There are few sounds as important to the American iconography as the engine rumble of a powerful car. It’s the aural equivalent of an open stretch of road anywhere but here; a powerful, mechanized decedent of the four-legged beasts that carried their riders to the imagined freedom of the west. Although in the age of climate consciousness and ride sharing, a muscle car’s rumble is nearly as bygone in daily life as its predecessor. The sound still carries its meaning, one that for teenage boys in the mid 20th century was not yet a nostalgic fantasy but a tantalizing reality: it was the sound of freedom. So when John Carpenter forgoes his traditional bass-heavy score over the distinctive opening credits in favor of the growling engine noise of a 1958 Plymouth Fury, why does it sound so sinister?
Alfred Hitchcock played the same trick on audiences in his avian-suspense film The Birds. In lieu of credits music, he took an ordinary sound full of its own connotations and played it enough times for it to acquire a sense of unease through repetition. Why won’t don’t they stop? If the bird noises create unease, then Christine (for the car here has a name and a personality to match) generates of sense of downright malevolence through the ubiquity of her hungry engine rumble. It’s a brutal, animal sound that the film gets us antiquated with early, priming us for every ignition or acceleration sound to come. Rather than liberating, the sound of Christine becomes oppressive.
For Arnie—played brilliantly through all of his many transformations by Keith Gordon—our would-be hero and repressed loner, Christine begins that untainted promise of freedom. The freedom from his overbearing parents, the constant bullying at school, and the freedom from his own sexual hangups. As it turns out, Arnie gets more than he bargained for (or maybe exactly what he bargained for?), and Christine’s living embodiment of material fetishism ends by entombing him in an ever isolating social prism. She takes him away from his parents. She kills his bullies. And she gives him the attention he’s always wanted from girls.
For all her personality, Christine represents a pitfall in American culture. The film may have been more of director-for-hire job for Carpenter than a personal one, but it embodies some of the same consumer culture skewering that goes on in They Live. It exposes the narcissistic quality of material obsession, of car culture in particular. Christine may be a nasty piece of work but she—it—is still just a car, possessed by the devil or not. And Arnie’s endless fixation with maintaining the car is really just an obsession with himself and his own qualities, made clear by his ever more carefully manicured and coiffed appearance as he goes deeper down the rabbit hole. The scene in which Christine repairs herself in front of Arnie has often been compared to a strip show, but to me it plays more like masturbation. Christine is just a reflection of what Arnie wants to see in himself, a reflection he gets ever closer to, in exclusion to all life around him, as in Caravaggio’s Narcissus.
Of course this is a monster movie, and as such the metaphors only stretch to a certain point, before the silly self-driving devil cars outlive the human conflict, and the drama ultimately becomes one of life and death. It’s thrilling stuff though, and a minor miracle that Carpenter and his cadre of talented young actors were able to sell the inherent silliness of the concept in the first place. Carpenter of course is a master at selling silliness, but the real trick here is that none of it (well, most of it) even feels silly. Arnie’s descent into teenage isolation feels as scary and real as a serial killing car engulfed in flames running down a teenager.
By isolating its protagonist from the rest of the cast, the film ultimately begins to isolate itself from the audience as well, and by the time the well-staged climax rolls around, the human investment isn’t nearly as powerful as the allure of the crafting of suspense or in the special effects of its reforming car. Normally I wouldn’t exactly be loathe to bemoan pyrotechnics or a well-crafted suspense sequence overshadowing the drama, but ironically Carpenter’s film about an autonomous murderer car has some of his best drama; and if for nothing else but that, had not it also been a very fine thriller, Christine has earned its place in Carpenter’s pantheon where it can forever rev its bloodthirsty engine.