Saturday, 26 February 2011

A look back at John Carpenters Christine by Gavin Jennings.

Hello Folks,
Yet another great piece from Gavin Jennings for the blog,Read his retrospective with incredible detail and how his mums reading of Stephen kings books saved his life!Also included are 2 fantastic pictures:-
1-Gavin's replica Christine licence plate.
2-His daughters drawing of Christine(did you let her watch it Gav???)
Many thanks to Gavin and to you all for looking,
Jonny t.

A look back at John Carpenters Christine by Gavin Jennings.

I think it's fair to say that Stephen King's career through the seventies and eighties deserves to stand out in history alongside JK Rowling, Tolkien, and even Shakespeare as genre defining literature. Every project he released was more successful than the last and film studios were clambering over themselves to convert his latest bestseller to celluloid. Even at a young age I was aware of his presence in the Jennings household. My mum loved his early works almost as much as I loved the ramps that his hardcovers made for my Matchbox cars. But on a serious note it has to be said that I owe my life to Stephen King's Christine. Were it not for my mum reading that book only week's before it is unlikely that I would be here now writing for Jonnys cult films on this dreary Monday morning. It was around 1984 and I was eating my tea with a friend from school when I started to choke on a chip butty. Luckily my mum now knew what the Heimlich manoeuvre was from remembering a chapter in the book. She was able to open my air way but not before I had turned a nice shade of blue!

A little while later my parents rented John Carpenters Christine from the local video shop. I was allowed to watch it despite the bad language, it would be allot later in life before I understood the true meaning of words like Fuck, Shitter or Cuntingham anyway. I was amazed at what I saw. I already loved cars but watching a film about a car that could drive itself and even kill people was just fantastic. I became obsessed other movies that featured supernatural vehicles such as Killdozer, Duel, The Car, Herbie, Maximum Overdrive, The Wraith, The Blues Brothers, etc. I practically had a melt down when I discovered toy cars that turned into robots later that year. Anyway, Ive digressed. Christine holds a special place in my heart and I will cherish it forever. I hope you enjoy reading this article as much as I have writing it...

The foundations for what would go on to become John Carpenter's Christine were being laid during the production of another of Stephen King's successful screen adaptations, the 1979 epic TV mini-series Salem's Lot. At this point the novel Christine existed only in King's mind. Movie executive Richard Kobritz was producing the vampire best seller along with horror director Tobe Hooper. Stephen approved of how his novel was being translated and offered Kobritz first refusal on his upcoming manuscripts. This was very much the golden hand shake for Richard Kobritz as King's work was largely unchallenged at this point in American literature. Shortly after Salem's Lot had been released Richard received the manuscript for Cujo, the story of a loving family dog driven crazy by the scratch from a rabid bat. He respectfully declined what would go on to be a success in it's own right, feeling that the book just wasn't the project he was looking for at that time. In 1982 Kobritz was sent a preview of King's latest work entitled Christine. Immediately he loved the story of uber nerd Arnie and his jalopy from hell and bought the movie rights.

Richard had John Carpenter in mind to direct Christine. John was still reeling from the luke warm reception of his latest picture 'The Thing' and was looking for work. He found the characters interesting, liked the story and signed up. Carpenter & Kobritz now needed somebody to adapt Stephen King's massive novel into a film that would run in at under two hours. John had previously worked with little known screen writer Bill Phillips on an unreleased version of Firestarter. Seeing the potential in Christine's plot before he had even finished reading the story Bill immediately got on board and started work on condensing the plot. A large portion of King's novel revolved around Christine's previous owner Roland LeBay. As the story progresses Arnie begins to see Rolands rotting corpse taunting him from the back seat more and more. John agreed when Bill suggested that they remove his character completely since American werewolf in London, which was only released the year before, had a very similar premise. This would mean major changes to the story but removing this ghostly aspect allowed much more freedom to focus on Christine's possessive character. They also decided to shoot a different opening to the book which would show Christine being born on a Detroit production line. Allot of the cars that were being used all had to be sprayed white so that Christine's red bodywork really stood out. This was one of the first scenes to be filmed as the cars had to be made up like Christine again afterwards. Some character deaths were changed for cinematic effect or removed altogether. John decided that he wanted the killings to remain a mystery throughout his film. He opted to have the windshields blackened during the action scenes so it was impossible to tell who or what was driving Christine. Stephen King's epilogue, although wonderful, was also left out.

Up to this point Stephen King's novel had not yet been released to the general public. It came out in April 1983 to much applaud from both critics and readers. It was a huge hit and went straight to the number one spot on the New York Times best seller list. In that same month filming was approved by Columbia Pictures who had previously expressed an interest in releasing the film shortly after Kobritz had acquired the rights. They invested almost $10 million dollars into Christine but all creative control was in the hands of John Carpenter and Richard Kobritz. As with his previous films Carpenter had his name above the title and he would use his trademark self penned score as well as some cleverly picked rock n roll classics for the soundtrack. John had overall say on the final cut and he and Kobritz decided who would be cast.

