Mark L. Lester
David Keith - Andrew “Andy” McGee
Drew Barrymore - Charlene “Charlie” McGee
Heather Locklear - Victoria “Vicky” McGee
Martin Sheen - Captain James Hollister
George C. Scott - John Rainbird
Art Carney - Irv Manders
Louise Fletcher - Norma Manders
Genre - Science Fiction/Horror
Running Time - 114 Minutes
I wonder if anyone could have predicted how influential writer Stephen King would become after the release of his 1974 novel Carrie. Not only was the novel about a bullied teenager with telekinetic abilities a massive success, but its 1976 film adaptation by Brian De Palma was also a commercial and critical success that kickstarted the adaptation trend for any of King’s works. The 1980s, in particular, were a cornucopia of King film adaptations, all with varied success yet still highlights for any child of the 80s who were into horror.
One of these adaptations is 1984’s FIRESTARTER, based on King’s 1980 novel of the same name. A story about a young girl who is being targeted by evil scientists due to her development of pyrokinesis, FIRESTARTER seemed liked a reductive re-do of King’s CARRIE from years prior to many. Also, similar films had been released post-CARRIE like 1978’s THE INITIATION OF SARAH and THE FURY [the latter directed by De Palma himself] and 1981’s SCANNERS by David Cronenberg. We’ve also had similar films since, like multiple CARRIE films and even a FRIDAY THE 13TH film where Jason Voorhees battled a character with Carrie-like powers. But FIRESTARTER seems to be a film not many talk about for whatever reason, even though it has an impressive cast and had a sequel made in 2002 for cable. Even King himself has stated that the film adaptation isn’t all that good, making the film feel like its in a time capsule that only gets opened for nostalgic purposes.
It had been decades since I sat down to watch FIRESTARTER, at least in full, barely remembering anything about the film besides Drew Barrymore, George C. Scott, and the action-filled finale where a bunch of government workers burn to a crisp. And now watching it again after all this time, I can see why I barely remembered what happened in this film. I’m not saying FIRESTARTER is bad at all, because it’s not. It’s just one of King’s weaker adaptations and proof that sometimes being too faithful to the source material could be more negative than positive.
While acting as volunteers for some experimental test, Andy McGee (David Keith) and Vicky Tomlinson (Heather Locklear) meet and fall in love. The experiments grant both of them psychic abilities, bonding them closer. They eventually end up getting married and having a daughter named Charlie (Drew Barrymore). Due to the effects of the experiment, Charlie has powers of her own - the power to create and control fire with just her mind.
While the three try and be a happy family, the evil government agency behind the experiments, The Shop, find out about Charlie and want to exploit her abilities. During an ambush at home, Vicky is murdered by Shop agents, making Andy and Charlie go on the run. However, The Shop has hired an American Indian assassin named John Rainbird (George C. Scott) - a man obsessed with Charlie for some sick reason. As both father and daughter are taken prisoner, Rainbird tries to befriend Charlie for his own personal reasons.
Produced by the legendary Dino de Laurentis, who would produce a few Stephen King adaptations in the first half of the 1980s, FIRESTARTER was one of two King adaptations developed for the big screen in 1984 [the second one being CHILDREN OF THE CORN]. And while, in my opinion, both films are pretty flawed adaptations of King’s work, I feel FIRESTARTER is slightly the better of the two. CHILDREN OF THE CORN has interesting ideas, but doesn’t seem to know where to really take them through a 90-minute runtime. FIRESTARTER, at least, knows what film it sort of wants to be because it’s mostly faithful to the novel unlike many of King’s adaptations at the time. This is both a gift and a curse because while the story definitely works cinematically, certain aspects should have probably been changed or taken out in order for FIRESTARTER to be more film-friendly than it actually is.
