Column: Slicing Score: Christine

By Maria Mitchell

Christine (1983). Original Score Soundtrack. Composed by John Carpenter.

Not many film scores have help from a sentient car that can willfully select music to express its evil through its possessed radio. Christine‘s was one of the lucky ones. This soundtrack, though, does not have the songs Christine’s radio plays in the film. It is purely the orchestral score. Plymouth fury, unadulterated and unabridged.

How do you greet the theme to a flaming car marauding down the highway and poised to kill you? With wary relief that it’s just a movie score. The more sentimental moments of the score center on Arnie Cunningham’s obsession with the car. “Show me”, is a striking cue which begins with a few bittersweet notes. It’s a little disturbing how childish the sound of the music is here, almost like the accompaniment to some kind of lullaby. It helps make Christine sympathetic. Christine grew very old very quickly with no one to love her; thus, this is the state Arnie finds her in when he purchases her. Arnie quips: I finally found something that’s uglier than me.

Oddly enough, I’d say those bittersweet notes that open the cue “Show me” even have a “red” sound to them. I say that because Christine’s red is a colour that is vivid, crisp and memorable. All these words also describe those notes. While the cross-sensory applications of synesthesia (in this sense of the word: the fusion of different senses together, such as seeing sounds or smelling colours, and not the perceptive dysfunction) aren’t universally recognized in medicine, I think it’s a real experience, even if an intangible one. It appears to be a sense that is an undercurrent of the other senses. Whether consciously or unconsciously, most film scorists end up tapping into that undercurrent of sense when they write music for visual media, because of the demand for film music to accompany visual stimuli. This is what gives film music its often hypnotic quality.

I asked a music teacher of mine once if she agreed with my position that all film music operates as a kind of hypnosis to keep the audience sedated enough to hold their attention on the film, even in a world rife with ADD. She said yes, and further told me no film would be suspenseful without music. Though there are films like The Exorcist that are suspenseful and make very little use of music, Tubular Bells, aside.

Christine‘s score makes clever use of instrumentation that mimics honking horns and metallic-sounding percussion to paint the musical picture of the car. The music may verge into a bit of sensory overload, sometimes, since the cues get fast and heavy on bass lines. The cue, “Darnell’s Tonight”, sounds almost slapstick to me because there’s a flat sound at the end of it. Slapstick is not unwelcome in Christine‘s music, since, under the horror of obsession and murder, there’s a bitingly satiric edge in this film that’s actually quite funny. The edge cuts into the concept of cars as a symbol of independence, but really just being an endless drain on the pocketbooks and patience of the owners. For all their efforts, the owners of flashy automobiles don’t receive all that much in return except an easily gutted ego and, occasionally, a nasty mess on the dashboard.

One thing I didn’t hear clearly in the score, and would have liked to, was a more femme-fatale kind of music. It’s in there, a little, but it’s very subtle. Christine is not a subtle car, so this was a place where I felt the score held back a bit. Having fought with trashy demo tracks, I know any kind of sound editing is not an easy task. It’s hard to loop the tracks in a way that won’t overpower the film, but still pack enough punch to pull off that hypnotic mesmerism that film music usually has to achieve. If you’re lucky enough to record something that you’d actually consider even letting someone else hear, you still have to layer it over the visual media in a way that will make coherent sense. To all practitioners of creepy music who are braver than I, I say, Good luck.

Christine‘s original score soundtrack is available through www.amazon.com.