In the past I have credited Wes Craven for sparking my love of horror, and H. P. Lovecraft for nurturing that flame. Of course, there were countless other story tellers, and countless stories across hundreds of paperbacks, comics, and VHS tapes that helped shape what kind of fan, author, and even what kind of person I am today.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is always my go to when asked about the most influential film in my life, but recently I’ve begun to think that another horror villain, even more iconic than Freddy Krueger with his bladed glove, filthy hat, and muted Christmas color sweater, may have had a significantly deeper impact on my development. I’m not talking about Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, or Charles Lee Ray. The character in question is not some masked stalker, but rather a drop dead gorgeous, red and white, 1958 Plymouth Fury.
Just tonight, I finished reading Christine (listening to the audiobook rather) for the first time, and while I found myself enthralled by the book, and the extra dimensions it added, there was a feeling of melancholy over the one big difference between the novel and the screen adaptation. The 1983 film (which bore John Carpenter’s name as the draw, in lieu of Stephen King) had been a staple of my childhood VHS rotation, competing heavily with Dream Warriors, Monster Squad, and The Lost Boys. Every weekend I would grab a new horror movie from June’s Video Hut – Maniac cop, 976-Evil, The Gate – but still, every weekend, Christine would make it into the VCR at some point.
In retrospect, I think the reason I kept going back the story of Arnie Cunningham and his possessed ride, was that, to me, it wasn’t primarily a horror movie. Sure, it had all the marks of one. A respectable body count, made up of the typical slasher movie victims. An unstoppable killing machine. Discordant music and supernatural phenomenon. But that was all periphery, because to me Christine was a love story.
Arnie Cunningham was probably the first character in fiction that I ever truly related to. I’m not sure how old I was the first time I saw the film, but I was old enough to be the least popular kid in my grade, and too young to start reinventing myself as the teenage occultist/death rocker I would become a few years later. I was always a smart kid, but I was a loser. I always put up with people’s shit, and I felt very, very alone in the world. Just like Arnie.
I still remember the surge of satisfaction, watching Arnie go from nerdy victim, to bad ass and dangerous, behind the wheel of the most beautiful vehicle I had laid on eyes on, before or since. His clothes and his hair changed. He stopped being the victim, and the object of pity. He even got the girl, over his cool, jock buddy. Christine had been like a catalyst for his chrysalis, not that I would have used those words back then, but I recognized it as such, and I yearned for the same thing.
Then came the part when Buddy Reperton and his gang, kindred spirits to the grade school townies who put me through hell, trashed Christine. In their small-souled anger they smashed, bludgeoned, and punctured this work of art that meant the world to the guy on the screen, who was so much like myself. They destroyed her, because he loved her, and because they were too stupid and petty to do anything but destroy. And then… then they literally took a shit on her.
I seethed with anger at that. The first time I watched the movie was the most intense of course, but with each subsequent viewing it still pissed me off. In their faces I could see all the shitty, mean-spirited kids from my school, and I knew in my heart that if I ever had something of such beauty in my life, they would try to take it, just as they did my dignity each and every day
As such, it should come as no surprise that wild excitement gripped my heart when Arnie’s car took to the road and hunted down the “shitters”. I know that sounds fucked up, especially coming from a kid of maybe ten years old, but remember, this is before Nerd-Chic was a thing. There were no safe spaces, and Columbine had yet to teach administrations that bullying should be taken at least a little bit more seriously. All the “ignore them” and “toughen up” speeches in the world didn’t make things better, but watching that ghostly ‘58 run those bastards down kind of did. Those dirt bags, so far as I was concerned, were getting just what they deserved, and I watched Christine dole out her cruel justice over and over and over. I found it heroic, rather than scary, to watch her speeding down the road, engulfed in flame, her high beams set forward in singular purpose.
And she did it all for him.
She did it all for him. That idea was fucking beautiful to me, and it kind of still is. Before I ever desired a woman, or crushed on a girl, or even tried to sneak a dirty magazine, I fell in love with Christine. In my mind I was Arnie, and she was doing it all for me. Because she loved me too, and god damn, I needed that. Not the way your parents love you just for existing, but the way a lover sees that special magic in your soul and says, “You are the most incredible person in this universe, and I would murder the world to see you smile”.
Christine taught me what love is, beyond my mother and father. That moment when Arnie tells her to show him what she can do, and she trusts in him enough to reform before his eyes. How her belief in him transforms him from a door mat to a man, and his belief in her makes her immortal. The way she is willing to rip herself apart to cut down anyone who’d harm him. And yes, even her mad, wild jealousy, that I would experience later in life before time and experience tempered such things.
Sometime after the murders start, Arnie and Dennis are talking about love. Dennis thinks Arnie is talking about Leigh, but of course he means Christine. His words hold a wisdom though, and as much as I needed to believe them as a child, experience has taught me that they are indeed true.
“Let me tell you a little something about love, Dennis. It has a voracious appetite. It eats everything. Friendship. Family. It kills me how much it eats. But I’ll tell you something else. You feed it right, and it can be a beautiful thing, and that’s what we have.
You know, when someone believes in you, man, you can do anything, any fucking thing in the entire universe. And when you believe right back in that someone, then watch out world, because nobody can stop you then, nobody! Ever!”
And then of course, there is the end, when Arnie and Christine face off against Leigh and Dennis in a final confrontation. Arnie dies, impaled on dagger of pre-safety glass windshield. A voice from the radio sings “I’ll forever love you” as Arnie fades into oblivion, in the metaphorical arms of his lover. Then Christine loses her mind in sorrow and anger, and no matter how many times I had seen the film, no matter how many times I had watched her get crushed, I rooted for her to win.
Despite watching that tape over and over until some voracious, dying VCR chewed it up, I somehow never read the book, until now, nearly thirty years later, and I’m glad I waited. In King’s novel, things are different. It is an excellent read, but the feeling is just not the same. LaBey, Christine’s former owner, is the driving force behind the car, and behind Arnie’s transformation. If there is any love story, it’s a trailer trash romance between the unsympathetic Roland LaBey and his sexy Plymouth fury, who manipulate and use Arnie for their own means. In the book, Arnie dies like he lived, a loser manipulated and bullied by those around him. It’s a scarier tale, and a hell of a lot darker, but for once, I like the happier ending, if you can call it that.
Christine was, and still is my Cinderella, my Beauty and The Beast, my Tristan Und Isolde. It was my first glimpse at passion and to this day, I can’t think of anything more romantic than Johnny Ace singing “Pledging My Love” as Christine’s headlights illuminate Arnie’s dead body. It’s no wonder I married a woman of the same name.
I started this whole rant talking about my biggest influences being Craven and Lovecraft, which is true. My work, and my world view, borrow heavily from Lovecraft’s cosmic nihilism. And sure the Springwood Slasher may have haunted the dreams of my youth, and sparked my love of horror. But Christine… Well, you never forget your first love.