It was decided very early on that the car had to be the star in this movie therefore Carpenter insisted on a largely unknown cast of young actors. He didn't agree with the studio's choice of Scott 'Bugsy Malone' Baio and Brooke 'Blue Lagoon' Shields as the films leads and arranged auditions for suitable actors in California. This was proving to be difficult and with the exception of the role of Dennis going to John Stockwell, Richard Kobritz had to go further a field for the other characters. He set up auditions in New York City and at one point thought he had found the role of Arnie in a young Kevin Bacon. He was given the part but had to turn it down after being offered leading man in upcoming dance flick Footloose. The search continued and eventually Keith Gordon was interviewed. John recognised him from Jaws 2 but he had not done any film work for a while. He proved to be a gifted actor and was perfect for the movies Jackyll & Hyde style role. Next to be cast was young and inexperienced actress Alexandra Paul who would be Leigh Cabot, Christine's rival for Arnie's affections. Robert Prosky was a revelation as mean-spirited junk yard owner Will Darnell as were screen veterans Roberts Blossom and Harry Dean Stanton in supporting roles.

Since Stephen King had already decided on Christine being a 1958 red Plymouth Fury the crew had no choice but to track down as many cars as the budget would allow. '58 Fury's were a rare model so similar looking Savoy's and Belvedere's were used to make up approximately twenty four vehicles that were purchased and cannibalised for the various scenes and stunts that would be needed throughout the production. By the end of filming less than four cars survived, much to the horror of classic car enthusiasts. However, the popularity of the movie would ensure that any remaining '58 Plymouth's would now be guaranteed a secure future in the collector market, much like the Delorean after Back to the future.

Contrary to the the books setting of Pennsylvania the film was set in and around California on locations similar to John's earlier film Halloween. The location manager found a gigantic disused wire factory from world war two that would serve two purposes. One half would be Darnell's Junk yard where Arnie restores Christine and the other side was a repair workshop for the many different Plymouths. An entire petrol station set had to be built from scratch for the complex scene where Christine takes her revenge on Buddy Repperton's gang. Not only did the script call for the set to be completely destroyed in a fireball but Christine had to be driven out of the explosion completely engulfed in flames and then down the highway ablaze. CGI wasn't an option so everything had to be created manually. Stunt co-ordinator Terry Leonard was in the driving seat the whole time dressed head to toe in full airplane fire fighting attire. He couldn't see anything and his oxygen was very limited, not to mention the tank of gasoline that was underneath him! The end result was a sequence that almost thirty years later still looks phenomenal. One of my favourite scenes has to be the regeneration scene where Christine exposes Arnie to her supernatural prowess for the first time. Using a relatively simple hydraulic set up John shot the car being pulled in with the cameras turned upside down. When the footage is played in reverse the upturned angle is flipped and removes the need to digitally process the print. Eagle eyed watchers will have probably noticed on repeated viewings that there are large inconsistencies in relation to the damage occurred by the pulley's to the vandalism caused by Repperton's crew. Regardless of it's flaws the entire scene gives the film a much needed boost from the character development and has been a talking point amongst fans and amateur film makers for years.

Christine opened in US theatres in December of '83. The hardback novel was still in the charts and the paperback was the number one best seller in the country. The film was very well received by horror fans and the critics. Time magazine said that it was Carpenter's best film since Halloween but some were offended with it's ripe dialogue. Since the movie wasn't particularly gory the film makers had to ensure that it would get it's R rating so Bill Phillips was tasked with spicing up the script and finding different uses for the word Fuck. As a result the New York Times said that Christine was the most foul mouthed language film in the history of English speaking cinema. Fortunately Scarface premiered just a week earlier and any negative publicity was quickly directed towards that. Christine grossed over $20 million in it's seven week run in North American cinemas and has developed a steady cult following in the twenty seven years that have followed. Both John Stockwell and Keith Gordon are now fairly successful directors in their own right and Alexandra Paul, who was regular on Baywatch for sometime, is still acting. Richard Kobritz never produced another Stephen King project after Christine and Bill Phillips continues to write smaller productions. Most horror fanatics are fully aware of the continued success that John Carpenter had during the eighties. Like Stephen King his career has been on the decline since then with some lack lustre movies and producing a truely awful re-make of his own classic the Fog. His latest film The Ward promises to be abit of a return to form and is released early this year. I am genuinely looking forward to seeing it. As for Christine, well the beautiful red '58 Plymouth Fury has undoubtedly earned her eternal place in movie history and will continue to grace us with her presence in occasional screen cameo's for generations to come...
Gavin's"Christine"Replica license plate!

Gavin's daughters great art work,a horror fan in the making!


  1. Excellent coverage Gavin! I remember when Christine came out at the theaters. Back in the seventies, while still in school, Stephen Kings first movie was released, CARRIE! Everyone talked about it. And if they were too young to see it at the theater, there was always HBO. Stephin King soon becam my idol, in both literature and film. Christine is definately a timeless classic from KING. You mentioned Cameo appearences of Christine. My favorite cameo of Christine will always be STEPHEN KINGS CATS EYE!! Along with Christine there was also a cameo of CUJO chasing after the cat in the trilogy titled Cat's Eye! Thank you Gavin for an excellent piece and a front seat ride down memory lane in a classic 1958 red Plymouth Fury!

  2. Thanks for your comments guys! Did you see Christine pop up in Tru Blood recently? Jon, Molly did watch some of Christine when I was doing my research. She thought it was boring!!! My son Fred loved the death by Bulldozer climax at the end... At four years of age he must be Carpenter's biggest fan?!