Keith Thomas’ “Firestarter” (2022), based on Stephen King’s bestselling 1980 novel, follows a girl who has the power to set things on fire with her mind.
It’s sensational material and engrossing reading, which is why it’s mind-boggling that King’s book inspired two sparkless film adaptations.
The 1984 version, directed by Mark L. Lester, deserves to be revisited as an introduction. It also illustrates the issues with both movies, which I’ll explore below (No, I’m not going to mention the SyFy TV miniseries “Firestarter: Rekindled” (2002), though I will say the filmmakers should have gone with the most obvious and honest choice and just called it “Firestarter Reheated”).
We meet Andy McGee (David Keith) and his daughter, Charlie (Drew Barrymore), who are being chased by members of a secret organization called The Shop. Why? Because Andy and his wife, Vicky (Heather Locklear) are the only survivors of a failed drug test, emerged with psychic powers, and Charlie, their daughter, can set someone on fire. just look.
The boss of The Shop, played by Martin Sheen, orders a hitman named Rainbird (George C. Scott) to assassinate Charlie before his powers spiral out of control.
The premise was later used for fodder ranging from “Push” to “Midnight Special,” though King’s novel owes much to Brian De Palma’s 1978 “The Fury” (itself based on John Farris’ novel of 1976).
The ’84 “Firestarter” is weird but clunky. While sporting an amazing ensemble cast, it feels like a TV movie and lacks the excitement and imagination you’d expect from such sensational source material.
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Barrymore is likeable and kind like Charlie McGee and Keith is highly efficient like his long-suffering father. Yet even though even the smallest roles have been carefully chosen, the cast of big stars in each role is akin to an Irwin Allen production.
Although they invest sentiment in their roles, Art Carney and Louise Fletcher make an odd pair playing a farming couple and Scott, while quite menacing, is an odd choice for a murderous Native American agent.
It’s far too early to see Martin Sheen play another monster in costume for a King adaptation, as his hard work but his one-note turn here is no match for his sensational, possibly better and ferocious performance. in career in David Cronenberg’s sublime “The Dead Zone” the previous year.
Made during that crazy time when there were a handful of King adaptations every year, “Firestarter” isn’t one of the best examples. While it tops disasters like 1984’s “Children of the Corn” and 1986’s “Maximum Overdrive,” it’s not a cult classic like 1982’s “Creepshow.”
It certainly cannot be compared to a masterpiece with a late appraisal like “The Shining” (1980) or even a rock-solid work like “Stand By Me” (1986).
I would rate it higher than ‘Cujo’ (1983) but not ‘Christine’ (1983).
The extensive fire effects are stunning, as it’s the pre-CGI 1980s and everything we see is real. When McGee ignites his mother’s oven mitts, played by a well-cast Locklear, it comes with the added shock of seeing the ‘TJ Hooker’ star discover a sleeve of flames.
While the actors are presumably all shielded, one would suspect that, like the production of “Backdraft,” the cast came away with stories of having been lightly toasted.
Despite the commercial appeal of King’s novel and the obvious spotlight it would put on any young lead role, it was an odd career choice for Barrymore. Watch the lovable scene-stealer from 1982’s ‘ET The Extra Terrestrial’ headline a gruesome thriller King.
It’s on par with Macauley Culkin’s post-“Home Alone” (1990) own macabre acting stretch in “The Good Son” (1993).
While Barrymore would return to the genre and King the following year in the superior “Cat’s Eye” (1985), it should be noted that Barrymore rarely did horror movies after that.
Much later in her long and highly accomplished work, Barrymore made one of her finest contributions to genre films, both as co-producer and co-star of Richard Kelly’s visionary “Donnie Darko” (2001).
Having the visualization of Charlie’s powers activated by the wind blowing through his hair is ridiculous, and the constant nosebleeds Keith has to endure are annoying. “Firestarter” is never scary, but boy is it mean.
Don’t get me wrong: any movie that violently kills Locklear is meaner than it should be.
