15 Facts About John Carpenter’s Christine
Start your engines for the scariest Stephen King adaptation courtesy of the master of horror, John Carpenter. While Christine isn’t the most high-profile release in either King or Carpenter’s careers, the movie about an evil 1958 Plymouth Fury that possesses its owner remains a beloved cult classic that still spins the wheels of horror fans to this day. Here are some facts about Christine, which turns 35 this year.
1. STEPHEN KING PITCHED THE MOVIE TO GET MADE.
Producer Richard Kobritz helped adapt Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot as a TV miniseries in 1979, and the author asked Kobritz whether he’d be up for adapting any more of his works. King initially sent the producer the manuscript for Cujo, which Kobritz didn’t like (the book would eventually be published in 1981 with a movie adaptation also in 1983). When he passed on that, King sent over the manuscript for Christine, which Kobritz optioned because he identified with how it inverted "America's obsession with the motorcar."
2. JOHN CARPENTER SIGNED ON SIMPLY BECAUSE HE WANTED A JOB.
Kobritz approached John Carpenter after the critical and financial failure of his 1982 adaptation of The Thing, which is now widely regarded as one of the filmmaker’s best.
The pair previously worked together on Carpenter’s 1978 TV movie Someone’s Watching Me! and Carpenter agreed to take on the project because he wanted to jump immediately into another movie after his first high-profile box office flop.
3. CARPENTER AND THE SCREENWRITER WERE STEPHEN KING VETERANS.
Christine wasn’t Carpenter’s first foray into adapting the twisted mind of Stephen King. He was originally supposed to direct the adaptation of Firestarter, but was fired from the project because of the poor performance of The Thing. (Firestarter was eventually released in 1984 and directed by Mark L. Lester.)
Carpenter’s screenwriter on his version of Firestarter was Bill Phillips, who jumped ship once Carpenter was let go and joined up as the screenwriter on Christine once Kobritz hired Carpenter.
4. HORROR HITS AT THE TIME FORCED CHANGES TO THE SCRIPT.
In King’s book, Christine is seemingly haunted by her former owner, Roland D. LeBay, who appears to mild-mannered nerd Arnie in the backseat of the car as a rotting corpse taunting the car’s new owner.
Phillips, looking to distinguish his script from the book—as well as preemptively cut costs for what would inevitably be an expensive corpse effect—chose to cut Roland from the movie and instead have LeBay’s younger brother George sell Christine to Arnie.
Phillips also made the cut because a talking corpse taunting a movie’s main character was also used in John Landis’s 1981 horror-comedy classic An American Werewolf in London, when Griffin Dunne haunts his best friend, David Naughton’s protagonist character, and he didn’t want to seem redundant.
5. HIT SONGS PLAYED A PART IN SCRIPT CHANGES, TOO.
Each of the chapters in King’s book begins with a corresponding 1950s rock n' roll lyric, which inspired Phillips to include rock music cues written directly into scenes in his script. But he wanted to include a more contemporary song to set the tone for the movie. He found it when he saw the music video for “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood and the Destroyers playing on MTV. (Christine ended up being the first movie to use the song, which has now been used in countless movies and TV shows since.)
Carpenter loved the song so much that he invited Thorogood to have a cameo in the film as one of the junkyard employees at the end of the movie, but he chose to cut the scene because Thorogood’s acting wasn’t good enough.
As was his normal approach, Carpenter also wrote the electronic score with collaborator Alan Howarth, which they completely improvised to the final cut of the movie. The score shares similar themes with the infamous 1982 Michael Myers-less sequel, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which Carpenter produced and also wrote the music for with Howarth.
6. THE STUDIO WANTED A HARD R RATING.
Columbia Pictures wanted to take advantage of the ratings system and King’s reputation to have Christine be a hard-R-rated movie. But Carpenter specifically joined the project to get away from the blood, guts, and splatter that defined his previous movie, The Thing. Plus, most of the car-related carnage in Christine doesn’t involve gore.
So to achieve the MPAA rating the studio wanted, Carpenter simply had Phillips expound upon King’s colorful curse words used in the book to have the high school-aged characters constantly swear.
7. CARPENTER DIDN’T WANT TO CAST MOVIE STARS.
Columbia execs wanted a star-studded cast to round out their King adaptation, and suggested that Brooke Shields—coming off the hit film The Blue Lagoon—be cast as Leigh, and Scott Baio be cast as Arnie. But Carpenter didn’t want recognizable faces in the movie as a way to stress that the titular car was the real star of the movie.
