Even when Stephen King side-shifted into something other than straight horror, Hollywood was still desperately clamouring to slap every word he ever wrote up there on the screen whether it was feasable or not. Take Firestarter – King’s flaming foray into government conspiracies giving everyday folk God-like superpowers – which paddles in much of the same water as David Cronenberg’s Scanners or Brian DePalma’s The Fury but swaps out barely controlled mind powers with devastating pyrokenisis.
Originally due to be directed by John Carpenter but eventually helmed by Mark L. Lester, the man who gifted humanity with the cartoonish perfection that is Commando, Firestarter should have been a spectacular cautionary tale as Drew Barrymore’s angelic moppet struggles to contain the epic power of an A-Bomb that broils within her. Instead we got a strangely leaden thriller that popped like a damp squib…
Shifty government agency known as The Shop tests a mystery drug called LOT-6 on a bunch of shaggy haired youths to see if any interesting side effects take place. One such side effect proves to be the union of college students Andy McGee and Vicky Tomlinson who fall in love despite being off their tits on janky, government science-juice and years later they bring little Charlie into the world. However, LOT-6 did have a noticable effect meaning that Vicky can read minds, Andy can manipulate people brains and their cutie-pie of a child is born with pyrokinetic abilities – the ability to cause people to burst into flame.
After managing to keep this a secret for eight years, The Shop finally find out that they’ve managed to create a budding family of superheroes and move to immediately perform to the sort of heinous shit you’d expect a shadowy government agency to do and while trying to claim Charlie to groom as a weapon, Vicky is murdered and Andy and his little fire flinger go on the run.
While Andy struggles to teach his daughter how to keep a simmering lid on her awesome abilities in a tremendously stressful environment, they desperately try to stay one step of the goons from The Shop, but there’s still worse to come.
Shop boss Captain James Hollister, in a hail mary play, lets terrifying assassin John Rainbird off the chain to finally get the job done, but after the successful capture of Charlie and her father, the agent comes up with a disconcerting payment. He wants to go undercover as a low-level employee to get uncomfortably close to Charlie and bond with here while she’s separated from her drugged father with the aim that he can murder her when the Shop is done studying her in order to obtain her powers in the next life.
As Andy plots a daring escape while Charlie falls deeper under Rainbird’s thrall, a terrible reckoning is building that will literally rain fire on all involved.
As a long time King fan, I’ve always considered Firestarter a competent but slightly secondary novel from the author’s initial salvo on the literary world and the movie version unfortunately doesn’t do much to change that. The Maine Man is an author who is renowned for his razor sharp storytelling prowess and the book is a perky little sci-fi/thriller with neat undertones relating to the stress of parenting a special child, but the movie drags everything to a crawl by making an on-the-run story slow to an awkward crawl.
Director Mark L. Lester can film Arnold Schwarzenegger slaughtering an entire opposing army all the live long day (and we’ll discuss Firestarter’s rousing, action climax a little bit later), but fir this movie he insists on shooting the majority of scenes in a weird, detracting, one-shot that does nothing to draw you in to a scenario that should be effortlessly nail biting. Even for a movie made in 1984, the film is incredibly hokey with the scenes involving the various supernatural powers using all the usual Hollywood tricks when realising freaky deaky mind powers. Wailing sound effects, endless temple clutching/nose bleeds and Drew Barrymore getting blasted by Beyonce’s wind machine with a moody expression on her face are all put into effect and it’s all dated a little badly if I’m being brutally honest.
Another issue is with lead actor David Keith (as opposed to Keith David) who gives a drawling performance so off-puttingly intense, it feels like his character is still on the drug trip the government gave him years prior and he sells Andy’s mind control powers with such unrelenting melodrama, if looks like he’s frantically trying not to shit his pants.
On the other hand, a weathered Hollywood thespian at the age of eight, Drew Barrymore does good work as the beleaguered Charlie, although she’s (understandably) prone to the bane of every child character in a genre movie – the propensity to whine a lot – still, the script gives her some interesting things to play with as she believably reasons her way to controlling her powers and becomes quite the experienced liar thanks to her time on the run.
One place Firestarter impresses, however, is with it’s cardre of bad guys led by a magnificently pompadoured Martin Sheen, who gives us his second suited shitbag in a Stephen King adaptation in two years after his monstrous politician in The Dead Zone and a constantly panic stricken Freddie Jones as the scientist behind LOT-6 who’s fallen back on a career on doomsaying. Stealing the show from both of these veterans is George C. Scott as the utterly ruthless John Rainbird and despite the unfortunate fact that the original Native American character from the novel has been whitewashed, he’s still a fantastically hissable villain, whether casually cracking the nasal bone into someones brain with the side of his palm to ingeniously worming his way into Charlie’s affections as a kindly orderly with a fear of the dark.
As the film meanders to its finale set to Tangerine Dream’s weirdly intrusive score (that feels very John Carpenter which is amusing considering he was a previous choice to direct the book), Lester finally finds his feet with the insane climax as he lets his pyro guys off the leash to provide a magnificently dangerous looking final set piece where Charlie takes her terrible revenge. Bullets bounce harmlessly off her while she launches mahoosive fireballs at people that incinerate her enemies left, right and centre and one particularly memorable death involves one poor sap trying to escape in a golf cart (?) before Charle atomizes his slow moving ass with a fireball the size of a prize winning pumpkin.
Frustratingly sluggish for a story that’s supposed to be incendiary (literally), even a frenzied finale littered with dozens of smoldering stuntmen isn’t enough to prevent Firestarter’s flames from being snuffed out.
Slow burn? Try no burn.