So once again we have survived.

Firestarter

tn_firestarterFIRESTARTER 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.

In 1984 movie poster taglines were allowed to go into more detail.
In 1984 movie poster taglines were allowed to go into more detail.

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.

still_firestarter
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.
This entry was posted on Monday, September 12th, 2016 at 12:44 pm and is filed under Horror, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

16 Responses to “Firestarter”

  1. Mark L. Lester got the job after the original director was fired (no pun intended). You might recognize the name John Carpenter, who was on a dire situation after The Thing flopped.

  2. For my taste this is a forgettable awful film except for one superior thing you fail to mention: the Tangerine Dream score.

  3. @Lup11: Hate to be that guy but the Tangerine Dream score does get a mention.

    (note: I do not hate to be that guy)

  4. ” I’m trapped in a sewer with a confessioned arsonist!”
    (I know, wrong Firestarter.)

    There are two things about movie posters that I really miss these days for some reason: The tiny thumbnails of the actors on the bottom of the poster and the long plot descriptions.

    No, I never saw this movie, so I have nothing else to add.

  5. The best part of the movie is the early on-the-run stuff. The concept of the nosebleed to indicate the toll Keith’s psychic powers take on him really ratchets up the tension. You see him suffering so much to protect his daughter and you know he’s just not gonna be able to do it.

    I am pretty flabbergasted that no one’s remade this yet. It’s got a great, recognizable title, a catchy premise custom-built for special effects, and the song they’d get a whispery female singer to cover for the trailer is already picked out. They should have done it with Chloe Grace Moretz when they had the chance, but she’s too old now and she already played Carrie anyway so they’re gonna have to wait around for the next little girl with a marquee name to come along.

  6. I watched a movie called Three O’Clock High which is a high noon in High School movie and it had a Tangerine Dream soundtrack. I then found out they did a lot of movies scores. Turns out it isn’t as rare I thought it was to have them.

  7. This seems like a good place to mention that TANGERINE DREAM just covered the theme to STRANGER THINGS. How meta is that?

  8. Tangerine Dream is still kicking without Edgar Froese? I don’t know if I can accept that, especially since I just checked the current lineup and none of the members joined the band before 2005. It’s like if all the members of HAPPY DAYS left except Ted McGinley.

    Then again maybe that’s more appropriate for a cover of the STRANGER THINGS theme.

  9. See also: MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and STRANGER THINGS.

  10. I always found it kind of sweet that John wanted to kill Charlie when she was happiest. Seems like a decent way to go. “This day just can’t get any better!” Thud.

  11. Oh, I just got the creepy subtext about John. I missed that when I first saw it, at 12. I thought he was just a kindly child murderer.

  12. From Pyro- to Tellekinesis would be the next logical step.
    You really have to check out THE MIND´S EYE by Jpe Begos.
    Some serious braincrackin´spy vs spy vs snapping synapses action is going on there!

    The Mind's Eye: OFFICIAL TRAILER

    Zack Connors and Rachel Meadows were born with incredible psychokinetic capabilities. When word of their supernatural talents gets out, they find themselves ...

  13. My favourite Firestarter trivia is that the shot of Moses Gunn’s golf cart exploding at the end (and he really could be running and managing to maintain a faster getaway speed than that thing gives him) pops up some years later in the Smoking Gunn II trailer in The Hard Way.

    I only noticed it when watching THW on blu-ray a few months ago, but it’s pretty distinctive. I guess Universal just said go nuts in the archive to fill out the trailer.

  14. I just watched the Firestarter Franchise(?) a few weeks ago and absolutely loved the first one – it’s a little slow in spots and there’s a few too many scenes where they repeat information they’ve already given us, but it’s a bonafide iconic 80s classic that has aged surprisingly well and to be honest John Rainbird (a character I had pretty much forgotten about) is now probably one of my Top 10 Movie Villains. Scott really goes all-in without descending into mega-acting or camp, and that middle section where he befriends Charlie is genius. Love how he switches from sicko killer to lovable ole Grandpa on a dime (and is absolutely convincing as both). Love how he immediately gains Charlie’s trust by playing the clumsy buffoon and acting scared of the dark and looking to her for comfort, essentially making her feel like she’s the one in control. It’s brilliant and creepy stuff. (I also like that Rainbird has a Special Finishing Move like a fucking pro-wrestler)

    Side note: I’m slowly going through Stephen Kings’ filmography, and watching Firestarter and Carrie so close in a row not only made me realize how much of a companion piece they are to each other (I can’t believe I’ve never seen the blatant similarities before), but it actually gave me a better appreciation for The Lawnmower Man. I know how it’s famous for Stephen King suing New Line to take his name off of it (as it really doesn’t have anything to do with his short story and was even admitted to being a reconfigured spec script). However it actually works as both a capper in an unofficial trilogy and a clever homage to King. Alot of classic King-isms are here – the Salem’s Lot-style suburbia with dark drama underneath, the corrupt, abusive authority/religious figures, and of course the lonely outcast who simmers the whole movie until they harness their powers to wreak havoc in the finale. There’s literally an abusive dad who gets killed shortly after watching wrestling on TV in a stained wife beater while drinking a beer, which actually happens in at least 2 other King movies. Plus the bad guys are The Shop again! I think if Lawnmower Man came out today amongst so many reboots and reimaginings and rebootquels and Shared Universe Franchises, people would cut it some slack and really appreciate it for what it is – a love letter to King’s works.

  15. I’m afraid this is one of the Stephen King books I haven’t read nor have I seen the movie.

    So what am I doing well commenting? Well I have some super bizarre trivia, a newspaper interview with Stephen King about the book at the time it was published inspired some crazy dude with the belief that Stephen King shot John Lennon as a favor to Richard Nixon.

    His “evidence” being a supposed secret message in the newspaper article (mostly the quote “one great big zippo lighter” to describe the little girl) and the “fact” that Stephen King vaguely (but not really) resembles Mark David Chapman (and tons of other crazy bullshit too but that’s all I remember)

    This was enough for this crazy guy to devote his entire life to getting the “truth” out, weird huh?

  16. I have been plowing through Kings books these last months. Finished IT last week and is reading MR MERCEDES at the moment. A very frustrating read with propably the dumbest detective I have encountered in fiction. I don´t know if I´ll bother finishing it.

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