Dir:- Mark L. Lester
Starr:- David Keith, Drew Barrymore, Martin Sheen, George C. Scott, Moses Gunn, Louise Fletcher
Back in the late seventies and early eighties various forms of psychokinesis were in vogue in the popular cinema of the time. From raging hormonal explosions in Brian de Palma’s The Fury to exploding heads in David Cronenberg’s Scanners, there was a clear and increasing interest in the potentially supernatural capacities of the mind. Perhaps the individual who appeared to have the most consistent curiosity in such strange powers was the horror novelist Stephen King. The author had burst onto the American literary scene in 1974 with his debut novel Carrie, a harrowing tale of a troubled teen trying to come to terms with a terrifying gift/affliction. Within two years this novel had been successfully transferred to the big screen by the aforementioned de Palma, which initiated a studio frenzy wherein King’s novels were no sooner off the press than they were being brought to the big screen. Being very much at the vanguard of the pop cultural zeitgeist it was difficult for King to ensure that the adaptations of his novels maintained a certain level of quality control. For every success, like Carrie and the entirely bowdlerised Kubrick adaptation of The Shining, there were much more uneven offerings, like Christine and the television adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot.
Firestarter is by no means a classic King adaptation, but at the same time it has managed to date a little better than some of its contemporaries, such as Christine or Children of the Corn. King has always had a fascination with viewing the horrific through the eyes of a child, or adolescent. Carrie is quite literally about a girl reluctantly becoming a woman, The Shining has Danny Torrance as the possessor of that strange gift, whilst ‘Salem’s Lot’s most grotesque moments revolve around Ralph and Danny Glick, two young brothers. The central character in Firestarter is a young girl called Charlene ‘Charlie’ McGee, who, as a result of a government experiment involving her parents, has the unusual ability of pyrokinesis, meaning that she can start fires using the power of her mind. At the start of the film Charlie is on the run with her father Andy (David Keith) from some shadowy government agents, belonging to a secret project known only as The Shop. Andy was involved in some scientific experiment called ‘Lot 6’, which wound up giving him the ability to hypnotise people by staring into their eyes. His wife Vicky (played in a brief cameo by Heather Locklear) was also part of this programme and wound up possessing telepathic abilities. As a result Charlie has both the capacity to read minds and wreak flaming havoc. Having failed to capture father and daughter, The Shop resorts to sending John Rainbird (played by George C. Scott) into the field. Rainbird is an assassin whose initial task is to bring the McGee’s in to The Shop, however over time he develops a twisted fascination with young Charlie and her gifts, which eventually leads to him working against orders.
Overall the film is a fairly faithful adaptation of the 1980 novel, managing to cover most of the main plot points. However, it fails to adequately make sense of the complex back story to ‘Lot 6’ and Vicky’s death, not to mention confusingly leaving out much of the background material on Rainbird’s Cherokee heritage and increasingly unhinged beliefs. As a result some elements of the plot refuse to cohere, as the sketchiness of the narrative detailing robs certain sequences of their awesome power. One thing Mark L. Lester (who would go on to box-office success with the Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando) gets absolutely right is the casting of ET starlet and Hollywood princess Drew Barrymore. In the role of Charlie, Barrymore brings the perfect combination of cuteness and unchecked malevolence. It is actually quite frightening to observe how quickly the diminutive Ms. Barrymore goes from gleefully happy little moppet, to sullen, ferociously scowling lethal weapon. Barrymore was barely even nine years of age at the time of filming Firestarter, but it is the intensity of her performance that makes the movie something more than a missed opportunity.
Lester wisely casts some heavyweight Hollywood talent in the supporting roles, including the long forgotten eighties star David Keith and the always dependable Martin Sheen. Sheen is the military chief that is presiding over the series of tests conducted into Charlie’s potential efficacy as a combat weapon. British actor Freddie Jones has a brief role as Dr. Wanless, the scientific head of The Shop, who believes that both of the McGee’s need to be analysed and then neutralised, before either can use their powers to devastating effect. The most important role other than Barrymore’s is that of John Rainbird, who is ably played by the seemingly miscast George C. Scott. Rainbird is a fevered fanatic, who has a whole load of bizarre notions about what he can do with the young Charlie and her powers. Much like Dr. Wanless he comes to believe it is essential to destroy the girl and deprive her of her powers, so that she cannot take them with her to the afterlife. Scott manages to mix the broodingly violent ruthlessness of his military role, with a convincingly child-friendly alterego – John the Janitor, that seems almost an echo of The Shining – winning Charlie’s trust and almost manipulating her into his treacherous clutches.
The frenetic pacing of the opening to the film, with its convoluted flashbacks, is nicely balanced against the test sequences in its middle third. These scenes, in which Barrymore sets fire to water, dry ice and cinderblock, have a deeply disturbing quality, as they revel in the ways in which young Charlie is forced to perform her feats for the benefit of The Shop, against her better judgement. Barrymore looks ridiculously vulnerable in these scenes, isolated in a sci-fi testing chamber, being voyeuristically spied upon by a cast of middle-aged men. Lester also manages to inject real passages of pathos into the film with some lovely visual juxtapositions, such as when Charlie and her father are shown to be asleep in the same pose in their bedrooms, desperately clutching at their bed-clothes. As with Carrie there is a deeper tragedy revealing itself here, the inability for these characters to even find a little solace in the only thing we all possess, namely ourselves. The startling pyrotechnic jamboree at the movies close is one of the more impressive pre-Jurassic Park visual effects feats. There is something bewitching and horrifying about seeing a small child walk through bullets and wreckage, whilst everything else around her burns to the ground. The great eighties electronica outfit Tangerine Dream provide yet another fantastically atmospheric soundtrack that helps to paint over some of the more drably realised visuals, whilst heightening the impact of this impressive ending. Of the early adaptations of King’s work Firestarter is perhaps most worthy of a solid re-evaluation, if only to wipe out the memory of the awful 2002 mini-series sequel, starring Malcom McDowell