Cult Classic Car Movies
Cult classic films can be frustrating at times. If you know the film you’re cool, but if you don’t the person who asked can’t be mad (even though they are on the inside) because it’s not a mainstream classic. Stephen King’s Christine falls into this category because its main demographics are Stephen King fans, horror film junkies, and car enthusiasts. I love this film so much I read the book twice in high school.
For those who haven’t heard of the book, or seen the film, here is quick plot overview. (For the sake of this article we will be talking exclusively about the film adaption.) A nerdy teen Arnie Cunningham finds a 1958 Plymouth Fury named Christine and restores it. Afterwards, a school gang of bullies completely trash his beloved car.
While trying to re-build his car Christine shows Arnie that she is possessed by evil and has the ability to restore herself back to showroom condition. Every night afterwards Christine hits the road seeking vehicular homicidal vengeance on the bullies, and anyone else, who gets in-between her and Arnie.
Not counting the murder part, how awesome would it be to own a vehicle that can restore itself? You could park anywhere, take it everywhere, and drive like hell without a care in the world. It be heaven on wheels! Sadly that’s only possible in our imaginations, and in the world of movie magic. So, how did John Carpenter and his crew use practical effects, and 24 Plymouth sedans, to bring a cherry red murder mopar to the big screen?
First Scene – Christine gets Trashed by Bullies
Arguably one of the most painful scenes to watch in the entire film. Arnie keeps Christine in a Do-It-Yourself garage and salvage yard. After a long rainy night he parks her in the stall and leaves to walk home. Unware to him, the gang of bullies have been waiting for him and sneak in as soon as he leaves.
They surround Christine like predators to prey. This is arguably one of the most painful scenes in the movie for any car lover. We see the main villain, Buddy Repperton, jump on the roof of the car carrying a sledge hammer. Like a satanic ritual they unleash all fury among the Plymouth Fury with hammers and knifes as they start to demolish the car in a frenzy.
To film this scene they told the actors to go for it. To really trash the mint looking Plymouth, and they did. William Ostrander, who plays Buddy Repperton, nearly falls off the hood when he jumps off the roof.
Second Scene – Restoration Strip Tease
We move from the most haunting scene in the film to the most rewarding. The iconic scene where Christine rebuilds herself for the first time.
In the aftermath of the bullies demolition Arnie is left broken hearted but stirred by rage and love to rebuild his car. He talks to it saying that he will make it better, referring them the car and him as “we” as he shares a private moment.
As he walks away to the work bench the sound of metal flexing catches his ear and turns to see the engine’s dual carb intake has been fully repaired. Arnie seems emotionless as he sees it and walks to the front of Christine. He stares at the wreck and utters the phrase, “Okay. Show me…” Christine responds by flashing her high beams and starts inflating her slashed tires. Various body panels begin to flex and reshape themselves back to original condition. Glass shatters collect and become solid once again. The crumbled front end stretches out and regains its Detroit steel figure. She’s back from the dead.
This scene took some engineering. Christine’s high beams are notoriously bright, and that’s because they are actually airplane landing lights. To give her that extra illuminating kick. To make it look like she can rebuild herself they made plastic moldings of the Plymouths body panels. Then hydraulics were placed inside, out of camera view, and used to press the panels inward. Crushing the moldings like soda cans and once in the editing booth the footage was played in reverse and presto, Wolverine self-generating Mopar.
It’s a practical effect and it looked great in the movie when matched with seductive saxophone music. Does this count as a restoration strip tease? I mean Keith Gordon, the actor who plays Arnie, said that he always imagined Christine as woman during solo scenes in order portray his character’s love for the car.
Third Scene – Death to Moochie
Now that she back on the road she’s got a list of names to hunt down. A bully named Moochie is the first of Christine’s victims under Arnie’s ownership. Moochie is dropped off by a semi-truck near an underpass in the middle of the night. As he begins to make his midnight stroll home he stops when he hears the hum of 50’s pop music in the air. It’s Christine, and she looks better than new.
Her engine ignites and menacingly rolls her way down the road where Moochie is standing. Her soft suspension almost makes it look like she’s bopping along with the tune on her radio. Moochie, stunned and nervous, walks up to the machine and utters, “Hey, you ain’t mad are you?” Music stops and high beams cut through the night before Christine drops the hammer and launches forward squealing rubber as she runs after Moochie.
Christine chases Moochie into a warehouse yard where she corners him in a loading dock that is too narrow for her to get after him. Fueled by murderous vengeance Christine forces herself into the loading dock, crushing her frontend and door panels as she creeps towards Moochie until she crushes him to death.
This scene required some movie magic. The frontend of this stunt car was made out of rubber! The fenders, front bumper, etc. Then a bulldozer was used to push the car into the tunnel, and was later digitally removed in editing.
