last of its ilk, Carpenter holding tight to the precepts established in his Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980); sustained bone-chilling excursions; herein with less obvious, though no less exhilarating scares. Working from a screenplay by Bill Phillips, Carpenter’s changes to Stephen King’s monumental literary shocker are mostly made for concision. We lose the backstory about Christine’s possession; in the novel, the car harbors the evil spirit of her deceased first owner, Roland D. LeBay. But in the movie, Christine is simply imbued with an omnipotent demonic presence from day one of her inception; the only candy-apple red 1958 Plymouth Fury to roll off the assembly line from an otherwise uninspired lineup of ‘buckskin’ beige-finned beauties. As the real 58’ Fury was a rare breed, Carpenter and his Production Designer, Daniel A. Lomino turned to retrofitting 1957 Belvederes and Savoys to portray the malignant Plymouth. In all, twenty cars would be convincingly ‘made up’ to look the part. Only two would survive the many perils put forth by Christine’s arduous shoot.
Christine perfectly illustrates two maxims that most, toiling in the horror genre today, completely overlook; first, what you don’t see, eerily emerging in half-shadow, is far more effective at stirring unease, fear and loathing, than what is graphically revealed from a multitude of frenetically edited angles; and second, mood trumps action any day of the week. Christine is largely a series of impressions made in the editing process to evoke a looming sense of dread; Carpenter actually getting us to believe in an inanimate object with a soul – albeit, a malevolent one. Consider Carpenter’s handling of the murder of teen tyrant, Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander), chased down a darkened backroad by Christine, recently engulfed in a hellish explosion at a gas station. A lesser director might have sent this raging automobile catapulting down the abandoned highway, giving us Repperton’s wild screams and a hideous cacophony of breaking bones as the ole girl rolls over her victim. 
Instead, Carpenter plies us with the gut-wrenching dread of the inevitable; effectively phasing out all sound effects except his unnerving, evenly paced and almost monochromatic stalking anthem (shades of Michael Myers’ music cues from Halloween), cutting from the lanky Repperton, fleeing on foot in his tight-fitted jeans and cowboy boots while gradually bringing up the orangey flicker of flames licking at his heels from out of the darkness along the tarmac as Christine steadily advances. She is inescapable; Repperton knows it, and so do we. She gains on him, but at a biding pace, perhaps even with a queerly feline indulgence; Carpenter cutting from a close-up of Repperton’s wide-eyed terrorization to a long shot of Christine casually passing by, the sudden appearance of a corpse emerging from beneath her fireball chaste and quietly sizzling on the asphalt, even more disturbing as she drives off without even so much as a hint of acceleration.  It’s the inexorableness of such sequences – and there are many in the movie – that make Carpenter’s excursion excruciating, if not impossible to sit through without at least a few hairs standing on end. Christine will destroy all who oppose; even more disturbingly, not out of hatred or a perfunctory sense of revenge, but an even more sightless loyalty – nee, love?!? – for her present owner, Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon).
If nothing else, Christine turned America’s love affair with the automobile – and its nostalgia craze for the fabulous fifties – on end; the sentiment given its death knell in the final moments of the movie as surviving cast members, Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell), Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul) and Det. Rudolph Junkins (Harry Dean Stanton) quietly observe her trash-compacted wreckage exhibiting minor vibrations of life. “God, I hate rock and roll!” says Leigh. What is most impressive about Christine is Carpenter’s cleverly timed and released escalation of these anxious moments, achieved with just a few light touches and very limited special effects; Christine’s miraculous resurrection after Buddy and his motley crew of ne’er do wells have taken their sledgehammers and box-cutters to her, mostly done by shooting the destruction in reverse, then playing the film backwards (very effective) or the scene in which Repperton’s gang-banger wannabee, Moochie (Malcolm Danare) is cornered, then crushed to death by Christine inside a loading dock (staged by having the front end of a mockup strapped to a jitney); the event preceded by a rather blood-curdling moment of realization, as Moochie stumbles upon Christine inside a parking garage, disquieting echoes of Thruston Harris’ ‘Little Bitty Pretty One’ filling the night air as her V-8 engine stirs to a quiet rumble. It’s the build-up that counts; Carpenter intuitively acknowledging, that without it the payoff, - the murders themselves – don’t mean a thing.
