Sunday, February 5, 2012

We Didn't Start the Fire (Drew Barrymore Did)

Though it's true that Drew Barrymore's heat-rising Charlie is the protagonist of 1984's Firestarter, she’s still something of a petite monster, what with her ability to set ablaze anyone or thing that crosses her path. Hence it’s inclusion here at February’s Vertically Challenged Villainy!

Quick Plot: Pyrokinetic Charlie and psychic(ish) dad are on the run from the evil government seeking to study their paranormal abilities, powers caused by some voluntary testing Dad David Keith/Keith David/The White One Of The Two did with wife Heather Locklear back in college. Hitchhiking brings them to the happy-go-lucky farm run by Art Carney and in a rare non-villainous role, Louise Fletcher, but even the safe haven of every Wookie’s favorite neighbor and Nurse Ratched can’t protect them from evil suit Martin Sheen and his maybe-pedophiliac henchman played with oily wrongness by the great George C. Scott as an eyepatch wearing ponytailed maybe Native American.


Let’s get this out of the way: Firestarter has one glaring flaw, and that blazing fire of a problem is kind of important.

It’s boring.

Obviously, not every Stephen King film can be 90 minutes of ridiculous dumb joy like Maximum Overdrive or well-crafted tension like Misery. But when a promising story is put in the hands of the kind of filmmaker like Mark Lester, the man whose youthful energy made Class of 1984 pop and Class of 1999 positively explode, one can’t blame ME for having high expectations.

Having not read the novel, I don’t necessarily know which direction the film should have taken but having, you know, SEEN the film, I’d like to say: not that one. Safely between E.T. and rehab, young Drew Barrymore is perfectly fine and eerily confident in the lead role, while David Keith/Keith David/I Will Never Know For Sure makes a believable, sympathetic father. Sheen and Scott can do this kind of work on the toilet and still manage to earn awards for it. Performance is hardly an issue for Firestarter.

So what is? The fire stunts are impressively dangerous (though some bullet magic comes off a tad silly) and the IDEA of a government exploiting its people in the name of science has its merits. But much like David Cronenberg’s head-popping Scanners, Firestarter just doesn’t seem to know how to make its universe as interesting onscreen as the concept is on paper.

By no means does it mean Firestarter is a terrible film or on par with the drudges of Stephen King’s filmography. But given the choice between watching kid Drew Barrymore get tormented by scary Cat’s Eye goblins or nondescript government agents, I assume the choice is obvious.

High Points
George C. Scott rarely missteps when it comes to acting, and his creepy role here as a man obsessed with Charlie’s power is easily the most interesting thing onscreen. Or maybe I just dug the fact that Patton was wearing an eyepatch and ponytail. Who can say?

Low Points

Lessons Learned
If you find yourself stuck in a Stephen King project, never, and I mean never, put your trust in Martin Sheen

Rarely should you believe a man who carries $500 bills

When the person standing next to you is gunned down by a sniper, the proper next step is probably not to remain in place

Credits Curiosity
For whatever reason, the opening credits list the cast “In order of appearance.” I don’t see how this is a good idea

Personal Connection
So there was a hidden reason for my excitement at revisiting Firestarter: as a child, the title happened to be my very own parent-given nickname, based on the fact that my-then blond hair and still-eternal hotness (body temperature-wise, not that I was a sexy two-year-old) made me something of a dead ringer for li’l Charlie. Clearly our career trajectories continued to parallel one another (I don’t want to talk about the dark days and what my equivalent of Babes In Toyland or Tom Green was)

Stephen King fans or ‘80s enthusiasts might find Firestarter worthy of a gander, though speaking as someone who could mildly classify herself in either category, I was let down. The DVD is absent of extras, a shame since Lester’s commentaries are often as interesting as the films themselves (and come to think of it, a commentary by the craft service caterer or Barrymore’s on-set tutor might have been more interesting than the final product). It’s there, and if you want to watch it, I promise not to set you on fire or anything. Unless you’re mean about it. Then I’m breaking out the marshmallows and having some REAL fun…


  1. I remrmber seeing this film on an old VHS YEARS ago! Have you seen the straight-to-video sequel, Rekindled? I'm not sure how good it is, but it's got Malcom Mcdowell in it as Rainbird (yeah...he survived the finale of this one!...yeah right!) and it's got Dennis Hopper!

  2. Not yet, but it's on Netflix Instant Watch so I'll probably delve into it next month (she's grown up and no longer eligible for The Shortening). You can't argue with the cast, or the ridiculous idea of George C. Scott surviving but evolving into Malcolm McDowell!

  3. You know what, I'm confused too. But I'm pretty certain it's David Keith.

  4. I always got those 2 mixed up also.. I think Keith david is the black guy..

    This film hasn't aged that well, i agree. Although the pyrotechnics, (Real fireballs.. not cgi) and most of the cast are good.. it is a bit of a slog in 2012.
    Mark Lester does not have fond memories of this one, according to an interview i can no longer find online. (swore i heard it though)

  5. The DVD doesn't have any extras, but I think I read something somewhere (there's credentials talking!) with the same gist. As you say, the fire stunts are fine but anything vaguely computerized looks...'80s.WHich would be okay if the film had some joy to it to make that amusing, but it just takes itself so damn seriously!