Stephen King was big business in 1984. After the immense success of Carrie and The Shining, Hollywood couldn’t grab the rights to his books quickly enough. Five big-budget adaptations opened within nine months of each other, though of the lot, only David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone truly shone. Firestarter anchored the trend, and it stands somewhere in the middle of the pack: workmanlike, but largely uninspiring. In that sense, it follows the source novel, which has some things to recommend it, but will never stand as one of King’s greatest works.
And like a lot of movie adaptations, it doesn’t quite have the balls of the book. King developed a sinister (if rambling) take on The Fugitive, as his evil government agency The Shop delves into forbidden science for fun and profit. In this case, they test a new drug on a gaggle of unwitting college students, two of who subsequently fall in love and get married. Both of them develop mild psychic abilities, but their daughter Charlie (Drew Barrymore) carries something much scarier in her brain. She can start fires just by thinking about it, an ability that The Shop wants for undefined yet demonstrably sinister purposes. One in media res introduction later, Charlie’s mother (Heather Locklear) lies dead and her father (David Keith) takes her on the road in desperate bolt for freedom.
The problems start with the fork-and-spoon storyline, which announces its destination way too early and leaves little doubt as to the results. Like her spiritual sister, Carrie White, Charlie’s sitting on a powder keg. The bullies this time wear grey suits and arrive in unmarked sedans, but they still insist on flicking lit matches in her direction without any inkling of what they might unleash. Director Mark L. Lester delivers the basics well enough, but he can’t find enough suspense to pull us in. We don’t feel the fear of pursuit or the real danger of Charlie’s powers: just vaguely likeable characters going through their paces while we patiently wait for the money shots at the end. King, in the throes of serious drug addiction, found real paranoia in his book, which just doesn’t translate onto the screen.
The cast (which includes three Oscar winners and the guy who played Huggy Bear just to be kooky) runs flat up against cardboard cliché, with a few pure souls vainly fighting one-note baddies and everyone evincing various stages of cartoonish overkill. Barrymore herself was an engaging presence, but at age eight she was still too young to carry a project like this. (Her own drug problems and attendant tabloid zaniness were still several years ahead of her.) Martin Sheen sleepwalks through his part as the amoral head of The Shop, while Art Carney and Louise Fletcher glumly collect paychecks as a nice old couple who aid the fleeing girl.
The biggest surprise in the acting department comes from George C. Scott, who leads a master class on spinning stew out of an oyster. Faced with almost comic miscasting (he plays a Native American Shop operative, complete with eye patch and ponytail), he takes command of the entire affair through sheer star power. Goofy character motivation and mealy mouthed plot exposition are no match for his cunning John Rainbird, trying to deceive Charlie away from her father and damn near seducing us in the process. He gives Lester the necessary gravitas to avoid complete disaster, and you can sense the film perking up whenever he arrives onscreen.
Lester’s other big card is the pyrokinetic effects, which rely on practical flames as often as possible and carry a potency that the rest of the movie lacks. We’re reminded once again how woefully inadequate CG effects appear next to the real thing, and while climax comes across as a trifle tame in comparison to recent blockbusters, it also holds up quite well considering its age. If the fire and explosions aren’t quite worth the wait, they at least provide an engaging show to close things out. Credit the director for handling a deceptively complex task quite well.
And indeed none of it truly fails, at least not the way the dreadful Children of the Corn did a few months earlier. Lester has always displayed a knack for B-movie schlock, and enough of it rubs off here to provide some low-rent grindhouse thrills. With a little help from Scott, he turns a broken egg of a project into a vaguely edible omelet: something neither brilliant nor dreadful but vaguely competent in a completely forgettable way. Considering the alternative, that’s no small feat. We got a lot of similar results from Stephen King adaptations of the time, an era that helped establish him as a brand name and perhaps paved the way for better things in the process. Firestarter wasn’t great, but everyone involved survived… as you will if you ever feel the need to give it another look.