Revisiting the film of Stephen King’s Firestarter

Our lookback at the screen adaptations of Stephen King arrives at 1984's Firestarter...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

The film: After they take part in an experiment for an enigmatic organisation called ‘The Shop’, Andy (David Keith) and Vicky (Heather Locklear) discover that they have developed psychic abilities. Andy can influence people to do as he bids, whilst she can read minds. They later get married and have a child together, Charlie (Drew Barrymore), who develops pyrokinesis, capable of setting things alight with little more than a clenched fist and an angry frown. The strength of her powers attracts the attention of The Shop once more and Andy is forced to take his daughter on the run to prevent her powers from falling into their hands.

The second of the King adaptations to be released in 1984, Firestarter is of a similar sort of quality to Children Of The Corn in that it is a story that carries great potential, but one that is never fully realised during the narrative. There’s a tension at the heart of the film between that kind of schlocky secret government agency story that it could have turned into and the more emotional tale of a family torn apart by supernatural forces. Lester and screenwriter Stanley Mann try to find some kind of balance between those elements and the film certainly opens strongly, but as the film develops, the atmosphere that is created initially is lost.

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Starting with Andy and Charlie already on the run gives it a kind of urgency that makes the film’s first third utterly absorbing. Mann’s screenplay is economical in its construction, drip-feeding enough information for the scenes playing out to make sense, whilst leaving enough mystery to keep us interested. Charlie’s powers, her struggle to control them, and how she has improved in that control as she got older, is conveyed in one short scene. There’s a soldier in the airport being a git to his newly pregnant girlfriend, so Charlie sets his shoes on fire.

Charlie can also see briefly into the future, but this power appears to be entirely plot-dependent and therefore disappears when it’s no longer convenient for the plot. Once Andy and Charlie have been captured and the action moves into The Shop itself, the pace slows to a glacial crawl because the element of danger here is lost amid the experimentation. Part of the problem is that the film loses focus of its own strengths, chiefly the relationship between father and daughter, which provides the core of that first third. Keith and Barrymore have an easy filial chemistry and both convey the relative trauma of their situation with ease, particularly in those early scenes.

However, it’s never quite strong enough to power the film along when the two of them are apart. The stakes should feel high, the emotional torment of their separation should land a lot harder than it does, but instead the shady government agency side of the film takes over. Part of the problem with The Shop is that they are such a generic construction. Perhaps watching this in a post-The X Files context colours my opinion in this regard, but little work is done to dig deeper than the surface of who and what The Shop are.

The finale is a great example of how the central tension between emotional and schlocky never allows the film to work to its full potential. There is an emotional fallout from Charlie discovering that her friend, ‘John’, is not who he seems and the final consequences from the familial unit that Andy has been trying to keep together. There’s also a ludicrous amount of pyrotechnics where quite literally everything but Drew Barrymore is on fire. She even gets to twang someone into a tree with a flaming projectile. You can probably guess which of the two sides to the film Lester, he of Commando fame, succeeds with.

Despite this, the cast, for the most part, acquit themselves well, particularly Barrymore in the central role. She portrays a world weariness to Charlie that feels tragic in one so young, whilst at the same time maintaining a kind of childlike innocence. Keith, like the film, starts well and gradually loses impact as he goes on. It’s another King villain role for Martin Sheen, here as the Captain in charge of The Shop and determined to master Charlie and her powers for his own gain. He’s more restrained here than he was in The Dead Zone, more of a businessman with a goal than an ego on a power trip. He leaves the bigger villainous role to a skincrawingly horrible George C. Scott as the exterminator, who disguises himself as an orderly to win over Charlie.

Firestarter is an uneven affair, one which very nearly succeeds at being a solid entry into the Stephen King film canon. However, it never quite decides what it wants to be and though certain individual parts function well, it doesn’t function as a whole. Still, Drew did get to twang someone into a tree.

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Scariest moment: Pretty much any scene where Scott’s character is with Charlie is creepy to the max, placing his hand on her knee, kissing her forehead, and gently grooming her to be his ‘friend’. Whether or not that was intended to be the subtext, it’s hard to avoid and their interactions are instantly nauseous.

Musicality: Tangerine Dream, who composed the film’s score, never saw the film before doing so, according to director Lester. They simply sent him a load of music and told him to use what he wanted in the film.

A King thing: Protective fathers. Fathers in Stephen King’s works tend to come in two guises. There’s the abusive nightmare (e.g. Jack Torrance), or the ‘do anything for their kids’ type. Andy McGee definitely falls into the latter category and it’s his determination to keep his daughter safe that provides the emotional heart of the movie.

Next time? It’s Cat’s Eye