If not for its supernatural elements of chrome-plated demonic possession, one could almost classify Christine as a suspense-laden thriller; Dennis and Leigh’s slow unraveling of the mystery behind the car and its hypnotic sway over Arnie (transformed from geek to sex object seemingly overnight by the car’s possessive jealousy and sycophantic adoration) playing very much like a traditional detective story with a fetishistic slant toward ménage à trois.  Much of Carpenter’s inspiration undeniably derives from Stephen King’s proses; the author’s cerebral descriptions of this possession of the car, a real page-turner. But such literary descriptions rarely equate to affecting competency on the movie screen. And yet, at some primal level, Carpenter manages to invite his audience into Christine’s ‘thinking processes’; the car as much a character as any derived from flesh and blood, and increasingly meant to dominate the movie’s landscapes with an unerring sense of tortuous trepidation. Wisely, Carpenter shoots a good deal of Christine under the cover of night. The effect is uncanny as, when witnessed by day, innocuously parked near the edge of a football field with Arnie, newly reincarnated as a pseudo-fifties greaser, she appears as little more than a very fine piece of vintage machinery from another bygone era in the evolution of the American automobile, when artistry in design counted for something.  It is only after dusk, with her headlamps piercing the perpetual fog loosely hanging in the air; her spooky green-glowing dashboard pulsating in an almost nuclear fission-esque radiance, that we can see – or rather, interpret – something is terribly wrong. This car has a mind and a will of its own.
Unlike Stephen King’s novel, our story begins in the present; high school pals, jock – Dennis Guilder and nerd, Arnold Cunningham having formed the unlikeliest of friendships. Under the extra football padding and cleats, Dennis is just an ordinary guy, empathetic to Arnie’s plight; his inability to fit in or get dates; constantly the brunt of a tortuous initiation by high school tough guy and greaser, Buddy Repperton and his gang of hooligans, who turn every shop class into a nightmare. Arnie is convinced his prospects would change if only he had a sweet ride; a chic magnet. But what Arnie becomes attracted to is Christine; a rotted out shell of a ’58 Fury, rusting in the overgrown backyard of George LeBay (Robert Blossoms). We get the Cole’s Notes overview of the car’s history from George; his late brother, Roland’s mad obsession with the car, even after the death of his wife and daughter inside it; his unerring devotion to Christine until he too was discovered dead in her front seat. It is an ominous precursor and a very bad omen. Only now, will she even start? Dennis doesn’t think so. But against Dennis’ better judgement, Arnie spends every last dollar to buy the car. He is promptly told by his overbearing mother and father Christine can’t stay in their driveway. So Arnie leases a bay at Will Darnell’s (Robert Prosky) Garage; a junkyard overflowing in spare parts Arnie takes advantage of these to restore Christine to her original brilliance. For Arnie, it is a labor of love; one Darnell mildly discourages, unless – of course, the kid is willing to put in some time after school and do chores around the garage.
At the homecoming football game, Dennis and Arnie are both drawn to head cheerleader, Leigh Cabot. Dennis becomes distracted during the final run and, as a result, gets tackled, cracking a few ribs. Meanwhile, Arnie and Leigh become an item. It is not lost on Dennis that Arnie has managed not only to resurrect Christine from the junkyards, but has also morphed himself from four-eyed nerd to a confident greaser with a macho attitude. That evening, Arnie takes Leigh for a ride in Christine to the local drive-in. It is pouring outside. Truth be told, Arnie isn’t particularly interested in watching the movie anyway. But his attempt at a seduction goes badly – or rather, awkwardly. Arnie is sincerely patient. But Christine is severely jealous. So, after Arnie leaves the car to buy some drinks, Christine – through supernatural powers never entirely explained away – attempts to cause Leigh to choke on her burger as Arnie helplessly watches; presumably, mimicking the fates befallen Roland LeBay’s wife and daughter. However, at the last possible moment, Leigh is saved from suffocating by a concerned stranger. Stunned after the incident, Leigh makes Arnie take her home.
However, Buddy Repperton and his boys are not about to let Arnie’s hard work and Christine’s miraculous transformation go quietly into the night. Breaking into Darnell’s Garage after Arnie has gone home for the night, Buddy and his gang lay waste to Christine with their sledgehammers, box-cutters and chains; slashing her carefully restored upholstery, shattering her headlamps, and decimating her transmission and tires. When Arnie arrives to take Christine out for a spin the next day with Dennis and Leigh in tow, he is wounded beyond all consolation either friend can provide. However, a short while later, while still mourning Christine’s loss, Arnie is stirred to notice the car calling to him. In response, Arnie stands before Christine and declares, “Show me.” The car rejuvenates before his very eyes; Christine reborn, only this time with a streak of revenge to exact against all who betrayed her.
