A small sample of writer and historian Lee Gambin’s book-in-the-making Show Me: The Making of Christine featuring quotes from director John Carpenter and producer Richard Kobritz to be published by BearManor Media…stay tuned for details on the book’s progress.
Note: The following is complete as far as the analysis goes, however, more quotes will be added as they are collected. This is a work in process, and this is to showcase a sample of what is to come.
“BAD TO THE BONE”: The birth of Christine, Detroit, 1957
During the late seventies and early eighties, Columbia Pictures would only produce a handful of horror films, which would be a strange decision made by the studio when the genre was turning in healthy profits for fellow companies at the time. Clearly, the most bankable of horror subgenres during this period was the much written about and discussed slasher boom that dominated the scene with writer/director John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) being a massively influential force jettisoning a slew of stalk and slash “knife pictures” for years to come. As well as being the most successful independent feature film at the time, Halloween also launched Carpenter’s career (albeit he had made a number of films prior) and branded this talented maestro of the moving camera, king of frame composition and dedicated craftsman of mood, as a new master of horror. Clearly Columbia Pictures was on board when they were approached by producer Richard Kobritz to take on Carpenter to adapt popular horror novelist Stephen King’s latest book about a supernatural car named Christine that takes out the bullies that persecute “her” owner – the put upon nerd Arnie Cunningham.
A haunted car movie could be considered a risky venture for the studio, however, Columbia’s horror choices varied in content, theme and style in the late seventies and early eighties. The studio most certainly followed trends and took on slasher films including the sports-themed riff on the “Ten Little Indians” motif Graduation Day (1981) starring genre regular Christopher George and the complex and beautifully crafted J. Lee Thompson Canadian venture Happy Birthday To Me (1981) which featured Melissa Sue Anderson of Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983) fame as well as Hollywood veteran Glenn Ford. But Columbia also tapped into the eco-horror fad that hit its peak in the seventies with the serious in tone Nightwing (1979) which featured bubonic plague carrying bats as its featured threat and the directorial debut of James Cameron who delivered a Euro-sleaze style “follow up” to Joe Dante’s excellent socially aware Roger Corman produced film Piranha (1978) with Piranha II: The Spawning (1981). Adding to the mixed bag of varied horror films was When A Stranger Calls (1979) which would feature one of the most terrifying opening sequences ever put to film, where a wide-eyed Carol Kane answered a constantly ringing telephone asking if she has “checked the children”, Night of the Juggler (1980) starring James Brolin as a man chasing down a psychotic played by the googly eyed Cliff Gorman who has his kidnapped young daughter, and Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) – which incidentally would have a screenplay written by Christine director John Carpenter – which was a stylish American Giallo starring Faye Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Dourif and featuring a theme song by superstar Barbra Streisand. Christine, from 1983, would be yet another offering of the horror genre for Columbia and here, this brilliantly conceived and constructed character study and acute commentary on the role of “possession” would become a cult classic, a critical triumph and a perfectly realised adaptation of Stephen King’s rich and provocative novel.
With the Columbia Pictures logo making way for the credits (white over black), John Carpenter’s Christine opens much like many films of the late seventies and early eighties – simple, ambiguous and evoking a sense of ominous foreboding. When you look at this trend, it seems to surface in varied films that have directors at the helm wanting to keep the sense of drama at bay because the audience will be punched in the face with it as the film moves forward. Michael Anderson’s Orca (1977) does this – it features the credits rolling over a black screen with the haunting sound of whale cries simmering in the audio-distance, while Alan Parker’s Fame (1980) features an even more foreboding soundscape where the High School of Performing Arts is just waking up and coming to life, before we are faced with the onslaught of the gruelling audition sequence that sets off the film. Here in Christine, John Carpenter has his credits sequence accompanied by the roar of the Plymouth Fury’s mighty engine – she is birthing, she is breathing, she is fuming. In a film, much like the aforementioned Fame, that is so musically driven, it is a clever choice from Carpenter to have the title sequence music-free and completely devoted to the sound of a revving machine; in this regard, it makes the music (the first number being “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood & The Destroyers) even more dynamic and forceful – just like Alan Parker’s use of a quiet opening, followed by a monologue from the play “The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs” is all the more disconcerting when he then hits his audience with the loud energetic frenzy of a young boy playing rock ’n’ roll drums. Ultimately Carpenter, much like Parker and Anderson, understand sound as a dramatic tool, and Christine is a perfect testament to this.
The title card for Christine is also an inspired invention of design combining classic American muscle car imagery while evoking an image of female genitalia (something that the film will be thoroughly invested in). The shiny golden V-shaped chrome would replace the Plymouth Fury’s cursive “Fury” emblem, and the slick CHRISTINE lettering would be sprawled across it like a flag celebrating both the world of automobiles and the strength and beauty (and danger) of women.
