Photo credit: Columbia Pictures
What is the singular most frightening car scene ever? Could there be just one?
In John Carpenter’s Christine, adapted from the same-titled Stephen King novel, a 1958 Plymouth Fury named Christine avenges herself after being smashed to bits by three high school bullies.
Two of those bullies, Rich (Steve Cholony) and Buddy (William Ostrander–because young John Travolta wasn’t available, but this guy looks a lot like him) are driving at night listening to “Beast of Burden” by the Stones when through the rear window headlights pop on in the car behind them. They don’t know yet that it’s Christine. After giving it the middle finger, cursing it and trying to chase it off, they stop at a gas station with a garage and get out of Buddy’s 1967 Chevrolet Camaro.
Christine smashes into the Camaro, her bumper catches it, and she drags it away from the building backwards. After it gets loose, she backs up and smashes it again, pushing it all the way into the garage and crushing Rich. Fire, busted gas tank and an explosion.
Christine emerges backwards from the garage, and Buddy hoofs it. Christine is literally on fire. The entire car is on fire. There’s not a little fire on the hood or the roof or the trunk. It’s not just fire in close ups. It’s not a fire in front of the camera and the car really safe behind it. It’s all on fire even the tailfins are on fire, the flames are reaching high and fanning out five feet behind her, and it’s all in a beautiful long shot—the kind of longshot that looks like it should be a print hanging on your wall. That, however, is not the scariest scene.
The introduction of Christine on the assembly line is a classic opener that sets the tone and mood immediately. The car rebuilding itself is one of the coolest scenes in film history. But the truly frightening scene is next—iconic imagery, combining man’s growing fear of technology and man’s oldest fear, that of fire. When I rewatched this and for the first time in a theater in the fall of 2015, my movie catalogue brain told me that there are no scenes like this in cinema history.
The next shot is Christine’s point of view with that classic minimalist Carpenter score. She appears in the dark distance with her brights on. As she gets closer to the camera, we see that she is still on fire. Not satisfied with lighting the car on fire once, Carpenter and his crew lit that car on fire twice, or possibly used up two versions of the car to do so.
When we see Buddy running, the only sound we hear are his running feet. You don’t hear the fire or the engine. The flames don’t extinguish in the wind as Christine chases, rolls over him and leaves him as burning human road kill. If there is a scarier car scene than that, I would like to see it.