A short while later, one of Repperton’s gang, Moochie Welch, is let off near an underpass after hitching a ride on a lonely road. He hears music echoing from a nearby underground garage and notices Christine, in showroom condition, parked nearby with her headlamps turned off. Nervously calling out to Arnie, the car instead revs its engine, pursuing Moochie to an isolated truck loading depot, forcing the front end of her grill into the bay and severing Moochie in half. In the novel, the act is much more vividly described. But John Carpenter has taken his cue, not from Stephen King, or even the Hammer horror films of yore, or even the burgeoning slasher market of ‘then’ today – rather, from the master of suspense; Alfred Hitchcock. We get the implication of a horrific death without actually being forced to squirm through it with blood and guts spewing into our laps. The next day, the school is agog with gossip about Moochie’s death; Arnie callously fluffing it off as just deserts. His cold-hearted pleasure is unsettling to Dennis, who suspects Arnie is perhaps responsible in some way. Challenging his friend, Dennis is somewhat relieved when Arnie confesses he had nothing to do with Moochie’s demise. In point of fact, he probably has not. For Christine is now feeding off of an energy charge more devilish than her obsessive love for Arnie.
Enter Police Det. Rudolph Junkins, suspicious of Arnie and Christine and applying pressure to get a rise out of Arnie. Alas, Arnie has an alibi for the time of Moochie’s murder – much to Dennis’ relief. Junkins isn’t buying it, however. The next night, while Junkins is keeping tabs on Arnie, Christine leaves Darnell’s Garage on her own power and pursues Buddy and his entourage, Richie Trelawney (Steven Tash) and Don Vandenberg (Stuart Charno) as they leave a bar and speed down a lonely highway. At some point, Buddy realizes they are being tailed and attempts to outrun the car, unaware it is Christine. His clumsy escape plan leads them to a dead end at an out-of-the-way filling station. Getting out of his car, Buddy is incensed, realizing the vehicle is Christine. With her windows blacked out, he naturally assumes Arnie is behind the wheel and threatens him with bodily harm. Now, Christine rams Buddy’s car, killing his two cohorts instantly and causing a gas main to rupture. The fuel ignites and the station blows up in a hellish ball of flame. Buddy cannot believe his eyes; more so, as Christine emerges from the firestorm as a ball of flame and pursues him down the open road, eventually catching up to, and running him over.
Sometime later, Christine returns to Darnell’s Garage, smoldering from her near incineration. Darnell witnesses her pulling into the bay. Touching the driver’s side door handle, Darnell is momentarily burned by the heat, but still elects to open the door with the aid of a rag; discovering the interior virtually unscathed by the flames that have blackened the still sizzling exterior paint. He sits in the driver’s seat. Christine’s radio springs to life and Darnell’s body is crushed between the seat and steering wheel. The next day, Arnie discovers Det. Junkins and the police investigating Darnell’s suspicious death; the body still slumped in the front seat, only now, with Christine’s paint job as good as new, showing no ill after effects of her explosive previous night’s excursions. Once again, Arnie cannot be directly implicated in the crime. But Junkins is beginning to formulate a picture of what has been going on. So has Dennis, who informs Leigh of his plan to save Arnie from himself. Christine must be destroyed. The plan set, Dennis and Leigh make their way to Darnell’s Garage where Dennis hotwires a bulldozer he intends to use to crush Christine. The plan is for Leigh to wait in Darnell’s office and shut the loading bay door after Christine arrives. Alas, the car has outsmarted the humans; already present and lying in wait under a pile of camouflaged junk. As Leigh approaches the office, Christine lunges toward her. Leigh barely escapes being run over and Christine smashes her front fender against one of the garage’s sturdy cement pillars. While she rejuvenates, Dennis tries to get the bulldozer to spring into action. His difficulties in jump-starting the vehicle allow Christine a second try for Leigh. She plows into Darnell’s office only moments before Leigh manages an escape. Arnie is thrown from Christine’s windshield onto her hood, seemingly unconscious.
