KING'S CORNER: Firestarter (1984)

Updated: May 2

Firestarter - King's Corner Review


Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the screen adaptations of Stephen King's work, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.


If you thought Carrie White's telekinetic abilities weren't frightening enough, wait until you get a load of young pyromaniac and twisted firestarter extraordinaire, Charlie McGee. Forged from the flames of King's imagination and his fascination with spontaneous combustion, ‘Firestarter’ tells the story of Charlie and her father's journey on the run from a shady government organization known as The Shop who are hellbent on finding out the secrets of powers.


Director: Mark L. Lester

Starring: Drew Barrymore, David Keith, George C. Scott, Martin Sheen, Freddie Jones


Written by: Stanley Mann

Produced by: Frank Capra Jr, Martha De Laurentis, Dino De Laurentis

Cinematography by: Giuseppe Ruzzolini

Original Score by: Tangerine Dream


Synopsis:

A couple who participated in a potent medical experiment gain telepathic ability and then have a child who is pyrokinetic.



Thoughts:

By the mid-1980s Stephen King's literary success was beginning to translate to big screen success with the likes of ‘Carrie’ and ‘The Shining’ being successful at the box office. This in turn led to bidding wars amongst producers to snap up the rights to any short story or novel conjured from King's imagination. One such producer that led this charge was Dino De Laurentiis. He would end up being linked to six King adaptations in total during the 80s and early 90s and after the initial success of his adaptation of ‘The Dead Zone’ he turned his attention to ‘Firestarter.



Whilst shooting ‘The Thing’, John Carpenter was offered the chance to adapt King's novel as his follow up project so he hired Bill Lancaster to take a stab at adapting the book for the screen with Bill Phillips penning a second draft which received King's blessing. However the overwhelming negative reaction to ‘The Thing’ critically and commercially saw Carpenter removed from the project with ‘Class of 1984’ director Mark L. Lester taking the reins. This wouldn't be the last Carpenter saw of a King project as he would end up directing ‘Christine’ instead and in a strange turn of events he is due to compose the score for the 2022 version of ‘Firestarter’.


Stanley Mann was brought onboard by Lester to rewrite the screenplay from scratch. His draft was closer to the novel than any of the drafts from Carpenter's collaborators with De Laurentiis quipping that he had basically just adapted King's book but in spite of this he approved the screenplay. Herein lies one of the film's major flaws. By sticking too close to the source material it makes characters feel too one dimensional. Their true thoughts and emotions are obscured by some wooden dialogue with the actors unable to do much with the material.


The film opens to the dreamlike synth score of Tangerine Dream playing over the opening credits. As one of the film's highlights, it perfectly encapsulates Charlie's inner turmoil with her abilities and how quickly (and devastating) they can be with a change in her immature emotional state. You can hear this with the stark difference in the tracks "Charly The Kid" and "Burning Point" as the pyrokinesis she displays between these two tracks strips her of her childhood innocence turning her into a force to be reckoned with.



After the credits the action opens with Charlie (played by Drew Barrymore) and her father Andy (played by David Keith) running through a crowded street in Washington trying to evade agents of the Department of Scientific Intelligence aka "The Shop". They make their getaway to an airport but an incident involving Charlie setting a dishonorable soldier on fire forces the pair to continue their escape on foot across the country.



During a regular trip to the grocery store with her mother at the age of six, Drew Barrymore came across a paperback copy of the novel with a drawing of Charlie on the cover. Barrymore's mother was so taken with how much she resembled her daughter that she bought the novel for her. After reading the novel Barrymore ran into the kitchen and declared, "I'm the Firestarter. I'm Charlie McGee!". A few years later she was cast in the role despite competition from Poltergeist star Heather O'Rourke.


As Charlie, Barrymore exhibits why she was one of the top child actors of the 1980s. In spite of the innocence of her age, you feel how burdened she is by her abilities as Barrymore breaks down into tears of regret over her actions, particularly after the incident at the airport with the soldier. In short she just wants to be a normal child living a normal life and that comes across in some of her emotionally drained conversations with her father. This relationship is the only thing that prevents her from losing complete control and spiraling into a rage that would rival that of Carrie White on prom night.