The opening scene of the film would also be the first day of filming and John Carpenter would later share the story of being late to the shoot having been stopped midway to have a breathalyser test by local police. Shot in the Californian Valley in an abandoned factory, the sequence is what would be the “birth of Christine”, as she would come together in an assembly line. Opening on a large metallic fan that helps keep the building air-conditioned at best it can, this image pushes the energy of movement and progress whilst commenting on the world of machines and industry – the story of Christine will open in 1957 and during this year a number of events would spark the concept of change and endeavour. For instance, the teen-centric rock ’n’ roll TV show American Bandstand (1952) would premiere on ABC while Elvis Presley would purchase Graceland. In regards to Christine, a film that plays with the notion of the “dangers of rock ’n’ roll”, these two major pop-cultural events would leave an impression on the film’s subtext: young people are slaves to their subculture, heroic icons like Presley become an institution represented by a Memphis mansion and so forth.
The thunderous sound of “Bad to the Bone” spews out and welcomes us into this secret world of cars and auto-industry. The song was released in 1982 and was a mainstay for the newly invented MTV, which would ultimately be the eighties equivalent of American Bandstand. “Bad to the Bone” would not compliment the title card of “Detroit, 1957” but it would also completely summarise Christine herself as an entity that is born a bad seed – she is evil incarnate, and nothing demonic or human has influenced her in any way. Christine’s birthplace is Detroit – America’s motor city and a city of industry – and she is tended to men working in trenches, lifting their tools up towards her, fine tuning her rivets, codeplane and debouncifiers. Christine is a stunning piece of machinery, a blood red Plymouth Fury with a brilliant sheen and vibrant energy. Even in her placid state, of being pulled across the production line, she commands attention and is viewed by John Carpenter’s camera like a gorgeous woman walking the streets in a tight fitted skirt, exposed legs, breasts heaved up and sporting high heels. Christine is the only painted up Plymouth on the factory line and she is presented as the star of the film in an instant – a glamorous diva who is in charge, self-possessed and ready for action. Her fins, her hood, her lines and the way she cruises down the bearing pull is completely fetishized and made to look sleek and sexy; the garage attendants are working class Joes completely dwarfed by her supernatural magic that Carpenter successfully manages to get across. Outside of the image of Christine herself, the entirety of this sequence is shot in a bronze sheen, which is a masterful turn from Carpenter and his director of photography Donald M. Morgan who sets the illusion of yesteryear in this curtain raiser. The look of the orange hue comes up in previous Carpenter works such as his TV miniseries musical biopic Elvis (1979) where early years are given the golden touch, setting the tone of an older period of time as the child Presley experiences growing up in the impoverished south. In Halloween, this glorious use of color and light gives the film an unworldly sensibility, and leaves the impression that not all is right in the safe compounds of American suburbia – this still, pond-like horror film becomes an almost dreamlike Never Never Land all thanks to this incredible use of the golden hue. Harking back to legendary filmmakers such as Vincente Minnelli who would use this technique in varied films such as Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) and Home from the Hill (1960), Carpenter’s masterful handling of color, light, space and movement is all up for showcase here in this opening segment as he directs Donald M. Morgan’s crane across the large factory closing in on the film’s monster, this impressive and gorgeous Plymouth Fury.
The entire scene is populated by men and the “women” in this sequence are the cars. These monstrous American machines are all serviced by the men, pampered by them and “cruised” by these oily and grease-stained workers. Christine, however, in her fiery red get up is the only one who chooses not to be objectified or mishandled. She chooses difference and refuses to submit to human bondage – she is her own machine. When a supervisor lifts her hood and inspects her engine, his hand is left in a vulnerable position, however, it is read as though he is peering underneath a young woman’s skirt and placing his hand where it shouldn’t be. When Christine slams her bonnet down, crushing the supervisor’s hand, it is not only her first act of violence, but it is also indicative of whom Christine reflects: a woman who will not be mistreated. The instance she slams her sheet of metal upon the supervisor’s hand it kills “Bad to the Bone” and makes way for this poor unfortunate working class Joe to scream in pain. Here in Christine, it is primarily men who will fall into the victim category – and ultimately, only male characters die on screen. Also, it is interesting to note that Christine is not the only one being “checked out” by male operators, the way in which her rear view mirror picks up an attendant reflects the possibility that she herself is “cruising” him, and this is a classic testament to this monster car owning choices to be made – it is as if she is already, in her infancy, carefully selecting a “mate”. In the case of Christine, her male “owner” will be her plaything, her “lover” and ultimately her victim and the song “Bad to the Bone” (although not from her era) becomes her anthem that transcends time and space. It is an important factor establishing her malevolence and it also dictates that she will go on long after each male “owner/plaything/lover/victim” will drop off.
When a serviceman’s fingers come close and tamper with her on the inside – nearing to the engine – this is a somewhat graphic depiction of a conceptualised moment of molestation, so therefore he must pay, and then later in the sequence when a black serviceman “enters” Christine without “consent” and through such neglectful nonchalance pollutes her with his cigar smoke and ash, there will be hell to pay. Throughout the film, Christine is abused at the hands of men, but these men don’t live too long soon after. When George Thorogood’s lyrics belt out “She could tell right away/I was bad to the bone”, we understand the innate evil in Christine, and yet she is also somewhat a monster that might harvest pathos and sympathy – in many ways, she is a woman who wants to be respected and treated well. However, the film pushes it in a more direct monstrous angle, where she becomes a vengeful witch that will manipulate and torment the film’s human male protagonist Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) of whom we shall meet in the follow up scene.