8. KEVIN BACON WAS ORIGINALLY CAST AS ARNIE.
Carpenter held auditions in California and New York, looking for the right fresh faces for the teen characters in the film, and he found the perfect newcomer for Arnie: Kevin Bacon.
The now-famous actor’s only other significant work at the time was bit parts in Animal House and Friday the 13th, and Kobritz and Carpenter thought Arnie’s transformation from dweeby hero to suave villain was a perfect fit for Bacon. But after being cast, Bacon dropped out when he was offered a starring role in Footloose.
Carpenter went back the the drawing board to cast Arnie, and eventually found actor Keith Gordon in a play in New York City. Carpenter initially took to Gordon as Arnie because of the actor’s previous appearance in Brian De Palma’s thriller Dressed to Kill.
9. CARPENTER HAD A DRIVING MISHAP ON HIS FIRST DAY.
The assembly-line opening of the movie was the first scene shot for Christine, but the director almost didn’t make it to the set. On the way to the massive warehouse in the San Fernando Valley where they were shooting the scene, which had been outfitted to look like a post-World War II Detroit factory, Carpenter was pulled over by the highway patrol because they thought he was drunk or speeding. Carpenter eventually made it, and was able to get the shots for the day.
Christine’s origin story sequence was the only part of the movie shot on Fuji film to give it a softer, more period-appropriate look. The rest of the movie was shot using Kodak film to make the scenes sharper and more contemporary.
10. THE PRODUCTION REUSED A KEY SET.
Darnell’s Auto Body Shop was shot at a massive warehouse space previously used as a wire factory during World War II, and located in Irwindale, California—and it was more than just a set. Production designers used half of the space to stand in as the actual garage and junkyard, but the other half was used as a body shop to assemble and fix the numerous versions of Christine used in the actual movie.
11. CARPENTER’S DIRECTING STYLE WAS INSPIRED BY HIS ROVING MOVIE MONSTER.
In his genre-defining classic Halloween, Carpenter was among the first filmmakers to use the Panaglide camera system, a predecessor to the ubiquitous Steadicam system used today that allows handheld shots to seamlessly glide anywhere the operator chooses.
Carpenter revisited the technique extensively in Christine, relying on the Panaglide and long dolly shots for the visual aesthetic of the movie with the movement of the camera representing the relentless and rolling nature of Christine.
12. THERE WAS A CAR FOR EVERYTHING.
Since there were no big expensive movie stars in the film, Carpenter allotted a large portion of the budget toward 17 different versions of Christine created for the movie.
Those 17 complete cars were reassembled from 24 different models of the 1958 Plymouth Fury the production tracked down and refurbished from across the country in pre-production. A different Christine was used depending on what happened in particular scenes. The special effects team, led by supervisor Roy Arbogast—known for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind—put together reinforced Christines for stunts; Christines with souped-up engines; spotless, camera-ready Christines and more.
All but two of the 17 Christines made for the movie were destroyed.
13. CHRISTINE’S RESURRECTION HAPPENED AFTER PRODUCTION WRAPPED.
Carpenter originally had the scene where Christine resurrects herself in front of Arnie happen offscreen, but a lack of special effects in an initial cut made Carpenter think some needed to be added. He asked Arbogast to create the pre-CGI effects of Christine going from completely trashed to totally spotless after production wrapped.
The effect was achieved by hitting carefully placed hydraulic clamps positioned inside one of the Christines, filming it upside down so the gravity would trick the eye into thinking it looked more real, and playing the footage backwards in the final film.
14. KEITH GORDON WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN CHOOSING HIS WARDROBE.
Gordon was initially given contemporary wardrobe to wear as Arnie, but after reading the script he helped develop his character’s fashion changes as he becomes more and more possessed by Christine.
Gordon suggested that as his character becomes more evil, his wardrobe should become more and more over-the-top to reflect his crazed mental state. At Gordon’s suggestion, as the movie progresses, Arnie’s clothes add more deep reds to the color scheme (just like Christine), and become a mix between a 1950s greaser and a bad guy in a western.
15. THE PRODUCTION BUILT A GAS STATION JUST TO DESTROY IT.
Stunt coordinator Terry Leonard, perhaps best known for doubling Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones movies, did most of the stunt driving for Christine. Most notably, Leonard supervised and was the driver for the gas station sequence where the entire building explodes and a flame-covered Christine careens out of the destruction to chase down school bully Buddy Repperton (played by then-actor William Ostrander, who is currently a Democratic candidate for District 35 of the California State Assembly).
Throughout the sequence, Leonard wore a fireproof suit equipped with limited oxygen to keep him safe for the duration of the stunt. Given the blacked out windshield and side windows of the evil Christine, Leonard had to complete the stunt without being able to see anything.