The opening is scored to "Bad to the Bone," the diagonal track locates Malle's auto assembly-line from Humain, Trop Humain and makes it John Carpenter's as soon as the titular vehicle, a 1958 Plymouth Fury, chomps on a worker's arm, the first of its victims; another flickers a bit of ash on the leather, and expires on the front seat, stogie in mouth. The flash-forward to 1978 is appropriate, for Carpenter's movie is not just a response to shallow '80s teen flicks, but also, more obliquely, to the toxic regurgitation of Grease -- head bully William Ostrander pulls a full Travolta, grabbing Keith Gordon's lunch and running a switchblade through the brown bag until yogurt bleeds out. Fifties fetishism here is not nostalgia but critique, the cultural residue that deforms consciousness. The auto is found, battered, in the backyard of Roberts Blossom, who sells her to Gordon after proclaiming new-car smell second only to pussy. "You can't polish a turd," says garage owner Robert Prosky in one of his many uproarious orations, yet Gordon soon has Christine back to her resplendent self, in the process undergoing an upgrade of his own -- the high school geek ditches the specs and bags Alexandra Paul, who, with jock bud John Stockwell, becomes increasingly freaked out by his metamorphosis into a zombified Mr. Cool. The car dominating a relationship is a satirical notion out of Tashlin, and Carpenter, fine-tuning Stephen King's source, mates it to the sexual horror of pubescent anxieties -- the love scene is between Gordon and Christine as the car voluptuously unwrecks itself (Kustom Kar Kommandos compressed into ten seconds), with the grille, a metal smirk across the widescreen, becoming a flaming skull chasing Ostrander down the empty highway. Revenge of the nerd? Horror may be the genre, yet the shot of Gordon hugging the steering wheel while "Pledging My Love" emanates out of the radio remains a deeply sad and unsettling image. Paul's "I hate rock 'n' roll" punchline pointedly rejects pop regression, Carpenter caps it with a dolly making an abstract canvas out of twisted metal. With Harry Dean Stanton, Christine Belford, David Spielberg, Malcolm Danare, and Kelly Preston.
--- Fernando F. Croce