Firestarter is Stephen King’s comic book movie, even on the page. It’s been said that The Dead Zone is something of a superhero origin story, but I think the tragedy of it is that it’s cut short before that can really be the case. It’s about someone with extrasensory powers making the decision to take the law into their own hands, yes, but it winds up taking a different direction by the time all is said and done. Carrie is about someone with a huge amount of power who is, at her core, a good person, but simply gets pushed to her breaking point.
But Firestarter is just Stephen King’s version of X-Men. This book embraces comic book tropes all the way through. We’ve got two people gifted with powers they did not ask for, being hunted down by a shadowy organization that wants to use them for its own nefarious means. It’s classic stuff. There was an understandable excitement at the time from fans of the book, imagining how the story would translate into the amazing, groundbreaking climate of early ‘80s science fiction films.
The adaptation we got, though it has its fans, was not by any means the surefire hit that people were expecting. It suffered on a couple of levels, from the budget down to, frankly, the direction. And therein lies the problem. Firestarter was supposed to be directed by John Carpenter, but he was fired from the project at the eleventh hour after The Thing turned out to be an enormous box office flop. The studio was so nervous after the reaction to that movie, that they didn’t want its director anywhere near this one.
Because of that, Firestarter looks and feels like something that’s trying to look and feel like a John Carpenter film, but just isn’t doing it. It’s honestly a fascinating way to explore exactly what Carpenter brings to the table as a filmmaker by exploring what happens when he is removed from the equation.
Everything about the concept and even much of the execution feels completely within Carpenter’s wheelhouse—ironically much more so than Christine, which was an unexpected adaptation from the director at the time. This could have been such a stylish thriller, mixing action and drama with classic sci-fi, hinging on Carpenter’s favorite theme of governmental organizations that can’t be trusted and are built on the abuse of their own power.
There’s no real reason on paper why Firestarter shouldn’t work. All the right elements are there. Drew Barrymore gave one of the best child acting debuts of all time in E.T. There’s some insanely impressive adult talent involved as well, including Martin Sheen and George C. Scott. So what went wrong?
Admittedly, there are some aspects of the pacing that really, really take a particular kind of director to be able to pull them off effectively. While Firestarter kicks off with a bang, diving head first into the story of a father and daughter on the run, they’re caught about halfway through. The second half of the movie is just Charlie being subjected to random experimentation by The Shop. At this point, it just slows to a crawl and never really recovers until the end.
But that still makes you wonder if Carpenter would have elevated that into something that was appropriately tense, or if it would have turned out to have the exact same pacing issues he’d wind up having with Village of the Damned. This was the early eighties, though. Carpenter was on the top of his game. The movie that got him fired off Firestarter in the first place was, after all, the film that most fans now consider to be his masterpiece.
The truth is that there’s just something about Carpenter, not just his cinematic trademarks and style, but in who he is and what he brings to each project he associates himself with, that can’t be duplicated. It can’t truly be emulated. And that’s all the more obvious now that we live in such a nostalgia-heavy era where it definitely feels like everyone is trying to emulate the man and his work. How many movies are trying to recapture the sound of a Carpenter score? Trying to go for that same wide frame or those long Panavision shots? But even as fun as they are when they come close, they can’t do it. Because there’s only one John Carpenter.
That’s what’s painfully obvious in Firestarter. It has the basic look of Carpenter, the same basic tone and even some of the same sound. Everything about it suggests that it should be a John Carpenter movie, but it just isn’t.
And that’s not to say that Firestarter is without merit or that Mark L. Lester is a bad director. George C. Scott as a Native American (especially one who seems to have such a creepy agenda) might not be a great choice overall, but when the feature eventually reaches its pyrotechnic finale, it’s delightful. Charlie’s rampage might not have the poignancy of Carrie, but at that point we’re more than ready to give ourselves up to sheer spectacle. These aren’t dazzling special effects, but I almost feel like they shouldn’t be. I think this is better. When it embraces its campiness by the end, it’s the best version of itself that it could be given everything it had to work with.
The score by Tangerine Dream is amazing. It’s easily the best thing about Firestarter. But even though it’s great to listen to on its own, sometimes its hard not to think about what Carpenter’s score would have looked like, what he could have brought to the energy, to the characters and—especially—to the entire visual style of the film as a whole.
You can have most if not all of the elements that Carpenter would have had, but when you take a director like that at the high point of his career and remove him from the project, you’re effectively removing the movie’s spirit. As entertaining as Firestarter can be, it ultimately never recovers from that.
