As I’m writing this, countless fans the world over are going to say goodbye to the original X-Men Franchise with Logan, the story of Wolverine’s trek across America with a young mutant girl capable of great destruction. While it’s a fantastic film, and one that every superhero fan should definitely see, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Logan is, in fact, the latest installment in a minor subgenre of sci-fi action films that’s slowly been trickling back to life: people-on-the-run-with-a-super-child. In addition to Logan, we saw it only recently with Midnight Special, which saw Joel Edgerton and Michael Shannon attempting to transport a psychic (and possibly alien) child to a special destination in Florida; and last year’s Netflix phenomenon Stranger Things was entirely built around this archetype, with the usual adult protector role switched out for the D&D boys. There’s probably another article entirely to be had discussing why exactly this story has begun capturing writers’ and audiences’ imaginations, but, I’m not here to discuss that today. Today, I’m here to take a look at the granddaddy of all “bad guys want to kidnap special kid, shit blows up” stories, the one that gave birth to the entire subgenre: Firestarter, out now on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.
Charlie McGee has quite a lot in common with Stranger Things’ Eleven. She’s young, blonde, cute as a button, and, when pressed, turns into an absolute badass of mass destruction. Her parents, Andy and Vicky, met in college when, strapped for cash, they both signed up to be guinea pigs for the same science experiment, agreeing to test psychoactive drugs. As it turns out, though, this wasn’t your parents’ LSD: It was a compound specially engineered by The Shop, a shadowy government organization loosely based on the CIA, and the tests were essentially the Firestarter universe’s version of MKUltra. While most of Andy and Vicky’s fellow test subjects went nuts and did things like claw out their own eyeballs, something about the pair’s genetic makeup was unique enough that instead they developed psychic powers—powers they passed along to young Charlie, whose maturing body has slowly begun to amplify them to terrifying proportions. Specifically, while Andy and Vicky are capable of such garden-variety superpowers as mind control and telepathy, Charlie can cause any object—or person—in her vicinity to spontaneously combust. While The Shop has been content for years to simply surveil the family and let them live in peace, the revelation of Charlie’s burgeoning power changes the game. Should the be terminated, lest she lose control of her powers one day and wipe out an entire city? Or should she be brought back to The Shop for training as the ultimate WMD? Whatever the answer, The Shop decides that Charlie needs to be taken off the streets ASAP while they make up their minds. Thus begins Andy and Charlie’s flight from their shadowy pursuers, one that will take them across the country—and ultimately, into the very heart of The Shop itself.
Firestarter didn’t get a lot of love back in the day. Roger Ebert in particular criticized Drew Barrymore as a living prop, and even Stephen King seemed lukewarm on the film, unfavorably comparing it to cafeteria food. Maybe it was the zeitgeist of the time, or maybe Firestarter has just aged very well, because I don’t think we saw the same movie. Barrymore is absolutely captivating as Charlie, wrapping the audience around her little finger and never letting them go. Child actors face a multitude of difficulties that their older costars don’t necessarily struggle with. Most of them have grown up in or around Hollywood, surrounded by adults who may or may not care about their well being and many of whom are more comfortable treating them like tiny adults. It’s easy for a kid in the celebrity scene to grow up quickly; as a result we’re often presented with children in films who-- whether they’re written that way or not-- come across as wise beyond their years or cloyingly precocious. So, while it sounds bizarre, Barrymore’s performance as… well, a child… is stunningly impressive. She’s so casual that, if this weren’t a movie about pyromaniac super-psychics, you’d believe she was just a little girl on a road trip with her dad. Every smile, every pout, every moment of excitement or wonder or fear is just as natural to her as any child, and it’s all wrapped up in such a little ball of sweetness and goodwill that you’ll find yourself wanting to become a part of the Charlie McGee rescue squad. While The Shop may be worried that Charlie will lose her stuff one day and take out a mini-mall, the audience knows from its’ time with her that isn’t a concern. She may be temperamental at times, but Charlie’s basic nature is just too essentially good. Left alone and allowed to have a normal childhood, she’ll be just fine; it’s the Shop’s very intervention that’s creating the potential for the mini-holocaust they fear.
