Schlock & Awe: FIRESTARTER

In my interview last week with the excellent Mick Garris, we talked a lot about the relative difficulty of adapting a Stephen King novel effectively.

Garris had, of course, made several films and TV movies based on King novels, and he even brought up examples of very effective versions, such as Cronenberg‘s The Dead Zone. Evidently, the main thing to do is just–gasp–be true to the source novel, and one of the most faithful adaptations also feels tailor-made for ’80s horror, the best John Carpenter movie he never actually made, 1984’s Firestarter.

The whole time I was watching Firestarter–which I’d never actually seen until the recently released Scream Factory special edition Blu-ray–I kept thinking it felt like a John Carpenter movie, in everything from tone to look, to even the electronic score, here provided by Tangerine Dream. So it was particularly interesting to learn that Carpenter was indeed originally attached to direct, and write the screenplay. According to eventual director Mark Lester (who directed the surprisingly great Class of 1984), Carpenter wanted to change practically the whole story, much to the chagrin of producer Dino de Laurentiis. Even though King approved of this script, the failure of Carpenter’s The Thing led to Universal firing him. Lester, when he was brought in, essentially had writer Stanley Mann follow the novel exactly, attesting that de Laurentiis paid a high price for the book rights, they ought to use it.

The movie starts out with Andy McGee (David Keith) and his daughter Charlie (Drew Barrymore) on the run from some shady government types. In order to get away, the get in a cab and Andy somehow makes the driver believe the $1 bill he hands him is actually a $500 bill. During a series of flashbacks we learn that Andy was a college student who signed up to take part in a study on the effects of hallucinogens. It’s there he met Vicky Tomlinson (Heather Locklear) who would soon become his wife. The drug, however, is not a hallucinogen and is actually a way for a shady government organization called “the Shop” and it gives the user telepathic powers (Andy can manipulate thoughts while Vicky can read minds). Their daughter, several years later, begins to exhibit intense telekinetic abilities, including pyrokinesis. This is what the Shop wants.

There are some real bad people who work for the Shop, including their leader, Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen), who greedily wants to use Charlie’s powers as a weapon (naturally), and his hired enforcer, Agent John Rainbird (George C. Scott), who carries out assassinations by stealthily breaking in to his target’s house while they’re asleep and giving them a single, swift karate chop to the bridge of the nose, shattering their skull and sending it into their brain. It’s pretty grotty. Despite their best efforts, Andy and Charlie get caught–following Rainbird shooting them in the throats with tranquilizer darts!–and he then pretends to be a friendly orderly and convince Charlie that it’s worth doing what the doctors want her to do if they’ll let her see her father again.

Most of this movie is a road movie, with the backstory told in flashback. We get to see that when Charlie gets angry at a person, they tend to burst into flames. Charlie believes it was this action that led to her mother dying, however we see that it was actually the Shop, and specifically Rainbird. A few times throughout the movie, Charlie gets REALLY mad–usually at the onslaught of Shop agents with guns–and cars explode and people’s arms catch fire. The effects are fairly hokey when they aren’t just flames suddenly appearing on people, but overall it works really well. Especially the ending. Holy shit, is that ever violent and flame-full.

Stephen King was clearly transfixed by the idea of telepathy and telekinesis. Firestarter was his sixth book (published in 1980) but was his fifth already to feature people with some kind of psychic ability, clairvoyance, or other such mental powers. I’d love to know if he was one day hoping to put together a terrifying team of Scanner-type people made up of Charlie, Carrie White, Danny Torrance, that weird old lady from The Stand, and Johnny Smith. I’m fascinated by his consistency in this arena. Seriously, if you guys can remember a telepath in ‘Salem’s Lot, let me know. King moved away from people with mental powers pretty resolutely after this, but Firestarter feels like a great culmination of this self-imposed trope.

De Laurentiis made a point of populating the movie with as many respected actors as possible. Art Carney and Louise Fletcher even feature in incredibly tiny roles as a farmer and his wife who befriend the McGees briefly, and their yard is the setting for the first major fiery showdown. Sheen is a great choice to play the insane leader of the Shop, but I was particularly blown away by the performance of George C. Scott, an actor I’ve always loved. The character of Rainbird was the head mercenary in the novel, but they gave all the scenes of his cronies committing murders to the character himself, utilizing Scott while they had him around. He’s terrifying and cold and is made even more so by pretending to be the cowardly friend to Charlie while she’s at the Shop compound. He’d just as soon kill this girl as look at her, but makes her trust him to get what he wants first. It’s tremendous.

Not all the acting in the movie is as good as Scott’s, and I have to say the young Barrymore doesn’t quite have what it takes, but the movie ultimately works, I think–even with some not-awesome effects–because of its commitment to the material. If this movie had been made by John Carpenter, I feel like we’d all be talking about it as one of the better King adaptations. As it happens, however, the movie didn’t do great at the box office, and became little more than a movie shown on cable a lot.

But you can’t argue with a finale where Drew Barrymore shoots fireballs at evil henchmen and completely immolates George C. Scott the point of melting the flesh from his bones while he screams “I love you, Charlie.” I mean, you can’t argue. Don’t even try. You will lose that argument. It’s the coolest ending to a movie I’ve ever seen.

Firestarter is now available from Scream Factory with a gorgeous 4K remaster and a smattering of extras. It’s definitely in the top 10 of good King adaptations. Check it out!

Images: Universal/Scream Factory

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