On Firestarter

Firestarter, based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, which I admit is a film I have liked an awful lot. According to Cryptic Rock‘s article, “This Week In Horror Movie History – Firestarter (1984)“:

The movie starts out with poor, young college students Andy McGee (Keith) and Vicky Tomlinson (Locklear) participating in a medical experiment to earn some extra cash. Sponsored by the Department of Scientific Intelligence, AKA The Shop, they are given a top secret hallucinogenic called LOT-6 that opens up neural pathways in their brains, giving Andy the power of suggestion and Vicky telepathy. While this effect mostly wears off, both are left with vestiges of supernatural talent. They wind up marrying and having a child, Charlie (Barrymore), now nine years old. The mixture of DNA and LOT-6 from her parents gives Charlie pyrokinesis and short-term precognition. This result interests the scientific minds at The Shop, and they decide that they want Charlie for themselves to train as an extrasensory, fire starting weapon. When Andy comes home to find his wife murdered by agents of the evil corporation, he manages to save Charlie by blinding the kidnappers and going on the run with his daughter. For the following year, the two hide out in secluded cabins and dingy motels while Andy writes letters to newspapers to reveal what The Shop is really up to, but one of the postmarks gives away their location at Irv and Norma Manders’ farm, and one-eyed John Rainbird (Scott) is dispatched to hunt down and capture the father and daughter. After a standoff, the two are captured and brought to a secret facility of The Shop, where employees keep them separated. It becomes clear right away that Andy’s powers are still active but have decreased significantly since his initial exposure to LOT-6, and he is kept sedated to keep him from causing trouble.

Charlie, on the other hand, is literally bursting with psychic energy, but refuses to submit to experiments until she can see her father. Rainbird goes undercover as a friendly janitor to befriend Charlie and convince her to use her abilities. Time and time again, Charlie destroys The Shop’s paltry experiments, barely breaking a sweat, making it obvious that she could destroy the entire facility should she so chose. As her power and requests to see her father increase, Andy starts palming his sedatives and regains his power of suggestibility. He forces Captain Hollister (Sheen) to arrange an escape. Charlie tells her friend the undercover janitor about her father’s plan, and although he promises to help, he also tells the powers that be about the upcoming breakout attempt. When Andy realizes the trick Rainbird has pulled on Charlie, he waits for her to arrive at their arranged meeting place at the facility’s stables and tells her. He uses his power to force Hollister to shoot Rainbird, but not before the one-eyed man kills Hollister and fatally wounds Andy. Young Charlie sends Rainbird up in flames. As he lays dying, Andy tells Charlie to burn the place up and then run. With tears in her eyes, Charlie turns her powers onto the facility, burning it to the ground and killing Shop employees left and right. She finally escapes and stops at the Manders’ farm as she makes her way to New York City to tell her story to the media.

Firestarter is one of King’s better film adaptations, coming in just behind Christine(1983) and Carrie (1976). The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films nominated the movie for Best Horror Film, and also nominated Drew Barrymore for Best Performance by a Young Actor, both in 1985. With a budget of fifteen million dollars, the film only grossed seventeen million dollars in theatres, making it a box office success, but just barely. Firestarter only scores a 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, although the soundtrack by Tangerine Dream was given four out of five stars on Allmusic.com. Despite these low numbers, genre fans know a great film when they see one, and Firestarter has burned a hole in every Horror lover’s heart.

According to Roger Ebert:

“Firestarter” contains a little girl who can start fires with her mind; her father, whose own ESP causes him to have brain hemorrhages; an Indian child molester who is a CIA killer; a black scientist; a kindly farmer; a government bureaucrat; and a brilliant scientist whose experiments kill 75 percent of his subjects but leave the others with powers beyond the imagination of mortal man. The most astonishing thing in the movie, however, is how boring it is.

The little girl is played by Drew Barrymore, from “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” where she was the kid sister. Her father is played by David Keith, who was Richard Gere’s buddy in “An Officer and a Gentleman.” The child molester is played by George C. Scott. The farmer is Art Carney. And so on. There isn’t a role in this movie not filled by a capable actor. And there’s not a character in this movie that is convincing, even for a moment, nor a line in this movie that even experienced performers can make real.

“Firestarter” was the fifth movie in a year that was based on a best-selling thriller by Stephen King. The others were “Christine,” “Cujo,” “The Dead Zone,” and “Children of the Corn.” The best of those — and the one most similar to “Firestarter” — is “The Dead Zone,” which starred Christopher Walken as a man cursed with the ability to foretell the future. The movie approached Walken as an ordinary man burdened with a power that should belong only to God, and allowed us to empathize with his terrible gift. But in “Firestarter,” we don’t feel sorry for Barrymore because she’s never developed as a believable little girl — just a plot gimmick. She gets mad, her eyes narrow, and things catch on fire. Her father is even less interesting; although he can use ESP to hypnotize people to obey his will, he gets a nosebleed every time he does it, and the way he clasps his hands to his head and strains makes ESP look like physical labor.

Of the other characters, the most totally confused is John Rainbird, the Indian played by Scott. Rainbird shows every sign of being a character who was rewritten so extensively that finally nothing was left except the notes. He’s an Indian, I guess, judging by his name and ponytail. He wants the little girl because he dreams of killing her with one karate blow to the nose. He has a couple of gruesomely detailed speeches in which he outlines this ambition, but the movie spares us the sight of Scott carrying out his plan. Thanks for small favors. The film’s crucial flaw is the lack of a strong point to the story. A little girl has her dangerous power, some government agents want to examine her, others want to destroy her, and things catch on fire. That’s about it.






One thought on “On Firestarter

  1. Pingback: On Firestarter 2: Rekindled | The Progressive Democrat

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