In addition to Barrymore, the rest of the cast turn in fine performances, and while it never stops being Charlie’s show, I’m tempted to call this an ensemble piece. David Keith is the consummate decent single dad, just trying to do right by his kid, and sure to win over the hearts of many a woman (or guy) in the audience with his patient dedication to Charlie. Keith is the very antithesis of the skeevy creep he’d go on to play in White of the Eye, and watching him here, you’re sorry he never got more leading-man parts in genre films. Martin Sheen does a lot with a little as Captain Hollister, the Shop point-man on Charlie’s case, painting a picture of a basically decent guy who made one too many moral compromises and is now a little too comfortable with them. George C. Scott, on the other hand, turns in a “I need to take a shower” level performance as Rainbird, the skeevy, crypto-pedophiliac special forces operative who agrees to capture Charlie in exchange for being allowed to take custody of the girl once The Shop is done with her. The scenes in which he tries to negotiate with Hollister are pure nastiness, as Scott projects real, palpable sleaziness to the point that even Hollister has to stop and call him out on it. Even more uncomfortable are Rainbird’s scenes with Charlie, in which he adopts the guise of a kindly cleaning man and slowly gains her trust and love, grooming her in the ways of an excellent child molester. By the time Rainbird pops up in Charlie’s room with a kind smile and a sympathetic ear, we already know what he’s up to, and it’s skin crawling to watch them interacting with almost as much rapport as Charlie and her dad.
While I can’t fault the actors’ performances, I can fault the film’s pacing, and it’s here that I think I’ve found the culprit that’s prevented Firestarter from moving beyond cult-favorite to classic. The first portion of the film, in which Andy and Charlie flee The Shop cross country, is as exciting as any 70s road film, with lots of action set pieces and close-calls to keep the adrenaline up. Then, about halfway through, the Shop catches up with them, and it’s like someone hung a millstone around the movie’s neck. The sequences at The Shop—in which people talk, and talk, and talk some more—are interminable, and while a lot of dialogue in a horror movie isn’t necessarily a vice, that’s only if it’s the right sort of dialogue in the right sort of film. In the case of Firestarter, it’s not, and this isn’t. By the time we get yet another sequence of Charlie being asked to use her powers, and Charlie refusing, and people asking her again, the audience will be wishing the movie were about twenty minutes shorter. For what it’s worth, we do get one final action sequence, as Charlie finally loses her shit in what might be the greatest single act of psychic revenge ever wrought on a cadre of horror movie baddies, rivaling Carrie for its’ sheer wonton destruction. We’ve just got to sit through a lot of slog in order to get to that, and more than a few audience members will probably decide it’s not worth it.
Scream Factory puts out some of the best looking reissues in the business, and Firestarter is no exception. Taken from a new 2K scan of the interpositive, Firestarter probably looks better on today’s televisions than it did on the big screen years ago, and nostalgia junkies will no doubt delight in the great level of detail, especially in the suburban and Shop sequences, which afford nice glimpses of rather average home décor and life circa 1984. The disc is also chock full of brand-new extras, including a commentary with director Mark L. Lester and a making-of documentary featuring interviews with Lester, Freddie Jones, Drew Snyder, Dick Warlock, and Tangerine Dream'sJohannes Schmoelling. It actually turns out to be Dream who get the biggest spotlight in the rest of the extras, as there's also a solo interview with Schmoelling, as well as a neat little curio in a live performance by Schmoelling of the tune "Charlie's Theme" from the movie.
Firestarter is surprisingly tame for a Stephen King adaptation, and for younger viewers not bothered by fire or run-of-the-mill violence, it makes for a surprisingly family-friendly horror film. For viewers young or old, for those who grew up seeing it in video stores or those who’ve never even heard of it, Firestarter is an engaging little gem, and for those who can make it through that sluggish 20 minutes, an enjoyable way to spend an evening while waiting for Stranger Things to make its’ way back onto Netflix. You might even find yourself with a new appreciation for the show in light of its’ storied heritage.