However, as Leigh approaches, Arnie suddenly rises up to grab her by the hair. Only then, do both of them realize Arnie has been mortally impaled on a protruding shard of glass from Christine’s windshield. He dies and Leigh, believing the ordeal is at an end, stumbles from the office toward Dennis and the bulldozer. However, Christine is now angrier than ever and determined to kill both Leigh and Dennis. Her attacks are thwarted as Dennis manages to get the bulldozer up and running. While pinning Christine in her place, Dennis rides over her with his heavy treads, effectively crushing the Fury to death. We cut to a shot of Christine emerging from a compactor at Darnell’s junkyard, crumpled and compressed into a cube. Alas, as Arnie, Leigh and Det. Junkins look on, a loose piece of metal begins to creak and separate from the cube, perhaps suggesting Christine is not finished with her reign of terror yet.
At its core, Christine taps into our fundamental curiosity and need to explore the realms of anthropomorphism, once traditionally ascribed only to other living creatures, but more recently accredited to non-animate objects in our modern and post-modern world. Christine’s closest cousin is actually TV’s utterly silly and short-lived sitcom, My Mother, The Car (1965-66); highlighting the possession of a 1928 Porter by the new owner’s late matriarch. Interestingly, the parallels between Christine and My Mother, The Car goes eerily beyond this mere reference; the male protagonist in both instances, inexplicably drawn to a dilapidated vehicle rusting away in a junkyard, taken over by a decidedly overbearing female presence who then proceeds to create havoc in his life. In the case of My Mother, The Car, the situations derived are strictly for laughs, perhaps, only mildly unsettling to the man’s romantic ambitions. In Christine’s case, the car’s female presence will not rest until her male owner has been absorbed and destroyed by her jealousy.
I have read far too many movie reviews about the implausibility of Christine. In its defense, lest we forget it is a horror movie. Name me a single offering from this genre that makes sense; the bulk of our post-modern mangled horror movies perversely relying on the over-simplified premise of scantily clad college coeds and/or oversexed teens fit to be Ginsu-ed by a homicidal maniac with a knife, a power drill, a sledgehammer, a chainsaw…yada, yada, yada; take your pick of flesh and bone dislocating implements. As such, I have the deepest admiration for John Carpenter’s early works in general, and Christine in particular. If nothing else, it is a welcomed departure from the norm. With Christine, Carpenter bucks a trend he ostensibly started with Halloween, The Fog, and, The Thing (1982). Carpenter’s vintage horror is always far more intelligently conceived, emerging with allegoric undertones that most critics casually – and rather callously – overlook, perhaps, because it is too easy – and even more fashionable – to simply dismiss horror in totem as gauche. Yet, in Christine we get a rather ominous foreshadowing of man’s dependence on technology; his inability to conceive evil in a form he, himself, has willed out of steel and spark plugs on the assembly line; the master unknowingly at the mercy of the machine he has created – shades of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?!? For what is a car, if not stitched and soldered together from spare parts?
And Carpenter has managed to give the twenty some inanimate automobiles used in the filming of Christine a singular and wicked comportment. To do this, he needs an audience able to project menace filtering from Christine’s glowing headlamps; our capacity to sense her demonic soul lurking beneath the hood, almost whispering in hypnotic tongues and voices from under the revving hum of her V-8 engine. Yet, only part of Christine’s manifestation can be credited to our own imaginations. Rather, it is Carpenter who plies us with a rather terrific and fairly concrete sense of some otherworldly apparition trapped within this metal shell. His ability to define evil in tangible terms; to parcel it off in deliberate properties with calculating menace while maintaining equilibrium and legitimacy, is enviable; both to Stephen King’s novel, even as it taps into our collective fear of the unknown. Hitchcock similarly took a flock of innocuous and commonplace seagulls in The Birds (1963) and made them appear as the epitome of our own dread and transgressions against nature. With Christine, Carpenter illustrates a similar template for man’s casual disregard of the classic American automobile, herein simply a hunk of metal with seats and a steering column to get us from points ‘A’ to ‘B’. To this inoffensive and utilitarian vehicle by design, Carpenter applies Stephen King’s intangible precepts of demonic possession in such a way as to allow the invisible to become fairly translucent – if not, entirely solid – on the movie screen. Why do we fear Christine? It’s still just a car with brighter than average headlamps and a slight bit of steam emanating from under the hood. Why is this scary? Perhaps, because Carpenter, unlike King in all his lurid prose, has lured the intangible improbability of demonic possession from its shapeless and darkened recesses. The car lives, is dangerous and hell-bent on controlling the hand that built it.