It would have been very interesting to see what John Carpenter’s version of FIRESTARTER would have been if Universal Studios had given him a chance. For those who don’t know, Carpenter was the original pick to be the film’s director. At time, he was already working on a King adaptation, 1983’s CHRISTINE, and felt like a natural fit. He had a couple of adapted screenplays to work with, all seemingly more suited for cinema than the actual screenplay that was used. But due to 1982’s THE THING flopping at the time at the box office and CHRISTINE not doing much better a year later, Carpenter was taken off of the project - along with the screenplays he had approved for his version of FIRESTARTER. Instead, Universal hired Mark L. Lester [of CLASS OF 1984 and later COMMANDO fame] to direct the film instead, leading to Lester to bring in screenwriter Stanley Mann to adapt a screenplay that was very faithful to the novel. While that’s commendable and ideal for Stephen King and the fans of the novel, doing that doesn’t always make for the most exciting movie. And that’s a serious issue with FIRESTARTER, as the film has very good moments that are dragged out by a story that stays too true to its source material.
FIRESTARTER is really a film of two halves in terms of quality. In my opinion, the first half of the film is the strongest part of the movie. Along with some much needed flashbacks that quickly set up what’s happening in the present, the first half is mainly a cat-and-mouse chase flick where Andy and Charlie are on the run from these evil government agents of The Shop. There’s a sense of urgency, danger, and dread as they soldiers want to harm an innocent child and her father - products of an experiment that they created in the first place. While the film does suffer from a lack of depth in terms of character development, this part of the film at least establishes the relationship between Andy and Charlie. Andy uses his psychic abilities to manipulate things in his favor to protect his daughter, while Charlie is confused, scared and frustrated over the situation and her lack in controlling her powers. You get a real sense that they’re a team, as Andy tries to control his daughter every chance she feels the urge of burning people that harm them. They meet kind strangers along the way, which end up getting them somewhat involved in the whole mess as well, building up stakes in the story that make us care about what will happen next. Even though John Carpenter was taken off of FIRESTARTER, this portion of the film sure feels like something he would at least produced in one of his own films. There’s small character development within a quick paced and action-filled section that tries to build us a world for these characters for us to understand.
It’s too bad the second half just plods along until the insane final 10 to 15 minutes of the film. In this portion, Andy and Charlie are prisoners of The Shop as they’re being studied on their abilities. Charlie, especially, is a focus because The Shop wants to use her as a weapon and challenge her as a way to increase her abilities. Also here, we learn more about the Rainbird character, who has a real interest in a young pyrokinetic girl - to the point where it borders on creepy enough to call Chris Hansen to sit this old man down for a talk. This portion is more focused on the drama and the science fiction aspect of the story, which would be fine if it wasn’t so generic and uninteresting. There’s no real sense of time, just moments where characters interact with each other. Then it leads to a scene of Charlie being told to use her powers so The Shop can gauge it, which then goes right back to these interactions before repeating itself. Andy and Charlie have sympathy because they’re obviously victims and we’ve been following them from the film’s first shot. But the last half of the film doesn’t really develop them in new ways to create any sort of depth. And the bad guys, besides Rainbird, are just bland stock mad scientists and followers.
Rainbird has a little more going for him since he’s a manipulator who has his own agenda with Charlie, whether that’s to kill her, use her for her power, or something more sinister that’s sort of implied. And while it makes sense for him to lie about who he is in order to slowly gain Charlie’s trust, not having a sense of time hurts these scenes because Charlie falls for this act way too quickly. In the first half of the film, Charlie also seems to sense when The Shop is close enough to her and her father to cause trouble, making her warn Andy when they’re near. If Charlie has this ability to tell who’s dangerous, why wouldn’t that work with Rainbird? They’re not drugging her to suppress this power since they want to become stronger. It just feels badly written, as if Rainbird gaining Charlie’s trust will turn her against the man who has taken care of her her entire life. Also, Charlie has trouble controlling her power whenever she feels frustrated, angry or moments when she doesn’t exactly get her way. Why wouldn’t Charlie force these bad guys to tell her where her father is so she can save him and they can escape? She may be a child but she’s been through enough to understand what’s the deal, I would think. It’s handled better in a novel where Charlie is the narrator, allowing us to understand her emotional state and reasoning through her own words. You can’t really do that in third person narration on film without giving the audience more information to close these plot holes. Plus, as much as I like slow burn science fiction, the last half besides the conclusion is just way too long and boring for its own good. Stranger Things [which was obviously inspired somewhat by this film with the Eleven character] handles the science stuff better because it doesn’t feel rushed and has deep characters we’re allowed to care about. FIRESTARTER tries to cram a 500 page novel into a two-hour film and that’s not nearly long enough to tell this story - and the film is already longer than it should be.