Zena’s Period Blood: Dying for a DEAD END
It can be difficult finding horror films of quality, so allow me to welcome you to your salvation from frustration. “Zena’s Period Blood” is here to guide you to the horror films that will make you say, “This is a good horror. Point blank. PERIOD.”
“Zena’s Period Blood” focuses on under-appreciated and hidden horror films.
How do you turn $900,000 into $77,000,000? Offer directors Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa the initial amount and give them the freedom to let their minds wander. In 2003, both directors accomplished this unimaginable feat with Dead End. Under the clouds of a small budget, typical poster and insubstantial trailer, most viewers forecasted one long stretch of boredom. However, 15 minutes in and I was as hooked as a pervert in a strip club with his tax refund money. In 83 minutes, the movie unravels and exposes intelligent craftsmanship with story, acting and location, introducing us to the Harrington family and their demise.
After 20 years following the same route, Frank Harrington (Ray Wise) decides to take his family down a shortcut to his in-laws home during Christmas Eve. Wife Laura (Lin Shaye) sings in the passenger seat, serving as the optimistic family unifier who is often ignored by her husband and children. Behind Frank is their oldest child Marion (Alexandra Holden), unnervingly sheltered under the arm of her soon-to-be fiancé, Brad. And forever mom’s favorite boy is Richard (Mick Cain), who rocks out to Marilyn Manson blaring in his headphones. After this brief introduction to the characters and their distinct personalities, we witness everyone fall asleep, including Frank, who refuses to let anyone else drive.
Several seconds pass before the Jeep Wagoneer veers into the opposite lane. Gradually, a honk pleads from an approaching car, startling the Harrington family and forcing Frank to fight with the wheel until he brings the Jeep to a stop. Wide-awake, the family begins to move forward, now entrapped on a new, never-ending road.
I could elaborate on so many scary details in the movie, but the never-ending road stands out the most. What makes it worse is that there are signs for a town called Marcott, with an arrow indicating the town is straight ahead. But the Harringtons never reach the town. This scares me because I believe that every human being has a mental list of things they are scared of or things they should keep an eye out for in certain situations. Unfortunately, this movie exists to expand that list. What sucks for me is that my husband likes taking back roads. Because I strive to have a happy marriage and a peaceful death, I usually fall asleep to avoid an argument and the grim reaper, both of which usually exist on these particular roads. However, I never imagined that a back road could become a never-ending road. Man that would suck!
Speaking of never-ending, the directors became devils of discomfort by never really showing the deceased’s mutilated body, leaving your brain struggling to piece together the unseen image long after the movie ends. Throughout the movie, the family and Brad are picked off one by one. We mainly suffer these devatations through the reactions of the family members that are still alive, sometimes witnessing them lift a severed ear or caress a charred hand. This movie taught me that I can still taste bile at the back of my throat when a mutilation is suggested rather than shown.
Directors Andrea and Canepa accomplished greatness in Dead End with little time and little money. It is a testament that imagination coupled with skill is the true combination to capturing a big budget feel. I hope that all the individuals behind this movie have a long, never-ending road ahead of them because they have delivered brilliance to the world. This is a good horror. Point blank. Period.
In addition to contributing to Dread Central, Zena Dixon has been writing about all things creepy and horrific for over six years at RealQueenofHorror.com. She has always loved horror films and will soon be known directing her own feature-length horror. Feel free to follow her on Twitter @LovelyZena.
5 Zombie Films That Flipped The Script
The undead have long been a source of horror for cultures around the world. The thought of our loved ones returning from beyond the grave as shells of their former selves has filled countless people with feelings of dread, grief, and terror. Then there’s that whole pesky “they want to eat our flesh” thing going on. As if being in mourning wasn’t enough, now I’ve got to worry about remaining intact?
Netflix’s upcoming horror/thriller Cargo stars Martin Freeman as a man who wanders the Australian outback with 48 hours to live after being bitten by a zombie. The twist in this story is that Freeman has his one-year-old daughter with him and he needs to find a safe place for her before he turns.
Having seen the film, I can tell you that it’s pretty damn fantastic. The zombies are distinct enough that you’ll feel like you’re watching something new and the themes hinted at through the story, while not entirely unique, are so rarely touched upon in zombie films that it feels like a fascinating experience. Cargo has no issues bravely facing racism, xenophobia, environmental concerns, and the fear of loss, not only of one’s life but of all that will never be experienced. It’s horror with heart and it never shies away from that, for which I applaud it.
Because of the release of Cargo, we decided to take a look at five other zombie films that brought something new and exciting to the table.
“Stranded in rural Australia in the aftermath of a violent pandemic, an infected father desperately searches for a new home for his infant child and a means to protect her from his own changing nature.”
