Stephen King has and will always hold a special place in my heart. Every time I read one of his books or watch one of his movies I’m always hit with an image from my childhood: standing in my brother’s room, gazing up in awe at the massive collection of Stephen King books lining the length of his bookshelf – books with spines that depicted terrifying images of boys with blank faces, a hand covered in bandages with eye balls on the finger tips, and of course, an orange colored and gnarly looking train whizzing by like it was going to jump right off of the book’s spine (I would find out later that that particular train named Blaine –Blaine is a pain, and that is the truth – was actually pink in the story, and not an orangey hell color… artistic license from the publisher, I guess). And while my brother’s paperback copy of Firestarter may not have featured a scary image on its spine, the title alone was enough to intrigue me as a young boy and compel me to look at its cover, which depicted a girl surrounded (engulfed) by flames. It’s a striking visual, and one that stuck with me as a kid.
Years later, during my senior year of high school (aka: my “the kid who’s always reading a Stephen King book” phase), I would finally get around to reading Firestarter, as opposed to just gawking at it with stupid wonder. One of King’s earlier efforts from the 80s, Firestarter is an entertaining page turner that feels like a superhero movie with a creepy and brutal bad guy obsessed with death thrown into the mix. Like the best of King’s oeuvre, it grabs you from the first page and maintains a relentless pace that consistently entertains until you find yourself on the very last page reading “Stephen King lives in Bangor, Maine with his wife Tabitha…”. While I wouldn’t consider it one of the best he’s ever written, it’s a fine story with well-drawn characters and some entertaining set pieces.
Flashback to 1984; producer Dino de Laurentiis, feeling good after the success of Christine, is looking for another King property to adapt for the big screen. Paying a tidy sum of one million dollars for the rights, Firestarter would end up becoming that next property. Having paid such a large amount of money in order to even be able to make the film in the first place, the screenwriters decide that they might as well adapt King’s novel more or less exactly as it was written (if it’s good enough for a million dollars, why change it?). You’d think that this would be a good approach, especially since so often the main criticism when adapting a book into a movie ends up being “It was better in the book!”, so why not adapt it as is? Unfortunately, this leads to what I feel is this movie’s biggest detriment: it’s at times slavish adherence to the source material.
Straight adaptations aren’t necessarily a bad thing – just look at Frank Miller’s Sin City – but one of the benefits a book has is it’s allowed to be as long as it needs to be, which provides breathing room between events and time to build the characters. When you’re making a movie you generally want to make sure it fits somewhere within a ninety minute to two-hour runtime, which, if you’re choosing to adapt a book beat for beat, makes it difficult to squeeze in all of that information without losing some of the connective glue that made the book flow so well. This is the case with Firestarter; while the screenwriters do change a few things here and there to condense the story to satisfy an hour and forty-minute runtime, we end up losing some of the smaller character building moments with our protagonists, but none more so than the motivation behind the story’s chief villain, John Rainbird.
Rainbird is one of the more ruthless and conniving of King’s pantheon of madmen; a soldier, turned government assassin, who has become obsessed with death and the mysteries that lay within it. Rainbird’s ultimate goal is to kill Charlie (played in the film by Drew Barrymore), who he views as a god, and see the light drain out of her eyes as her soul departs her body. To be fair, this is explained in the film, but oh so briefly, and leaves the audience wondering ok…what exactly is this guy’s deal? However, despite the film’s lack of a proper explanation behind Rainbird’s ultimate objective, the part is at least played with believable enough creepiness by George C. Scott, who feels like he is essentially just being himself, much like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. This isn’t a detriment, mind you, just an example of good casting…even if he isn’t a Native American, as is the case in the book. Scott exudes control and intimidation in every scene he’s in, and while he may not appear to be in the best shape of his life per se, he still maintains an imposing presence that commands respect and fear.
As for the rest of the cast, we get a decent performance from a young Drew Barrymore a mere two years after her turn as Gertie in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Much like Scott, Barrymore fits the role well enough – embodying the young naivety of Charlie and the eventual strength and resolve she obtains as she resists the barrage of testing from the shady government agency known as The Shop – but never really feels like she goes above and beyond. Again, not a bad performance at all, I just get the feeling that it could have been improved had we had the benefit of the connective glue I was referring to earlier. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for David Keith and Heather Locklear. While David Keith isn’t necessarily terrible, he just doesn’t exude the degree of exhaustion and determination I imagined from his character when I read the book all those years ago. His character is a man pushed well beyond his physical and mental breaking points, and I just don’t feel that this is adequately displayed when he’s on screen. As for Locklear, her character is more or less as bland and forgettable as she was in the book. She’s barely in the story and basically exists to provide extra motivation for the father and Charlie to hate The Shop after she is murdered.