However, the movie pulls its punches, as Rainbird announces he has to kill Charlie in a gruesome way, but we know the movie won’t show us Scott harming Barrymore. The premise is brutal and the film can get ugly, but Lester’s film never comes close to Cronenberg’s “Scanners” (1983).
Barrymore’s heartfelt turn, impressive pyrotechnic effects and a hypnotic Tangerine Dream score are the best part of 1984’s “Firestarter,” which still feels malnourished and unfulfilling today.
The 2022 “Firestarter”, on the other hand, is much worse.
Charlie is now played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong, who ruins her parents after the cover of The Shop by nearly blowing up her school’s toilet. Once Charlie and his father, Andy, played by Zac Efron are on the run, The Shop enlists Rainbird to stop him, though here Rainbird also possesses psychic abilities.
Director Keith Thomas previously directed “The Vigil,” my favorite genre sleeper of 2021. Here there are dozens of scenes so poorly lit, I wondered if it was a reckless aesthetic choice or if the production had not paid its electric bill.
Efron is surprisingly good at both playing a father and investing Andy with heart and gravity. Another big plus for this “Firestarter” is the effectiveness of fire scenes. Since traditional fire stunts are rarely used in the age of overabundant CGI, it’s refreshing to see that the special effects are as slick as they are here.
Digital fire is easy to spot in most movies but here the visuals are compelling.
Rainbird is now played by a Native American actor, but Michael Greyeyes never quite connects with the role and isn’t big enough or scary enough. No one has it worse than Gloria Reuben, playing the head of The Shop.
Reuben was misdirected and just misinterpreted his character. Whatever the reason, its main villain appears in a robotic performance.
Barrymore’s Charlie isn’t one of the great performances of children in film, but I cared about this child and found his vulnerability touching. Here Armstrong’s role comes across as a sociopath – note how the central characters are burned alive and she doesn’t react.
Like Reuben, Armstrong may not have been clear enough about what the role was. Anyway, this is the first time I wanted Charlie to be contained and not escape.
One quality that both versions of the film lean toward and never fully achieve is that King’s 1980 novel dealt with parental fears. This is how this book opens:
“Dad, I’m tired,” the little girl in the red pants and green blouse said worriedly. “Can’t we stop? “Not yet honey.” »
Like King’s prequel “The Shining” and eventually “It,” “Firestarter” is an early work on the trauma of not being able to protect your children from the horrors of the world around us. Being the father of a little girl myself, the nature of the Charlie/Andy relationship affects me differently today.
King is slow to establish the relationship between Charlie’s parents and brings a tragic and tender dimension to his story of a father constantly on the run, unable to teach or fully control his daughter’s growing urges.
It helps that Keith and Efron play Andy McGee so well, although the focus should have been as it was in the book – the angst of how a father can never truly protect his child from the monsters lurking at the street corner.
2022’s “Firestarter” lost me during a scene where Charlie sets a cat on fire for scratching her. The cat survives but is horribly burned, and Andy orders Charlie to finish what she started.
If we had been in contact with Charlie, the scene could have turned out differently. Instead, Armstrong’s Charlie is cruel and, like an out-of-control member of the X-Men, needs instruction, if not outright incarceration.
I shouldn’t want that for Charlie McGee, but that’s what I take away the most from the new movie.
A big plus is the score from John Carpenter (who was set to do the 1984 version but was reportedly dropped from the project after “The Thing” disappointed at the box office), Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies.
While I really enjoyed this hard-hitting electronic score, what it has in common with their similar music for last year’s “Halloween Kills” is that it’s better listened to on its own than it is. attached to the movie. Moreover, the charming and melancholic score of the 1984 film Tangerine Dream is superior.
The final scene has a forced twist that I didn’t believe in. There’s no way we’re getting a sequel to this. Unlike those two movies, King’s novel is a heartbreaker and still holds up.
On the written page, Charlie McGee has real complexity (note how the final scene of King’s novel, supposedly a happy ending, seems to indicate that something terrible is about to happen). On the big screen, it seems the spark has finally died down.