Cargo was directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke from a script written by Ramke. It stars Martin Freeman, Anthony Hayes, Susie Porter, Caren Pistorius, Kris McQuade, Simone Landers, and David Gulpilil.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
It may not seem all that original now but George A. Romero’s 1968 classic really was revolutionary upon its release. Prior to this film, zombies were mostly thought of in terms of the Haitian folklore that was seen in movies like White Zombie. In that film, zombies weren’t mindless ghouls intent on devouring the living, they were freshly dead corpses resurrected by a Bokor (a necromancer) who wiped the mind of the zombie and made them their personal slave. Romero changed all that by taking the same concept and removing all possibility of the ghouls being controlled. Rather, they became the shuffling corpses that are now cultural icons.
Train to Busan (2016)
South Korea’s 2016 zombie film received, rightfully so, wild critical acclaim and the love of horror fans across the globe. Wasting no time in getting into the action, Train to Busan felt like a breath of fresh air because it masterfully blended humor, over-the-top action, horror, social commentary, and genuine emotion. Elements of each of these traits have been seen countless times throughout zombie films but the culmination of everything made Yeon Sang-ho’s film one of the best entries in the genre in this decade, possibly this century.
28 Days Later (2002)
Raw, gritty, vicious, and undeniably beautiful, 28 Days Later is a masterpiece of intensity and emotion. The first zombie film in many years to truly make it feel like the world was over, it created a believable story and focused on interesting, nuanced characters. As with Train to Busan and Night of the Living Dead themes of class warfare and social commentary were most certainly present, creating a film that felt fresh and exciting. There’s a reason 28 Days Later was credited with revitalizing the zombie genre and it’s because it brought new, albeit infected, blood into the mix.
Seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger in a dramatic role bereft of action or comedy should already clue you in that this movie is aiming to do something different but it’s the actual meat (no pun intended) and potatoes of the story that offers a fresh perspective on zombies. Schwarzenegger’s Wade is distraught and desperate after learning that his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) is infected with the “Necroambulist virus” and has days left before she changes into a cannibalistic creature. Rather than focus on the terrors of what might be, Maggie opts to focus on what we know will be lost. Maggie will never know what an adult life will be life. She will never know a love that lasts the rest of her life nor will she have the chance to be a parent. Her grief at what she will never experience is matched by Wade’s overwhelming anguish that he cannot protect his daughter or be there for all those moments that could have been.
As King Theoden mournfully stated in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, “No parent should have to bury their child.”
The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)
What if the zombie was actually the character we, the audience, were pushed to care the most about? Enter Colm McCarthy’s 2016 brilliant film The Girl With All The Gifts and you’ll have that same experience. Never failing to bring scares, the film also isn’t afraid to ask how can we love that which can put us in so much danger as well as cause us so much pain? Sennia Nanua positively shines as Melanie, a young girl infected with a fungal disease that will send her on a mindless, flesh-hungry rampage were it not for a cream that remaining humans can rub on their arms to curb her appetite. As with 28 Days Later, The Girl With All The Gifts doesn’t shy away from commentary on race and class differences. But its true strength lies in its ability to make you feel for the very thing that should strike fear into your heart.
This post was sponsored by Netflix.
Interview: Author Alex White on ALIEN: THE COLD FORGE
Titan Books new novel Alien: The Cold Forge finds a group of scientists conducting experiments on the titular beasts on a remote space station, and as you might expect, things don’t go so hot. While the basic setup may sound like familiar ground, author Alex White manages to twist and subvert expectations at nearly every turn, developing a book with some great characters, creepy horror setpieces and intriguing tweaks to the Xenomorph lifecycle.
I recently got to ask Alex some questions on Alien: The Cold Forge, covering how he got the job, alternate story concepts and if there was anything from the movies that was off bounds while he was writing the book.
Dread Central: Hi Alex. First off, could you give a quick overview of your writing career prior to Alien: The Cold Forge?
Alex White: I started out writing screenplays, which was a major part of my independent studies in college. Around 2005, I started seriously writing novels, and I sold my fifth book, Every Mountain Made Low, in 2015. My agent, Connor Goldsmith, parleyed that into the Alien deal for me, as well as my forthcoming three-book space opera, The Salvagers. The first book, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, arrives June 26th of this year.
DC: How did the concept for The Cold Forge come to you?