There is also a sexual underlay to this prospect, as yet undiscussed; the buffing, waxing, caressing that goes into a true car aficionados’ primary care; the proper feeding of its internal combustion with the right oil and premium gas; the implied sensuality achieved with the turning of heads to admire a well-looked after roadster, cruising smoothly down the boulevard.  Carpenter gives us all of these fetishistic amours that most any guy, even one casually interested in fast cars, can instantly relate to with the vehicle of his choice. The trick is in tearing all that fastidiousness and respect for an elegant ride asunder; Carpenter affording us the minor rumblings of something more hellacious afoot before unleashing the terror in parceled off increments that steadily ratchet up our loathing for even the concept we could ever ‘become attached’ to a car – as though it might one day be able to turn around and love us back. With Christine, love turns to obsession with a twist of the key in the ignition. In Christine, change equates to death and murder and obsessive lust – the car warping its human element to satisfy…what? A need? Again, what does a car need except the occasional wash and wax, and, frequent trips to the gas pump and lube station to keep her roadworthy? In Christine’s case, there remains a highly unconventional attachment to the strong hand at the wheel; or rather, a weak hand easily manipulated into believing in its own authority, long enough to be exploited by the car to her own purpose. In this revelation, Carpenter’s Christine is as much an exploration of one-sided control in any relationship and the unhealthy exertions that result when one partner is unwilling to let the other go without a fight to the finish, or in Christine’s case – the scrapyard.
After finally come around to giving North American audiences a main stream release of Christine in 1080p in 2015, U.K. distributor, Indicator/Powerhouse Films has bested virtually all previous incarnations of Carpenter’s classic with a new Blu-ray release. Why? Because Indicator’s reissue is ‘region free,’ has all the goodies imported from previous Blu releases and is NOT a limited edition. Dirty little secret: this ‘newly minted’ 1080p Blu-ray sports the same hi-def transfer as all of its predecessors, but with the added bonus of containing an isolated score, denied Sony’s mainstream release, but previously available on Twilight Time’s region A locked disc that was out of print practically from the moment it streeted. In North America, Sony inexplicable went the route of licensing this popular catalog title first to third-party distributor Twilight Time as a ‘limited edition’ in the fall of 2013 where it rapidly sold out. Rumors then swirled, TT would get a second bite at the proverbial apple. But Sony reneged and did the deed themselves. Now Indicator is poised to steal everyone’s thunder.
Inexplicably, and many review sights advertise this reissue as Region B. It’s not. It’s ‘region free’. Not only do I own the disc, but I have conferred with a rep from Indicator who assures me all future releases by them will also be ‘region free’. And so, Christine comes to Blu-ray with a much wider and infinitely more cost-effective general release that will certainly please. Bottom line: you’ll be hard-pressed to find fault with Christine on Blu-ray; the image supports some excellent detail, clarity and depth. The early scenes, presumably set in the sweltering summer of 1958 when Christine was born, were shot on Fuji film stock to take advantage of its richer sepia tones. The sequences photographed by Donald M. Morgan at night tend to look a little less than superb, marginally flatter than anticipated; I suspect, owing to vintage 80’s film stocks and not the fault of this transfer.  The 5.1 DTS audio mix provides a subtler upgrade to the original 2.0 DTS – both included for consideration herein. Dynamic range is excellent regardless of which option is chosen with Carpenter’s atmospheric underscore and George Thorogood’s ‘Bad to the Bone’ the real beneficiaries. Dialogue is clean and crisp. Finally, there are the extras to consider: a trio of informative featurettes, all of them ported over from Sony’s old SE-DVD. 

We get interviews with cast, crew and Carpenter. These featurettes have appeared on virtually every hi-def incarnation of Christine since, as well as a rather engaging audio commentary with Keith Gordon and Carpenter. Bottom line: Christine holds up. Since it was always somewhat leaning toward a ‘period piece’ – what, with Carpenter’s affinity for the fifties, using pop tunes from that decade as affecting backdrop – not much about the movie has dated since 1983; even the clothes and hair styles remaining analogously true to the decade, yet not slavishly so. Well, okay – maybe the track shoes and gym socks with the red stripes. Otherwise, Christine revs up as a solid night of chills without the bloodletting. Carpenter did his homework back then. Thirty-plus years into the future, and time has not diminished his contributions. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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