There's probably little left to be said about horror pictures from John Carpenter and Brian De Palma, but I took some time to catch up on those hit and miss ventures they both took a hand in - Stephen King adaptations. His ideas are often wacky and the execution can leave a lot to be desired but fortunately there are plenty of strengths to discuss in this case, as we take a look at the crimson stained adventures of evil cars and misunderstood teens in Christine and Carrie.
It's probably no surprise that a story about an angry red automobile has never seen a remake, unlike other films by Carpenter or the stories of King. The film wisely avoids any lengthy explanations or silly exposition about the nature of what goes on, it just leaves a few hints as things develop. The car itself is left to fill in all kinds of visual and supernatural cues without any need for narration, whether you want to look at it as a compensation for charisma, a representation of ego, or simply a way of taking pot shots at motor obsessed kids who can get behind the wheel before they've got any real life experiences.
Of course the storyline takes a lot of the standard elements you'd expect for a high school drama. The weak willed Arnie and his more strong headed friend Dennis have discussions about girls, run ins with ill-tempered bullies and disputes with overbearing parents to deal with before the titular Plymouth Fury comes into frame. As Arnie loses touch with his friends and becomes obsessed with maintaining his vehicle things start to become more sinister with weird goings on beneath the dashboard and strange personality changes.
The material doesn't offer a lot of room for anything truly interesting, there are some good chases and revenge moments, and the cast does a good job despite nobody looking the right age for students (much like Carrie). Carpenter adds a few touches of his own like the soundtrack and an appearance from Harry Dean Stanton along the way, overall it's entertaining enough but there's only so much you can do beyond special effects sequences and flaming highway carnage.
Carrie on the other hand has a whole lot of baggage to sort through, with themes and striking visuals that are impossible to forget. Right away the opening sequence offers both a link to the development of adulthood and of mysterious abilities - as well as book ending the story with distressing, blood related trauma. It's hard to easily classify as a horror film, after all the protagonist is a deeply sympathetic character. Sissy Spacek's transformation from nervous outcast, to confidence and then to catatonic telepath is the big strong point, although there are plenty of other notable elements.
De Palma's love of split screen effects and diopter lenses is mostly restrained up until the big inferno, but there are plenty of those little moments to add a sense of unease and an unsettling atmosphere all the way through. The shadow of problem parents is present again, but to far more detrimental results in this case with Piper Laurie as Carrie's mother supplying an entirely different kind of horror on the domestic front. It's a overtly sinister performance which fuels the pressure cooker mood set by the educational problems. It's not a totally joyless affair however, as the story follows the mundane high school prom rituals of the other students as well as those facing disciplinary measures for their behaviour in the first act. These moments of levity do a lot in terms of lifting the claustrophobic feeling of the story as well as keeping the pace of things moving smoothly. It's a surprisingly brisk story and the finale soon comes around.
It might be easy to poke holes in the lack of depth in places, particularly when there are many sequences filmed in slow motion or with silly teen dialogue used to lengthen certain scenes. But these are minor issues and it's a simple story told well; and without many superfluous subplots or side characters. Brian De Palma's subsequent return to the ideas of ESP and problematic adult development in The Fury is far less than effective with a lot of odd moments and a real lack of focus. But as Stephen King stories go, this was a lucky first adaptation as he admits himself. Other films would have results that are far less impressive.