Looking at Speculative Fiction from Another Dimension.

Sick Minds Think Alike: John Carpenter, and Stephen King

Stpehen King's House. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY CARROLL HALL

Stpehen King’s House. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY CARROLL HALL

Guest blogger post by Brendon Engel 

Mention the words “horror author” to any aficionado of the genre and there’s no doubt who immediately comes to mind. Indeed, many of Stephen King’s legendary stories have been translated by Hollywood into big screen adaptations with varying degrees of success, including Pet Sematary, The Dead Zone, The Shining and even Shawshank Redemption. But King’s often overlooked Christine – the story nearly every male car enthusiast can relate to about an awkward teen’s obsession with a demonically charged ’57 Plymouth Fury – had become something of an instant “closet classic” amongst terror film fans when director John Carpenter brought the story screaming to the screen in 1983. From the throaty roar of the main character’s engine to Carpenter’s instantly recognizable sense of building, foreboding doom (a characteristic seen in all his films), Christine’s story jumped off the pages of King’s book and into motion picture history

Equally adept as King at crafting riveting, terror-inducing experiences, director John Carpenter has become synonymous with “atmospheric fright” to his legions of dedicated fans – from that little independent flick absolutely teeming with mood that paved the way for dozens of “slasher” films in its wake (Halloween) to his unique renditions of horror classics (The Thing, Village of the Damned), Carpenter is nothing if not inventive. The collaboration between author Stephen King and director John Carpenter for the screen adaptation of King’s Christine is steeped in a history of intrigue; what would follow resulted in a film experience every car-loving guy could relate to and every jealously-scarred girl cringed at.

 

John Carpenter on the set of Halloween. (Photo by Kim Gottlieb-Walker)

John Carpenter on the set of Halloween. (Photo by Kim Gottlieb-Walker)

Interestingly, both men drew their inspiration from many of the same influences – particularly science fiction literature and films. Where King demonstrated a fondness for Ray Bradbury material, Carpenter clearly used the science fiction works of filmmakers like Howard Hawks to draw inspiration from (in particular, Hawks’ production of the seminal campy classic The Thing From Another World, which Carpenter remade in 1982, courtesy of incredible creature effects, as simply The Thing). Also important to note when comparing these two horror masters is their fondness for the old E.C. horror comic books; King’s interest in the E.C. material was overtly obvious when he wrote the 1982 horror anthology known as Creepshow, directed by “zombie maestro” George A. Romero. While E.C. comics overtones are hinted at in Carpenter’s The Fog, The Thing and even his own comic line, Creepshow seemed as though the pages of the comics literally transformed into the frames of the film.

As King and Carpenter’s first collaboration project, Christine became a powerhouse of a novel adaptation about a gorgeous cherry red 1957 Plymouth Fury that murdered anyone getting in the way of its “relationship” with its owners. Recognized film critic Roger Ebert, while noting some of the more unrealistic elements of the story, enjoyed Christine, pointing out memorable sequences such as when the title character pushes her way into a space way too small for her frame. However, purists and fans of King’s original novel found the liberties Carpenter took in the film version somewhat disappointing, even if many critics over the years found the changes to work to the film’s benefit: In Carpenter’s telling of Christine, our “mean machine” is already “possessed” by some malevolent evil before she even rolls off Plymouth’s assembly line, the “time travel” derailment has been excised and assorted specters have been pushed aside.

 

Christine (1983)

Christine (1983)

Still, many of the essentials that made King’s Christine such a terror-filled read were left intact, including the primary theme of a teenaged outsider exacting revenge through newfound supernatural means (something explored in King’s Carrie some years earlier), with Carpenter’s film version offering satisfactory casting to bring the characters to life in the way of Keith Gordon playing Christine’s new owner Arnie, John Stockwell playing Arnie’s best friend and football jock Dennis and future Baywatch beauty Alexandra Paul portraying Christine’s sexy “competition,” Leigh.

Perhaps in the end, Stephen King and John Carpenter’s Christine is a study in technophobia – an aversion to technology’s destruction of humanity (a concept hinted at even in the upcoming Avengers sequel, in which Tony Stark’s robotic “Ultron” creation “turns” on humans). In Christine, it was a Plymouth Fury at the wheel of “correcting” society’s “wrongs”…but in a time when self-driving cars, houses with automated home alarm equipment that is always watching, and remote controlled drone warfare are all becoming everyday realities, what could a film like Christine mean to contemporary audiences? As we increasingly rely on technology for nearly everything in our lives, isn’t it possible that icons such as Stephen King and John Carpenter can be credited with anticipating these breakthroughs?

Whatever the perspective, Christine remains a cultural gem that asks these questions, and more…as a sweat-inducing novel or nail-biting little horror film.

 

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