Before watching the movie:
This is a horror movie about a possessed car. Even though it’s based on a Stephen King novel, I think the chances are good that it’s going to be more silly than actually scary. Maybe it’s just my frame of reference, but when people refer to a story about a living car, they’ll go for a lighter story like The Love Bug or “My Mother The Car” (that one’s almost certainly my reference pools), because the concept really does seem to be better suited for comedy than horror. A car can kill you, and we’ve built our cities with a little too much focus on car accessibility, but ultimately a car is only dangerous to a person under a very specific set of circumstance.
After watching the movie:
Arnie Cunningham is shy, nerdy, and completely dominated by his parents and by the bullies at school, with only one friend, Dennis, to stand up for him. When he sees a rotting ’57 Plymouth Fury in a yard on the way home from school, he’s immediately transfixed and uses his college savings money to buy it, against the counsel of Dennis and over the objections of his parents, and is told by the seller that its name is Christine. As his parents refuse to let him keep the car on their property, Arnie begins renting out a bay in a self-repair garage, and as he restores Christine, he becomes more assertive, self-absorbed, and aggressive, as well as beginning to wear black, dark-fitting clothes with high collars, abandoning his glasses, and actually styling his hair. Believing the car is bad for his friend, Dennis goes back to the seller, who tells him that his brother’s daughter choked to death inside the car, his brother’s wife died mysteriously soon after, and finally his brother asphyxiated himself inside. Christine seems to have an unusual control over herself as well as Arnie, and when Arnie takes his new girlfriend Leigh on a date, when Leigh expresses jealousy over Arnie’s affection for Christine and is then left alone inside the car momentarily, Leigh begins choking. The bullies, jealous that Arnie was able to take out Leigh, go to the garage and trash Christine, but when Arnie is determined to repair her rather than take his parents’ offer to buy him a new car, he is amazed to watch Christine repair herself. As Christine takes revenge on the bullies, a police detective starts sniffing around, and Dennis and Leigh decide to try to do what they must to save their friend.
I think the reason I underestimated this movie is because I was anticipating a story where the monster is physically menacing people very early on and pretty openly. However, this is a slow burn story where people are piecing together the threat, which is even more beyond what the realm of their experience than one would necessarily expect from the “murderous car” description. However, the main mood this movie relies on isn’t panic, but foreboding. We’re learning just how much more dangerous this entity is than you might expect almost at the same pace the characters are. There’s a lot more to Christine’s abilities than just “run over people in various contexts” and the revelations of what those are build a literal feeling of horror.
I attribute this largely to being directed by John Carpenter, which isn’t something I was fully aware of when I made my prediction. Stephen King stories can be hit and miss, and they’re especially vulnerable to the interpretation put on them by an adaptation team, but Carpenter seems to have a more solid track record of creating memorable creeping horror experiences. I think what I was expecting was more in the vein of the movie King directed himself, Maximum Overdrive, which I still haven’t seen, but I know has a reputation of being a complete failure to achieve the desired tone.
One would expect this movie’s visual impact to entirely be in car imagery and gore (which I think there’s less explicit human gore than there is explicit language), but there are some pretty striking practical effects involved, particularly with Christine’s ability to heal herself. On the other end, there are plenty of moments that the simplest choice gets the job done. I don’t think we ever see the empty driver seat while Christine is moving on her own, rather the windows are blacked out.
This isn’t my typical choice of movie, but I was completely wrong to write it off. It’s masterfully managed in tone and pace, and a great example of cinema done well. Definitely one I can see watching again sometime.