Whenever Christine was in battle mode, John Carpenter had all the windows blacked out. For several reasons: to give the car a sinister look, to keep the audience guessing as to whether she was driving or Arnie was, but mostly so that we couldn’t see the stunt driver behind the wheel. Terry Leonard was the stunt coordinator for the film and driver during the high speed stunts.
The blacked out windows look great but Terry had a hard time seeing since all of Christine’s attacks take place at night. They had a small square cut in the front windshield and that’s it. Imagine trying to avoid hitting cast members while jumping and sliding a 50’s sedan and not being able to see anything except a little hole in front of you.
Fourth Scene – Cruisin After Buddy
The following night, Christine starts to follow Buddy, with Richie riding shotgun, in his ’68 Camaro at night. Buddy spots a behind him but thinks its just another tailgater with its high beams on. After realizing that this is no ordinary tailgater he floors it to the safety of Don’s gas station. He arrives and get out of the Camaro armed with a tire iron in his hand. Christine slides in and T-bones the Camaro into the wall of the garage section of the gas station.
Buddy is stunned and refuses to believe it’s the same car he totaled. He shouts for the driver to get out and face him. Christine instead roars ahead and pushes the Camaro into the building wall, hitting Richie and throwing him across the garage where the Camaro and Christine crush his body. The Camaro’s gas tank bursts and spills gas all over the floor before sparked flames from the wreck causes the entire garage to light up like a barbeque pit with too much lighter fluid.
Buddy is frozen in fear until Christine reverses out of the garage completely engulfed in flames and revving her engine at him. He takes off running into the night. Christine drives forward out of the gas stations but not before crashing through the gas pumps causing the entire place to blow up.
Then it cuts to Buddy running straight down a two lane blacktop with a burning Christine slowly creeping up behind him. Taking her time to allow his panic to set in before running him down and leaving a burning corpse in her taillights.
In this scene, if you look close, you can tell that there is no engine in the Camaro. For two reasons, to make the car a softer target for Christine to smash into, and safety. The crushed Camaro is then dragged by Christine as its front bumper is wedged in the Camaro. Wires on the ground give it away that the Camaro is being pulled to make it look like it’s stuck to Christine before she forces away from it. That gas station was specifically built with the sole purpose of being blown up for the movie.
The one scene I couldn’t find any information on was how they were able to film the fire scene. If anyone out there knows how did managed to safely drive a burning Christine please drop me an email. I can only assume the they dragged a burning stunt car out of the garage. Then placed a stunt driver inside for the few seconds the car actually needed to be driving.
UPDATE: Thanks to the internet I now know how they filmed the Fury inferno scene. When Christine drives out of the garage a stunt driver was behind the wheel in a full fire suit and oxygen tank. Then he drove the car out of the station, through the gas pumps, and out into the street. When Christine is chasing Buddy the car was covered in contact cement and set on fire for a controlled burn. Big thanks to Heath Howell for the information!
22 Souls in One Car
Martin Sanchez purchase one of the screen used stunt cars in the early 80’s. Said that when he got it she was a total wreck with no interior except a roll cage, a race seat, and a steering wheel. It was the same car used for the Moochie death scene with the rubber front end. Martin was just a teenager at the time, but through the right contact he was able to secure a line of parts to rebuild his Christine. He had to put her back together using the remains of the other two dozen dead Plymouths used in the film.
Video filmed by the Aficionauto.
Martin’s labor of love paid off because he is now the proud owner of one of the only two surviving, screen used, cars in existence. And damn if she doesn’t look drop dead gorgeous.
The Mystique of Christine
Is this film one of Carpenter’s best? No. It this book one of King’s best? No. It wasn’t a box office smash or loved by critics. Then why has it lasted the test of time and become a cult classic? Because of Christine. A car that many argue on whether it’s a 1957 or 1958, and gives Mopar fans yet another movie car to add to their list.
In researching material for this article I had a hard time figuring out just how many ’57-’58 Plymouth Belvedere, Savoys and Furys were used to make this film. Different sources used different numbers but the most common number was 24 with only 2 survivors. The fact that Stephen King chose a 1958 Plymouth Fury as his leading lady was because he considered it a forgotten performance car.
In 1958 they only made about 5,300 Plymouths sedans with Fury trim level, which was the performance version of the car. Here’s the kicker, none of them were even red they were all Buckskin Beige. Red paint was King’s vision.
When people talk about this film they mostly just talk about the car, and maybe the music that was composed by John Carpenter (which sounds incredible). But it’s all about the car and the ideology behind it. A car that can rebuild itself. It’s what car fantasies are made of.
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