A car has never looked as glamorous as it does in John Carpenter’s Christine. The Plymouth Fury has fresh organic edges that feel carved from nature rather than man, and Christine’s bright red paint job mirrors the adolescent lust it inspires. Within the film, cars come with a certain amount of power — not just the organic strength of their size and weight, but that chance to have your own space and opportunity for escape. The correlation of womanhood and cars might be as old as their invention, and it figures heavily into the horror of Carpenter and Stephen King. More so than just the raunchy double entendres of “riding,” the treatment of cars as women transcends sexual brutality. Men love, adore and covet their cars, and in the case of Christine, the car loves back with vengeful possessiveness.
Carpenter brings restraint to the absurdism by drawing on classical Hollywood. With obvious allusions to James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, from the red jacket to the overbearing parents, his invocation of Nicholas Ray’s melodramas diffuses the silliness of a serial killer car. The film even has that old Hollywood look, especially scenes featuring Christine. Brightly lit and saturated, the movie takes the rose colored 1950s glasses that perverts old-school idealism. As the film opens with the title card “born in 1957,” referring to a car, viewers can understand this story’s origin came before the protagonists were even born. The identity of America in the latter half of the twentieth century, in many ways, works as a direct rebellion of the ideological and industrial height of the country in the post-war period.
When Arnie goes from nerd to greaser, he comes to embody a masculine ideal from a previous era. While adolescent desires never quite change (getting paid and getting laid are still the highest priorities), the culture surrounding them does. In the 1950s, it still seemed possible that the American dream could lift any hard worker from poverty into a comfortable middle-class life. With films like Rebel without a Cause and Bigger than Life, the aforementioned Ray exposed the cursory illusion of these promises, suggesting the emotional toll of always reaching for more.
Made at the height of Reaganism in American cinema, Christine offers a nuanced and aesthetically vibrant counterpoint to nostalgia-laden films of the mid-1980s. Unlike a film like Back to the Future which indulges in, as much as it portrays, outdated ideals related to race, gender and society, Christine brings those values to the modern age, revealing them to be broken and oppressive. The treatment of sex doesn’t shy away from the fact that teenagers have constant hormonal desires that override common judgment, but Christine doesn’t overhype or even pathologize them. A film like Back to the Future treats female sexuality as a fun novelty and works towards re-establishing common gender norms, whereas in Christine, similar markers reflect the abusive potential for those same systems. In many ways, Christine reflects a skepticism of the “I take what I want, when I want it” system that emerges when consumerism becomes the dominant ideological force of society.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.