The film then flashes back to how Charlie' father Andy met their mother Vicky (played by Heather Locklear) during a medical trial conducted by The Shop for a drug known as LOT 6. It has disastrous consequences for all involved except Andy and Vicky who almost instantly fall in love prior to the experiment. As a result of the experiment Andy develops his own telekinetic ability known as "pushing", allowing him to make people do what he wants. When casting the role of Andy, David Keith was not the first choice for the role (he was 14th choice) with the likes of Richard Dreyfuss ahead of him in the pecking order. To his credit he does a fine job in the role as a man trying to keep his daughter safe and trying to keep her abilities under control.


We are then shown The Shop's compound which on the outside looks like a grand farmhouse estate but hidden inside it contains research facilities and interrogation rooms. The Shop are an organization that have appeared throughout King's work with ‘Firestarter’ marking their first appearance. They are said to have been involved in Project Arrowhead from ‘The Mist’ and are tasked with investigating the aftermath of the Tommyknockers as a pseudo X-Files organization. In ‘Firestarter’ Captain Hollister (played by Martin Sheen) wants Charlie to be captured so her abilities can be weaponized. After several failed attempts to capture her he enlists the nefarious John Rainbird.


Rainbird is one of the most despicable villains in all of King's works. A Native American who was disfigured during his service in the Vietnam war, he is an assassin for hire who wants Charlie every bit as much as The Shop. He makes a deal with Hollister to be given to her when The Shop is finished with her so he can take her "gift from the gods" by stealing it from the dying moments of her eyes in some form of fatalistic ritual. This is a problematic element to King's work in that one of the few Native American’s to feature in any of his stories is heavily tied to the shamanic tropes of the culture. This is all the more problematic in the film with the casting of George C. Scott in the role. There's no denying that he is a legendary actor with a magnetic screen presence (which he brings to this role too) but he is horribly miscast. If anything he would have been more suited for the role of Captain Hollister.



In the same conversation with Hollister he states his need to be close to Charlie describing her as "young and beautiful" adding a paedophilic dimension to the character which was there in the novel. In a 1980 interview with Rolling Stone magazine King said, "It was a sexual relationship. I only wanted to touch on it lightly, but it makes the whole conflict more monstrous". After Charlie is captured, Rainbird tries to befriend her disguised as a janitor making seemingly innocuous friendly remarks to her. He's clearly grooming her which can be seen through uncomfortable gestures such as placing his hand on her leg during conversations. It makes good on King's remarks on the novel's version of the relationship but it feels a bit out of place in the film in terms of the melodramatic tone the film maintains throughout, save for the moments in which Charlie unleashes her power.


Whilst the film somewhat drags its heels when Charlie and her father are captured by The Shop it explodes to life in a raging inferno during its climax. In a face off between Andy and Rainbird, Andy is fatally wounded and Charlie kills Rainbird, launching him across the room in flames. Shortly after her Father dies, so too does Charlie's control over her abilities and she exits the barn on The Shop's compound killing anyone who crosses her path. Bullets melt before hitting her as she slowly makes her way to the main farmhouse as a stoic young woman with a hellfire of vengeance burning in her heart.


It is this sequence and an earlier scene in which The Shop attempts to capture Charlie earlier in the film that are most impressive with excellent pyro technical stunts. Lester has gone on record to describe how difficult it was to achieve, especially in the early 80s but they are highly effective. Actors shuffle in a panicked terror as they are engulfed in flames and vehicles explode in a fashion that would make Michael Bay jealous. One particular stunt during Charlie's rage at the end sees an agent of The Shop launched into the trees whilst on fire which is particularly impressive before Charlie blows up the compound, launching literal fireballs at anyone in her path. It is a really impressive sequence that Lester handles well, almost acting like a warm up for his follow up picture, ‘Commando’.



On the surface ‘Firestarter’ is a mixture between a coming of age story and a road movie underpinned by melodrama and some entertaining set pieces but some gross miscasting and a wooden script prevent it from living up to its full potential. Whilst the conclusion is the real highlight it is a shame that the film burns out long before it reaches this conclusion. Having said that there is a lot that can be done with the premise and story beats which gives hope to Keith Thomas' adaptation due for release this year.


Verdict: ⭐️⭐️½


- Joseph McElroy


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