AW: My agent called me to let me know that I’d scored a pitch meeting with Titan editor Steve Saffel, and I had to come up with a couple of ideas, fast. I was at Adaptive Path’s UX week when Double Robotics did a presentation using their telepresence robot, and I was fascinated by the idea. What if you had one survivor in an alien outbreak who was cut off, only able to influence the outcome through telepresence? How would the other survivors react? Would they be grateful or upset?
I was also dealing with a lot of Silicon Valley tech bros at the time, and Dorian naturally evolved from the amoral folks that work at a lot of those companies. When we’re chasing profits, it’s important to ask: who gets hurt? Dorian doesn’t have that reflex.
DC: Did you pitch any other ideas for Alien stories to Titan for the book?
AW: I pitched three, but I only really remember two of them. There’s the one that eventually became The Cold Forge, and there was another that took place on a military academy on a planet overrun by aliens. The idea is that you have a bunch of troubled outcast teens who’ve been shipped away from home to get discipline, then an outbreak kills most of the adults. It sounds YA, but I wanted to turn it into full-on Lord of the Flies.
DC: Pretty much every character in The Cold Forge is flawed or corrupt in some way. Was it fun to write a story without any traditional heroes?
AW: Absolutely, because honestly, I think it represents the reality of a survival scenario. Also, can you imagine living with your coworkers for years at a time? I doubt I’d be able to survive that with a clean conscience, myself.
DC: Dorian Sudler has to one of the great all-time assholes in the franchise to date. How did you dream up such an odious character?
AW: I was dealing with a lot of Silicon Valley tech bros at the time, and Dorian naturally evolved from this utter prick of a venture capitalist who shared a cab with me one evening. When you’re dealing with big data in particular, it’s easy to violate privacy, manipulate people and outright disenfranchise folks (Check out Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil). On my product teams, we have a strict rule: “Don’t pitch me anything you don’t want used on you.” With any advancement, you might churn a good profit, but you also might end up ruining someone’s life. That’s why it’s important to ask: who gets hurt? Dorian, like that venture capitalist, doesn’t have that reflex.
DC: The relationship between Blue Marsalis and her android/nurse Marcus is also pretty intriguing, where she uses his body as an avatar to escape her own bed-ridden condition. Where did that idea come from?
AW: While I’ve already talked about Double Robotics, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that my friend’s father passed from complications of ALS around that time. Another friend of mine has a terminally-ill daughter, and watching the trials that poor kid has to endure is heartbreaking. I wanted the readers to feel the difficulties that come with a terminal condition, as well as the discrimination. Terminally-ill people are often treated as though they’re already dead. Friends drift away, unable to witness the pain unfolding before them.
Blue deals with all of that, especially the fact that her life is considered worthless by the others. If they’d managed to get to an escape pod, do you think Blue’s crewmates would’ve rescued her? If she’d died out there, who would’ve spoken a kind word?
DC: The Cold Forge reveals Facehuggers don’t actually implant an embryo but inject a black goo-like substance instead that rewrites DNA. Did you receive any pushback about making this change to their life cycle?
AW: Nope! It’s 100% in keeping with Alien: Covenant and you never actually see a larval injection onscreen. In fact, 20th Century Fox requested ZERO changes to the manuscript and sent a page full of compliments, which is probably a first!
DC: The book feels somewhat inspired by video game Alien: Isolation, including how the Xenos are depicted and certain passages like Sudler hiding in a weapons locker. Have you played the game?
AW: Oh, I absolutely did. My god, that game was a masterpiece. The thing that really stuck with me was the audible weight of the creatures. I’d never felt them so substantially in the movies.
DC: Are you a fan of any of the other Alien Expanded Universe stories, be it games, comics or novels?
AW: Oh yeah. In the 90s, I had every Dark Horse book and comic. I played all of the games, especially AvP and AvP 2 (and that badass Capcom beat-em-up that took all my quarters). Strangely enough, the creator of the AvP games was Rebellion, and their publishing arm is the company that bought my debut!
DC: Were there any story ideas that were off-limits while writing the book, e.g. mentioning certain characters or events from past movies?
AW: When I started writing, Covenant hadn’t come out yet, and Prometheus was considered a separate license, so I couldn’t use the black goo. About a month into my contract, Covenant came out and boom! I get to use everything I want.
DC: How have you found the fan response to the book so far?
AW: Incredible! They love it, and they’re so happy to tell me that. I’m really blown away by the kindness and excitement from this fandom. There are a lot of really great folks out there, especially the ones from AvPGalaxy.net.
DC: Would you pay another visit to the Alien universe if the opportunity presented itself?
AW: You bet! I’ve always got a few more ideas in me. I’m also planning to do a commentary on my thought process while writing the book, which you can find in my newsletter.
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