Starring Drew Barrymore, David Keith, Martin Sheen, George C. Scott
Directed by Mark L. Lester
Distributed by Scream Factory
Ever since Brian De Palma kicked off the practice of adapting Stephen King’s seminal literary works to film with Carrie (1976), the floodgates have remained open for cinematic interpretations of his stories. The trickle that began with that film, Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), and Creepshow (1982) turned into a raging river that often saw multiple King films released within the same year. In fact, it would be easier to single out years when no King stories were adapted, as most saw multiple stories ushered onto the silver screen. Even now, in 2017, there are five (!) films related to King’s work on their way to audiences. The ‘80s were a wellspring for classics, though, with many of his most celebrated horror pictures debuting during that time. 1984 saw the release of both Children of the Corn (which has gone on the spawn an entire franchise… somehow) and Firestarter – and if you lived in any territory outside of North America you also got The Dead Zone (1983), too. Firestarter has the most interesting history to horror fans, since it began as a vehicle for John Carpenter before he was unceremoniously removed after The Thing (1982) bombed at the box office. Oh, sweet irony…
Director Mark L. Lester – he of Class of 1984 (1982) and Commando (1985) fame – eventually took over the reins, directing a then-fresh faced Drew Barrymore in her first feature-length leading role. Despite the prestige of both a rising child actor and a score by German electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream, Lester’s film stumbles by committing a mortal cinema sin: it too often moves at a glacial pace.
Andy McGee (David Keith) and his daughter, Charlene “Charlie” McGee (Drew Barrymore), are on the run from agents of “The Shop”, a highly classified arm of the government’s Department of Scientific Intelligence. Flashbacks reveal Andy and his wife, Vicky (Heather Locklear), were participants in a government study about the effects of hallucinogens back in their college days. The two were given low doses of LOT-6, an experimental drug that granted them telepathic abilities; Vicky could read minds, while Andy can use his mind to manipulate others into doing his will. Charlie, meanwhile, has the extraordinary ability of being able to start fires with her mind, as well as being able to predict some future events.
Another flashback shows how agents of The Shop infiltrated Andy and Vicky’s home one afternoon, killing Vicky and abducting Charlie before Andy showed up and was able to stop the kidnapping. Ever since then, the two have been on the lam and agents are never far behind. Frustrated, the commander of The Shop, Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen), calls in Agent John Rainbird (George C. Scott), a hardened professional, to capture them both. Exhausted and in dire need of respite, Andy and Charlie are taken in by a kindly old couple, Irv (Art Carney) and Norma (Louise Fletcher) Manders, who are taken aback by Andy’s story and aren’t sure what to believe until agents ascertain their location and storm the farm. Threatened and cornered, Charlie unleashes a wrath upon the feds like she never has before, revealing just a taste of the power she holds. Andy and Charlie go back on the run but they are eventually caught by Rainbird, who hauls them back to The Shop. Under Cpt. Hollister’s watchful eye, the two are separated and Charlie is subjected to further testing, the power of which could be enough to destroy the world!
Alright, maybe she isn’t going to go that far, but it is possible? Probably. Even at the end, when Charlie seems to be using all her might in a pyrokinetic display of savagery, there exists the potential for her to exponentially increase her scope. Who’s to say where it ends? Charlie, as played by Barrymore, is the heart of this film. Well, she and Art Carney who is just a class act of old-school gravitas. But as Charlie, Barrymore is required to spend nearly half of the film in a highly emotional state, crying and agitated. Acting is a lot to ask of kids in general, but to have one so capable of displaying the right level of emotion to sell a scene is impressive. There is a reason why she has stuck around in the business for so long.
David Keith is a serviceable actor but there is always some level of detachment to his performances that prevents me from completely empathizing. He is only seen as sympathetic here due to his circumstances – dead wife, “special” daughter – but Keith himself, in character, never manages to rise above barely-there for me. His range is limited here and he isn’t much for the doting father type. I find he works best as an antagonist, like in Donald Cammell’s excellent White of the Eye (1987).
The less said about Heather Locklear’s role, the better – although I will say Locklear was in her prime here, gorgeous as ever. Her role as Andy’s wife is minor and severely lacking and her – not-really-spoiler alert – death has zero impact because all we really know is the two were married and she had Charlie, but we don’t spend any time with her.
Entire paragraphs could, and should, be devoted to discussing George C. Scott’s luxurious ponytail and generally gruff, badass demeanor here. Hell, the guy kills a man with one swift smash to the bridge of his nose; it’s his signature move, one which he eloquently describes later in the film. Rainbird is a unique, lone wolf type of character and Scott was the perfect man for the job. His involvement can increase the enjoyment of any film; see: The Exorcist III (1990).
Finally, any review would be remiss not to mention the musical contributions of the legendary Tangerine Dream. Despite scoring the film cold (the band just sent over some music and told Lester to choose what he liked) the themes and melodies often work wonders, whether heightening the emotion of a big moment or simply providing some mellow tunes for the film’s slower periods. This score, combined with the strength of a nearly solid acting ensemble, is what makes Firestarter a better film than its script may have otherwise allowed.
Almost forgot, eagle-eyed horror fans keep an eye out for Dick Warlock, who just two years after Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) is once again playing a mysterious man in a tailored suit. And if you pay extra close attention, you can watch him die twice.
This film has been issued and re-issued countless times (OK, maybe, like, five but you get the point) and the last release, a Blu-ray from Universal was reviled for looking ugly as sin thanks to an overuse of DNR. Rest assured, this new 2K scan of the interpositive is a revelation compared to past releases. Scream Factory has knocked it out of the park with a 2.35:1 1080p image that is brimming with fine details thanks to stunning clarity, robust color saturation, razor-sharp definition, and a complete lack of dirt & debris (save for very minor white speckling). No problems whatsoever can see seen here, making this one of Scream Factory’s strongest visual presentations yet.
Don’t fret over the lack of a multi-channel track as Universal’s disc had because the English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track is true to the source. Dialogue is easy to understand and always clear. Tangerine Dream’s score soars in lossless audio quality. The mono track doesn’t carry the same weight as a multi-channel or even stereo affair but I commend Scream Factory’s commitment to purists. Subtitles are available in English SDH.
Director Mark Lester provides an audio commentary that has been described as “lacking” due to a lack of frequent conversation. It might be best to skip this and go right into the documentary.
“Playing with Fire: The Making of Firestarter” – Although Barrymore and Keith are absent from this documentary that should in no way dissuade potential viewers from missing this excellent retrospective. Many important players are interviewed here and there is a lot of great movie trivia for fans.
“Tangerine Dream: Movie Music Memories – An Interview with Johannes Schmoelling” – This is a fantastic trip through memory lane with Schmoelling, who recalls many details of Tangerine Dream’s early days and their scoring efforts. Highly recommended, especially for fans of the group.
“Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream Plays “Charlie’s Theme” is a great new rendition recorded just for this piece.
A couple of theatrical trailers, six radio spots, and a still gallery stuffed with all sorts of rare and cool photos are also included.
- NEW 2K scan of the interpositive film element
- NEW Audio commentary with director Mark L. Lester
- NEW Playing with Fire: The Making of FIRESTARTER – featuring interviews with director Mark L. Lester, actors Freddie Jones and Drew Snyder, stuntman/actor Dick Warlock and Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream
- NEW Tangerine Dream: Movie Music Memories – an interview with Johannes Schmoelling
- NEW exclusive performance of “Charlie’s Theme” by Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream
- Theatrical Trailers
- Radio Spot
- Still Gallery