Mark L. Lester does a decent directorial job on FIRESTARTER. The first half is great because of the fast paced action and Carpenter vibe. The second half isn’t shot terribly, but the pacing is off and just feels bland. It has a TV movie feel that shouldn’t be part of any theatrical film. It honestly feels like a David Cronenberg film without the interesting characters or commentary that goes with it. The second half of the film could have lost 15 to 20 minutes and wouldn’t have changed much. I will say that Lester does handle action very well, especially when father and daughter use their powers. Andy’s mind control is very much like SCANNERS, with the nice touch of nose bleeds happening each other. And Charlie’s fire power is awesome and it’s used in multiple ways that keep our interest throughout. But other than that, there’s not much to say about FIRESTARTER’s visual presentation other than that it’s okay.
The acting is also a bit mixed. The film belongs to both Drew Barrymore and George C. Scott, as this film would have been a lot worse without them involved. Scott is miscast as an Native American assassin, but does manage to make Rainbird a bit of a creep at times. He gives a good performance, but the role was probably better suited for someone else. Barrymore, however, is fantastic as young Charlie. Sure, at times it seems she doesn’t take the fire power stuff all that seriously, almost trying not to laugh as wind blows her hair while she stares blankly at the camera. But she’s believable as a young child who has an ability she doesn’t know how to control or understand. She has tantrums. She cries on cue. She’s charismatic and displays a maturity most child actors her age wish they had. She carries FIRESTARTER on her shoulders and does a commendable job. She feels like a real kid and I like that. David Keith is also quite good as Andy. He plays the heroic and protective father well, making him likable enough for us to care about what happens to him. A lot of the villains though, especially Martin Sheen as the head of the Shop, just feel wasted here. Sheen is just cliche villain of the week with no depth or life to him. An actor of his stature deserves a meatier role. You also have Art Carney and Louise Fletcher here as well, but they don’t get to do a whole lot either. Three Academy Award winning actors and two aren’t used to their capacity - a shame.
I also have to give a ton of kudos to all the stunt people who worked on FIRESTARTER. No CGI was used in this film, so all the fire effects were done practically on set. Watching people set ablaze for these action scenes still amazes me and I have nothing but respect for their hard work here. That’s scary as hell and they made the film memorable for me after all these years. The stunt people deserve more credit than they actually get - and I mean that for any film that has them involved.
And I can’t end the review without talking about the musical score by the great Tangerine Dream. Unfortunately, I think the group has made better scores for other films, as not everything I heard worked for me in FIRESTARTER. I thought the musical cues for the action and quicker paced moments were great, carrying a nice synth heavy groove that added a lot. But during the quieter moments, the score was just there and didn’t really capture my attention all that much. I have a feeling it’s less about the actual music and more about the sound design here. I think a lot of the score wasn’t used properly and didn’t elevate the visuals when they probably should have.
THE FINAL HOWL
FIRESTARTER is a film I probably enjoyed more when I was younger than I do as an adult. The chase aspect of the first half is pretty solid, while the weaker second half slows the film way too much to the point of almost dull at times [the film’s climax is pretty cool though]. Director Mark L. Lester handles the action scenes nicely [the stunt people deserve all the respect for allowing themselves to be set on fire like that], but the more quieter scenes feel like I’m watching a TV movie, hoping for something more interesting to happen in terms of style. The Tangerine Dream score is more good than bad, mainly due to how the music is used within the film. And while some big actors are wasted, Drew Barrymore carries the film extremely well considering her young age at the time. David Keith and George C. Scott help her out immensely in supporting roles as her heroic father and a creepy assassin respectively. The film doesn’t fire on all cylinders as a King novel-to-film adaptation, but it has enough things going on to make it worth at least a watch or a revisit.