Keith Thomas’ “Firestarter” (2022), based on Stephen King’s 1980 bestselling novel, follows a girl with the power to set things on fire with her mind.
It’s sensational material and a compelling read, which is why it boggles the mind that King’s book has inspired two spark-free movie adaptations.
The 1984 version, directed by Mark L. Lester, is worth revisiting as a primer. It also illustrates the problems with both movies, which I’ll explore below (No, I’m not going to mention the SyFy TV miniseries “Firestarter: Rekindled” (2002), though I’ll say that the filmmakers should have gone with the more 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 pursued 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 with just a look.
The head of The Shop, played by Martin Sheen, orders a killer for hire, named Rainbird (George C. Scott) to assassinate Charlie before her powers are uncontrollable.
The premise has subsequently been used for fodder ranging from “Push” to “Midnight Special,” though King’s novel owes a great deal to Brian De Palma’s 1978 “The Fury” (itself based on John Farris’s 1976 novel).
The ‘84 “Firestarter” is eerie but awkward. While sporting an amazing ensemble cast, it feels like a TV movie and lacks the excitement and imagination you’d hope from such sensational source material.
Barrymore is sympathetic and good as Charlie McGee and Keith is very effective as her long-suffering father. Yet, even though even the smallest roles have been cast with care, the lineup of big stars in every role is akin to an Irwin Allen production.
Although they invest feeling in their roles, Art Carney and Louise Fletcher are an odd pair playing a farmer couple and Scott, while quite menacing, is a bizarre choice for a murderous Native American agent.
It’s much too soon to see Martin Sheen play another monster-in-a-suit for a King adaptation, as his hard working but one-note turn here is no match for his sensational, possibly career best and ferocious performance in David Cronenberg’s sublime “The Dead Zone” the year before.
Made during that mad period where there were a handful of King adaptations every year, “Firestarter” isn’t one of the better examples. While it surpasses disasters like “Children of the Corn” (1984) and “Maximum Overdrive” (1986), it’s not a cult classic like 1982’s “Creepshow.”
It certainly can’t compare to a masterpiece with belated appraisal like “The Shining” (1980) or even just a rock-solid work like “Stand By Me” (1986).
I’d rate it higher than “Cujo” (1983) but not “Christine” (1983).
The extensive fire effects are stunning, as this is the pre-CGI 1980s and everything we’re seeing is real. When McGee ignites the oven mitts of her mom, played by a well-cast Locklear, it comes with the added shock of seeing the “T.J. Hooker” star baring a sleeve of flames.
While the actors are all presumably protected, one would suspect that, like the production of “Backdraft,” the cast walked away with stories of being lightly toasted.
Despite the commercial appeal of King’s novel and the obvious spotlight it would put on any young lead, it was an odd career choice for Barrymore. Watch the adorable scene stealer from “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” (1982) headline a gruesome King thriller.
It’s on par with the post-“Home Alone” (1990) Macauley Culkin’s own macabre acting stretch in “The Good Son” (1993).
While Barrymore would return to the genre and King again the following year in the superior “Cat’s Eye” (1985), it’s worth noting that Barrymore rarely shot horror films after this.
Much later in her long and highly accomplished body of work, Barrymore made one of her best 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 being activated by wind blowing in her hair is ridiculous, and the constant nosebleeds Keith must endure are tiresome. “Firestarter” is never scary, but boy is it mean spirited.
Make no mistake: any movie that viciously kills Locklear is meaner than it needs to be.
However, the film pulls its punches, as Rainbird announces he must kill Charlie in a horrible manner, but we know the film won’t show us Scott harming Barrymore. The premise is brutal, and the film can get ugly, but Lester’s film never goers anywhere near Cronenberg’s “Scanners” (1983).
Barrymore’s sincere turn, the impressive pyrotechnics and a hypnotic Tangerine Dream score are the best thing about the 1984 “Firestarter,” which still feels malnourished and unsatisfying today.
The 2022 “Firestarter,” on the other hand, is much worse.
Charlie is now played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong, who ruins her parents post-The Shop cover by nearly blowing up her school restroom. Once Charlie and her dad, Andy, played by Zac Efron are on the run, The Shop enlists Rainbird to stop her, though here, Rainbird also possesses psychic abilities.
Keith Thomas, the director, previously made “The Vigil,” my favorite genre sleeper of 2021. Here, there are dozens of scenes are so poorly lit, I wondered if it was an unwise aesthetic choice or if the production failed to pay its electric bill.
Efron is surprisingly good, both at playing a dad and at investing Andy with heart and gravitas. Another big plus for this “Firestarter” is how effective the fire scenes are. Since traditional fire stunt work is rarely utilized in the age of overabundant CGI, it’s refreshing to see that the special effects look as slick as they do here.
Digital fire is easy to spot in most films but here, the visuals are convincing.
Rainbird is now played by a Native American actor, but Michael Greyeyes never fully connects with the role, and is neither imposing nor scary enough. Nobody has it worse than Gloria Reuben, playing the head of The Shop.
Reuben has either been misdirected and just has the wrong take on her character. Whatever the reason, her main villain comes across in a robotic performance.
Barrymore’s Charlie isn’t one of the great child performances in cinema, but I cared about that kid and found her vulnerability to be touching. Here, Armstrong’s take on the role comes across like a sociopath – note how central characters are burnt to death and she doesn’t react.
Like Reuben, perhaps Armstrong wasn’t given enough clarity as to what the role was. Either way, this is the first time where I wanted Charlie to be contained and not escape.
A quality that both film versions inch towards and never completely get is that King’s 1980 novel was dealing with parental fears. Here’s how that book opens:
“Dad, I’m tired,” the little girl in the red pants and the green blouse said fretfully. “Can’t we stop?” “Not yet honey.”
Like King’s prior “The Shining and eventually “It,” “Firestarter” is an early work about the trauma of being unable to protect your children from the horrors of the world around us. Being a dad of a little girl myself, the nature of the Charlie/Andy relationship hits me differently today.
King takes time to set up the relationship between Charlie’s parents and brings a tragic, tender dimension to his tale of a father constantly on the run, unable to fully teach or control the growing impulses of his daughter.
It helps that both Keith and Efron are so good playing Andy McGee, though the emphasis should have been as it was in the book – the anguish of how a father can never truly shield his child from the monsters lurking around the corner.
The 2022 “Firestarter” lost me during a scene where Charlie sets fire to a cat for scratching her. The cat survives but is horribly burned, and Andy instructs Charlie to finish what she started.
Had we connected with Charlie, the scene might play differently. Instead, Armstrong’s Charlie is cruel and, like an out-of-control member of the X-Men, in need of instruction, if not total incarceration.
I shouldn’t want that for Charlie McGee but that’s my biggest takeaway from the new film.
A big plus is the score by John Carpenter (who was slated to make the 1984 version but was removed from the project reportedly after “The Thing” disappointed at the box office), Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies.
While I thoroughly enjoyed this percussive electronic score, what it has in common with their similar music for last year’s “Halloween Kills” is that its better when listened to on its own than attached to the film. Also, the lovely, melancholy score to the 1984 film by Tangerine Dream is superior.
The final scene has a forced twist that I didn’t believe. There’s no way we’re getting a sequel to this. Unlike both of these movies, King’s novel is a heartbreaker and still holds up.
On the written page, Charlie McGee has a true complexity (note how the final scene in King’s novel, allegedly a happy ending, seems to indicate something awful is about to happen). On the big screen, it seems the spark has finally died out.