With the factory’s bell ringing to send the workers home, the head supervisor notices Christine’s headlights are still on as well as her radio. When he opens the car door, the dead body of the aforementioned cigar smoking serviceman spills out – his wide dead eyes glaring upward. The scene ends in a grisly moment of shock and horror, with the head supervisor honking Christine’s horn to usher his workers back in to help. The build up to this moment is made all the more intense and sinister by the use of magnetic and hypnotic camera movement – the bird’s eye view shots, the crane shots, the long tracking shots, the continual movement, all of this contribute to a world at the mercy of machines and paints up a pretty picture of a new kind of movie monster. Christine is empowered by her stance and there is no reasoning with her; she is a monstrous entity ready to kill. Her sister Plymouths are benign, virginal and white, while she is a hypersexual (and violent) red. Christine is stealthy and sensual, glistening with a feminine ease that sends inept servicemen away with their hands wrapped up in bandages, nursing dreadful wounds.
When the factory clock shows 5pm and the work day is complete, Christine makes her first kill, as if suggesting that she “works around the clock”, just like Bill Haley and the Comets celebrated the fact that they could (and will) “Rock Around the Clock”. This song would also be the hit used for the first season of popular fifties-themed TV sitcom Happy Days (1974-1984) that would prove to be a source of inspiration for writer Stephen King, who would call his anti-hero Cunningham in tribute to the Cunningham family on the Gary Marshall produced show – proving that everything inspired is in no doubt connected. Music plays a massive part in Christine, and in many ways the film reads like a Greek Chorus themed musical where the songs comment on situation, story or character. The songs that come from Christine act as her “voice”, so when the black supervisor turns her radio on and Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” comes singing through, the first lyrics we hear are “I’m a gonna tell you how it’s gonna be…” which perceptively lets us know that Christine sets up the rules, and that she is in charge.
Carpenter’s choice to stress the importance of the black serviceman flicking the ash from his cigar onto Christine’s brand new upholstery is made all the more powerful by holding that shot on that suggestive image, and so when the payoff comes (his dead body sprawled out of the car with the cigar still wedged in his mouth) it is somehow expected and yet still shocking. When the supervisor toots Christine’s horn, the focus is on the radio which will ultimately make a connective link to 1978, which is the year the rest of the movie is set. Here we understand the importance of music and rock ’n’ roll songs in Christine, where Stephen King’s novel opened every chapter with lyrics from a song about a car or making a reference to a car, here in the film, screenwriter Bill Phillips loads the movie with a musicality and uses each song to make commentary on what is happening or what the Plymouth Fury is “feeling” or “thinking” or trying to communicate. In many ways, the film is similar in structure to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) which rejected the integrated songs of the original source material, in favour of placing the songs inside the Kit Kat Klub (albeit for one number performed by a Nazi youth) which made commentary on the situation at hand – namely the rise of Nazism during the beginning of the forties in Berlin.
This entire sequence was inspired by screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s recollection of Alfred Hitchcock’s idea of a body falling out of the trunk of a newly assembled car. The thought that excited John Carpenter was this notion that a brand new car would be assembled, and that each scenario would show you that this was in fact a new automobile being manufactured and brought to life. However, in the final moment (the gag, if you will), a dead body would be discovered in the boot, which would add an element of the supernatural, the mysterious and the macabre. The question is: How did this body get inside a brand new and newly constructed car? This would launch the inspiration buzzers for Carpenter who sets this sequence (a sequence shot on Fuji while the rest of the film was shot on Kodak to give the scene a softer and more nostalgic quality) up to read like an old EC Comics horror story.
JOHN CARPENTER: (director) There is this elaborate crane shot at the beginning of the film that travels from the fan to the carline and from them on I completely stole an idea from Alfred Hitchcock in this entire sequence. Hitchcock always talked about wanting to film a sequence where you see a car being built and then as you get to the end, you see a body fall out of the hood. So I thought, “You know what, let’s do it!” I thought about doing this “birth” sequence where Christine is built and comes to life, and I wanted to do the same kind of thing that Hitchcock always wanted to do. This was my tribute to Hitchcock and one his great ideas that he talked about. The visual look and the bronze sheen that comes with this sequence came from conversations I had with my director of photography Don Morgan. He and I first worked together on a TV movie called Elvis, and one of the great things that he did to make the film look old and make certain sequences look kind of old fashioned, was a trick with the lighting where you underexpose it slightly, and this is what we did here with the opening of Christine, so it has that sense of yesteryear.
RICHARD KOBRITZ: (producer) The first scene in the picture is the making of Christine which sets up her being born bad. We knew that we wanted this establishing scene from the start. Most of the film was shot in Irwindale, but they had found a place outside of there for this opening and it was a real factory that was used to manufacture fences during the war. Much of what you see there was never changed, it was abandoned and they were trying to sell it, and it was huge and cavernous. So you only saw one half of it, while the other half was used to reuse the cars, to paint them, and we had a body shop on the other side of that wire assembly plant.