Saturday, June 11, 2011

Who Is Vandenberg? (And Did He Really Deserve To Get Blown Up Like That?)

If there’s one character in John Carpenter’s Stephen King adaptation Christine (1983) I’ve always felt kind of sorry for, it’s Vandenberg. And whom, you might well query—even if, like me, you’ve seen the film a good half dozen times—is Vandenberg? A peripheral character who appears onscreen only briefly in a few scenes and has only one line of dialogue, Vandenberg attracted my attention because he’s played by Stu (credited here as Stuart) Charno, an actor I’ve always liked for his earlier (and considerably larger) role as Ted in Friday the 13th Part 2.

You remember Ted, right? The only character besides final girl Ginny (the delightful Amy Steel) who had an actual personality, Ted was the obligatory prankster for F13 Part Deux, the one tasked with making smart alecky quips and pulling false scare shenanigans. Also known as “The Annoying Jerk”, the prankster is a thankless stock role (he’s always the one guy who doesn’t get laid), but Charno made Ted a surprisingly likeable annoying jerk, so much so that he was allowed to stay behind in town and drink beer while the other counselors in training were getting chopped, slashed and skewered back at the camp. Usually you look forward to the prankster meeting the stabby end of Jason’s sharp implement of choice, but Ted was so darn cute you were glad he made it to Saturday the 14th with nothing worse than a hangover.

And that’s why I always felt kind of bad when Vandenberg gets blown up in Christine. It happens shortly after the character, a mechanic at the garage where a couple of punks on Christine’s shit list have led the rampaging Plymouth Fury, speaks his first and only line (“Hey, is that Cunningham?”). Then Christine rams her way into the garage, some gasoline gets spilled and a spark ignites and Blammo! the poor guy gets barbequed in a spectacular explosion. It was the one death in the movie that seemed cruelly arbitrary. I didn’t know who this guy was (we only find out his name later on when Detective Junkins (Harry Dean Stanton) happens to mention it), but he seemed to me like a nice enough guy who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

At least that’s how it appeared the first half dozen times I watched the movie as a kid. I was too young at the time to see it in the theater in all its widescreen glory so I had to settle for watching it panned-and-scanned on cable and VHS, which was alright with me, it was still an awesome movie no matter the size or shape of the screen. Ah, but years later I’d realize what I’d been missing. For hiding in the cropped margins of Christine was the answer to the burning question of Who is Vandenberg? Now, a quarter century after first stumbling upon this maddening riddle, I’ve discovered the answer at long last, thanks to the miracle of DVD.

I don’t know why I waited so long to watch Christine again, I guess I just watched it so many times as a kid that I burnt out on it—but seeing it in the splendor of crisp digital video with its original widescreen composition intact was a revelation. Not only did the improved presentation reveal previously unnoticed background details, it also restored important stuff going on in the periphery of the camera frame, which is where Vandenberg—literally a peripheral character—spends most of his time before the garage explosion.

Actually, he is in center frame in the first of his scenes, if only briefly. We get our first glimpse of Vandenberg when we’re introduced to sadistic dirt ball Buddy (William Ostrander, sporting the most evil-looking sideburns ever), chief tormentor of poor put-upon nerd Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon). Buddy swipes Arnie’s brown-bagged lunch and holds it hostage with a switchblade, while standing between them in the background Vandenberg can be seen, arms crossed, watching with an amused expression on his puss while Buddy taunts the hapless, frightened Arnie.

Well, so that’s not nice. But still, did he really deserve to get blown up like that?

Then, a minute later, Vandenberg appears behind Arnie just before Arnie slips on the yougurty remains of his punctured lunch, and though there’s a quick shot of a foot going out to trip Arnie, it’s hard to tell for sure if it was Vandenberg who tripped him, or, if so, if he did it on purpose.

All doubts as to Vandenberg’s culpability, however, are erased with the introduction of previously unseen evidence. In the film’s widescreen version, Vandenberg can be seen on the right side of the frame, sneaking around behind Arnie just before Arnie slips—proof positive of malicious mischief, and a crucial piece of the puzzle that went missing from the cropped cable and VHS versions of the movie.

So there’s that.

But still, does that deserve him getting blown up? Maybe he just happened to be there at the shop class when Buddy and his delinquent pals started picking on Arnie, and in an effort to look cool he had a momentary lapse in judgment that led to actions that he really, really regretted later on. It happens, right?

I was willing to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. But then came an even more shocking widescreen revelation later in the film, another appearance by Vandenberg in a memorable scene that the pan-and-scan versions of the film had cut him out of entirely.

During a football (game/practice), Arnie’s friend/protector Dennis (John Stockwell) is running with the ball when he gets distracted by the seriously fucking weird sight of his formerly nerdy buddy making out with Leigh (Alexandra Paul), the knockout who politely rejected Dennis’ overtures in an earlier scene. So distracted is Dennis that he runs right into a brutal sacking that’ll land him in the hospital. While all this is going on, there’s a shot of Buddy watching the game, flanked by his cronies Moochie (Malcolm Danare) and Rich (Steven Tash). One, two, three, three people. At least that’s how many I counted watching the movie on cable and VHS.

But then what do you know, widescreen reveals one more member of Buddy’s entourage, standing next to Rich at the far right end of the frame. Of course it’s none other than Vandenberg, the son of a bitch. And when Dennis gets creamed Vandenberg joins in with the other hooligans, hooting and applauding. Boy, did I have this Vandenberg guy wrong.

But. At least he doesn’t participate later in the always difficult to watch, frenzied orgy of vintage car vandalism at Darnell’s, where Buddy and his cronies take sledgehammers and knives and any other handy implement of destruction to the meticulously restored, show room condition Christine. That scene officially elevates Buddy, Moochie, and Rich from trouble-making ruffians to human scum that must die, and I had to give Vandenberg points for not being there. He wasn’t, right?

I never saw him. But rewatching the scene the other day, I noticed for the first time that four—not three—skulking figures can be seen sneaking into Darnell’s while Arnie is parking Christine, and four—not three—people can be seen gathering around the defenseless automobile before the smashing and slashing starts. But here’s the thing: in these two long shots you see four people, but in the rest of the scene, you see only three. The fourth member of the demolition crew doesn’t get a close-up, and I had to go back and watch the scene over and freeze frame and squint really hard with my nose pressed against the screen to figure out who the fourth guy was.

Well, you can tell by now where I’m going with this so I don’t have to tell you. And I already knew, of course, but I didn’t want to believe it. How could anyone who looks like Stu Charno be a bad guy? But there he is, definitely him, taking a sledgehammer to Christine’s classy chassis.

And maybe my reluctance to believe that Vandenberg was a scum bag who did, in fact, deserve to get blown up like that offers a clue as to why we see so little of him. While the other actors are classically thuggish in appearance (though even Danare looks a little too cuddly to be a sociopath), Charno looks like an affable goofball even when he’s wielding a sledgehammer. This isn’t a knock on Charno’s acting talent, it’s just the same as why you’d never see a Rondo Hatton character sitting cross-legged sipping a Stoli Sea Breeze.

Well, go figure.

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