Now that I’ve addressed all of the problems with pacing and casting, there’s one other issue I have to address, and that is the musical score by 80s mainstays Tangerine Dream. Ordinarily, I’d be all in for a synth-centric score for a horror-thriller (their score for Blade Runner is one of the key things that make that film so memorable, in my opinion), but in a rare exception, the synth score here ends up coming across as cheesy and distracting. It definitely isn’t one you’d expect to be paired with a film wherein a young girl and her father are being pursued by government agents with the intent on exploiting their special powers. Honestly, when I listen to the music in Firestarter, I’m reminded of the scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles when John Candy is telling Steve Martin that he’s happy with who he is and that he wouldn’t change a thing about himself – basically, a very special moment. Sappy, in other words. And in a film where people are set on fire on multiple occasions, sappy doesn’t exactly fit the proceedings.
However, all negatives aside, Firestarter still manages to be a decent little comic-book style thriller, led by a good performance by a young Drew Barrymore and a creepy, yet underdeveloped, turn from George C. Scott. The fire effects are impressive and the climax at the end of the film is well executed and a fantastic piece of revenge fulfillment for our young heroine. All in all, this certainly isn’t the best Stephen King adaptation there is, but it’s far from the worst, and a decent way to spend an afternoon on the couch.
THE VIDEO – 8.5/10
When it comes to reviewing these older films from the eighties (or just films that were shot on relatively low budgets) one caveat I always mention is film grain and the understanding that this isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. Yes, this film is bathed in grain; virtually every shot is blanketed with a thick moving grain pattern and it’s impossible not to notice when watching the movie. However, despite the copious amounts of grain present (more so than in any recent release I’ve reviewed) the 2K remastered picture on display is highly detailed, brimming with bright colors and no edge enhancement that I could see. I wouldn’t call it a revelatory remaster (especially since the last time I watched this film would have been decades ago on the Sci-Fi Channel – so I couldn’t say with any degree of certainty how much of an uptick this is in terms of what has come before it on home video), but I imagine that it should end up satisfying fans of the movie.
THE AUDIO – 7/10
Ordinarily with most Scream Factory releases we’re treated to multiple audio options: a DTS-HD 5.1 and 2.0 audio track. However, as Firestarter was not as successful at the box office as other King films (nor has it garnered as strong a cult following as other horror-thrillers from the era), I’m guessing this is the reason why the 5.1 option is absent and why we are left only with a 2.0 DTS-HD track present. It’s a shame we couldn’t have gotten a surround track, as the many scenes of explosions and (eventually) whizzing fireballs would have greatly benefited from multiple channels, but the Mono track here is decent enough. There aren’t any moments of distracting crackles or audio hiss to report. This is basically your standard, no thrills, original Mono audio. Decently reproduced, but nothing aurally fantastic (nothing I would fault Scream Factory for, mind you, I just don’t think the original sound design/mixing for Firestarter was ever anything to write home about).
THE SPECIAL FEATURES – 8.5/10
Audio Commentary with Director Mark L. Lester
Playing with Fire: The Making of Firestarter – 52 mins
Leading the pack among the special features on the disc is a new documentary that includes a talk with the film’s director, Mark Lester, as he discusses the pre-production process and filming of Firestarter. While Lester may not be the most dynamic speaker, he’s friendly enough and seems to remember a lot of the production history of the film. We also get input from one of the film’s stuntmen Dick Warlock (who played Michael Myers in Halloween II) on the various fire stunts, as well as some stories from Freddie Jones (Dr. Wanless in the film) on working with a young Drew Barrymore, and Johannes Schmoelling’s (Tangerine Dream) recollections on the film’s score.
Tangerine Dream: Movie Music Memories – An Interview with Johannes Schmoelling – 17 mins
An in depth interview as Schmoelling recounts the origin and later collaborations that the band had throughout the eighties.
Live Performance of “Charlie’s Theme” by Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream – 2 mins, 33 sec
THE FINAL RATING – 7.5/10
A further delve into the characters, specifically the villain and his motivations, would have gone a long way into making this particular Stephen King adaptation a little more memorable. As it is, it’s an enjoyable enough way to burn through a couple of hours (I will NEVER apologize for my bad fire puns). The Blu-ray from Scream Factory is what I’ve come to expect from the label: great picture and (in this case) decent sound, accompanied with a wealth of special features that are clearly put together by people who love the film in question. Recommended for fans, but newcomers (or readers of the novel) may want to try a rental first before dropping twenty-something bucks on the Blu-ray.