FIRESTARTER is a classic tale of ’80s style supernatural paranoia. An innocent father and daughter are on the run from menacing agents of a secret government entity nicknamed “The Shop.” A university experiment with hallucinogens in the ’70s gave dad (David Keith, WHITE OF THE EYE) and now-deceased mom (Heather Locklear, MONEY TALKS) psychic powers, which have passed on to daughter Charlie (Drew Barrymore in her next movie after E.T.). She can sense things, sometimes move things, but her trademark is fire. When she gets angry at people things get hot. Mom and dad had been trying to teach her to keep it under control, with mixed success. You really gotta recognize what a difficult parenting challenge this would be even if The Man wasn’t out to get them.
So now it’s Take Your Daughter On the Lam Day. They’re hitchhiking, scrounging up change, using Jedi mind tricks. She’s already used to lying to people and using fake names. It reminds me of Starman (TV show), or The Golden Years, like this a Stephen King creation and also using The Shop as the antagonists. Through no fault of their own this family are considered dangerous, and the government wants to either use them as weapons or kill them. Neither seems appealing to them.
This kill-them-for-safety-purposes policy is obviously fascist and heartless, but it’s based in a reasonable fear that if this little girl can blow up cars with her mind what will she be able to do if she grows up? And will she do it?
Just think, Robert Rodriguez volunteered for medical testing, got the cash to make EL MARIACHI. These poor guys get this shit.
If there was a firestarter now it would be trouble because the Patriot Act would probly make it legal to lock them up without charges, and it would be harder for her to evade authorities. Luckily back then they didn’t have facial recognition software and they did have hitchhiking. You always found a nice old guy driving a truck who was sympathetic. In this case Art Carney (The Star Wars Holiday Special) is so nice he brings them to his farm for lunch with his wife (Louise Fletcher playing the mostly thankless worried-wife role less than ten years after winning best actress for ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST). The old man quickly figures out that their story about trying to get to a wife and new baby is bullshit, but he has a Reaganite anti-government bent that makes him want to help, especially after agents enter his property without a warrant. His wife tries to talk some sense into him, they shouldn’t be aiding fugitives. But it’s the principle, you know. Jackboots and what not.
Eventually Charlie and dad are captured and see The Shop from the inside. It’s kind of like a really nice mental hospital for rich people. They’re separated, but kept in hotel-suite-style cells in between tests where it turns out she can instantly melt a giant block of ice and even burn through stone. And keep in mind, microwave ovens were expensive back then. Less than a quarter of American households had them. So you can see why it would be valuable to have this kid around to heat up their leftovers and shit.
The scientists at the Shop are terrified by Charlie’s abilities, but personally I’m more creeped out by these people leaving her on her own in this suite and acting like other than not having the freedom to leave it’s a normal life. Dude, she’s nine years old. She’s not gonna want some time alone to make a pot of coffee, sit back and read the newspaper and talk about how she’s on a “staycation.” You can’t act like this isn’t weird.
Charlie immediately rejects the slick Shop head Martin Sheen (APOCALYPSE NOW, SPAWN) who says they’re going to be pals, but takes to the friendly orderly John (George C. Scott, HARDCORE). We don’t, because we know that he’s a scary black bag agent and we saw him kill an innocent mailman (Steve Boles, ACCIDENTAL LOVE) for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He’s a really good eccentric sicko bad guy, especially after Sheen asks him about how he intends to “terminate” Charlie. John believes (and even hopes) that it’s a suicide mission, but a necessity for the safety of the world. When Sheen tells him “you’ll find out what a steak feels like inside a microwave oven” he laughs. When he actually tries to kill her he keeps saying “I love you!”
But he means as friends I think? Maybe?
Obviously all that makes him colorful, but if you want a cherry on top, I am happy to report that he wears an eyepatch some of the time. And something told me his ponytail was supposed to mean he was Native American. Sure enough his last name is Rainbird and in the book he’s said to be Cherokee.
I like thinking of this one as a progression from CARRIE (published six years before this novel). As a young person you worry about the telekinetic kids being bullied in her high school. But when you’re older you worry about how The Man will treat them. Had Carrie survived I’m sure The Shop would be after her too. They both end in similar fashion, with the supernatural girl walking around with an intense look on her face, using her mind to make cars flip and blow up and shit. But in Carrie’s case it was lashing back at the other kids, in Charlie’s it’s agents of the group that locked her up and took her parents from her.
Also it shows that having a more supportive parental figure isn’t necessarily gonna make everything that much better.
Keith is really good, he kinda seems like a brother of Patrick Swayze, and he goes into a SCANNERS mode where he concentrates on controlling people’s minds and his nose bleeds. If he coulda gotten that under control he coulda been the next Professor Xavier. But this is Barrymore’s movie, and she’s unsurprisingly good at looking intense while fans blow her hair around, as well as the crying scenes she has to do. The synth score by Tangerine Dream makes it all feel more momentous.
Once again we gotta acknowledge the underrated career of director Mark L. Lester. This was his movie between CLASS OF 1984 and COMMANDO. It’s very simple in its story (adapted by Stanley Mann, THE MOUSE THAT ROARED, THEATRE OF BLOOD, CIRCLE OF IRON, CONAN THE DESTROYER), but pretty satisfying when it arrives at the only possible conclusion: it explodes. There is alot of fire in this movie, back in the days when fires and explosions in movies looked like real fires and explosions, because they were.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.