SEPTEMBER 20 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : FIRESTARTER
Charlie (Barrymore) and her dad Andrew (Keith) are on the run from a shady government unit called “The Shop”. Why? Well, due to some past experiment called “Lot 6”, Andrew is now a powerful psychic and Charlie can start fires and then some with her mind. Don’t piss this toddler off, yo!
This flick is based on yet another Stephen King book and it was swamped with mediocre reviews upon its initial theatrical release. I, on the other hand, thought it was a solid film that actually got better with age. Then again…I’m an asshole with a penchant for also being an a-hole.
"Firestarter" burned my melon (let's see how many unnecessary fire-related quips I can put in this review) and gave me two hours worth of gnarly entertainment. Its first sizzling flame was the necessary time it took to develop its characters. The relationship between Charlie (Barrymore) and her father (David) was the core of the story and it was crucial that it be treated with the proper amount of depth. Luckily, the film came through in that department and really managed to hit me on an emotional level. Was that a tear in the corner of my eye? No, it was the saliva that my ex-girlfriend spat in my face but hey...I was still touched by the film.
To add fuel to the fire, the strong villains in this show also helped make the happenings more engaging. If it wasn’t Martin Sheen (Hollister) destroying the scenery like an acting wrecking ball (fun stuff) it was George C. Scott (Rainbird) playing one sick bastard and bringing all kinds of shite to the table. Sure, I didn’t buy him as a Native Indian (talk about miscasting), but that didn’t change the fear factor I had when it came to his nutty self and his tension-filled relationship with Charlie. That dude’s got issues.
Tag to all that, some suspenseful moments, Drew Barrymore’s spot-on acting (She used to know how to act?? Who knew??), some slick directing (loved the wind blowing in Charlie’s hair when she got all fired up) and a finale that had me barking like “Benji” with an enema up his "benji" and you get a fierce bonfire of fun for all the right reasons. A word on the ending if I may: If you dig fireball torpedoes up the wazoo and enjoy seeing dudes fly in the air while inflamed (I sure do!), you’ll have a rockin' good time in this inferno. Sure, I felt shades of King’s "Carrie" when it came to the conclusion, but I personally found the "Firestarter" carnage more fun to watch and definitely more enthralling than what PMS chick accomplished in Carrie.
Now I do have some meat to broil on this one’s back. I did find that the pace tended to drag a bit at times and that the action was sometimes not as exciting as it should’ve been. I’m not sure if that had to do with the editing or the occasional TV movie-like directing, but this drink needed more spiking in parts. I also didn’t really groove on the final frame of the film. It felt too convenient and was far from satisfying; especially taking into account the insane inferno I was taken through beforehand.
But when all was said and burnt to a crisp, "Firestarter" wound up being quite a fulfilling watch all around. It has a strong script, decent directing, a kick ass score (Tangerine Dream does it again), gripping drama, some good ideas (loved the fake city) and a badass finale that had me grinning like a girl scout giving away her cookies for a nickel. Let’s go pyro on this mofo!
SEPTEMBER 20 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : FIRESTARTER
Stephen King is unlucky. Yeah, I know, he's richer than you'll ever be and famous and massively successful but I maintain that he's unlucky. I say that because almost every movie that's been made from his excellent stories has, pardon the expression, sucked. Go to imdb and check it yourself if you don't believe me. They've almost all sucked bad.
FIRESTARTER was directed by Mark L. Lester (CLASS OF 1999, PTERODACTYL) and written by Stanley Mann (CONAN THE DESTROYER, EYE OF THE NEEDLE), based on the novel by Stephen King.
The story begins with a desperate man carrying a little girl along a crowded Washington, D.C. sidewalk. The man is Andy McGee (David Keith: DAREDEVIL) and the little girl is Charlie (Drew Barrymore: SCREAM, DONNIE DARKO).
A group of men in standard issue "we’re Feds" business suits follows close behind and almost catches Andy and Charlie, but they make a getaway in a taxi. Andy gives the taxi driver a one dollar bill but somehow casts the illusion that it’s a five hundred dollar bill.
Andy has a psi power alternately referred to as mental domination and telepathic hypnosis. He can “push” someone and make them do whatever he says. Using his ability causes him great pain and gives him a nosebleed, suggesting he’s doing damage to himself each time.
Andy and Charlie are on the run from "The Shop", the very definition of the standard issue "evil government agency". We learn that agents from The Shop already killed Charlie's mother Vicki (Heather Locklear: THE RETURN OF THE SWAMP THING) and are intent on capturing Charlie.
The Shop's chief evil scientist, Dr. Wanless (Freddie Jones: VAMPIRA, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, SON OF DRACULA, KRULL, TIME AFTER TIME), once ran an experiment on some college kids, giving them a pituitary extract called “Lot 6”. This drug awakened psychic powers in some of the subjects (and caused the grisly death of others). Andy and Vicki met during this experiment and their daughter has psychic powers as well. She has pyrokinesis, the ability to start fires.
The Shop is lead by Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen: THE DEAD ZONE, THE DEPARTED, TOTAL RECALL 2070, SPAWN) and his right hand man, John Rainbird (George C. Scott: THE CHANGELING, EXORCIST III). They’re determined to get Charlie in a lab to study her abilities and casually murder anyone who gets in their way.
And now I'll casually insert a
There is no evidence that any form of psychic power is anything more than wishful thinking. However I can imagine a scientific basis firm enough to suspend my disbelief. If you assume that there is some as yet undiscovered form of energy permeating the universe and/or existing in some higher dimensional space then that can serve as the power source for Charlie’s amazing abilities. For a more thorough explanation I refer the interested reader to “Waldo” by Robert Heinlein.
Want more? Go to SCIENCE MOMENT.
Okay, it's time for the important question. Is this another member of the long list of bad movies made from Stephen King stories? Did it suck?
No, it didn't. I like this movie a lot, by which I mean I enjoy it despite its flaws. It's not a great movie by any means. Many of the lesser characters suffer from state-the-obvious-itis, an affliction that takes the form of them saying what we can plainly see or figure out on our own. And a lot of the acting is very bad, especially by the great George C. Scott who was just phoning it in.
A variety of interesting characters do make an impression, including the evil Dr. Pynchot (Moses Gunn: THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, AMITYVILLE II) and the good hearted Irv Manders (Art Carney: RAVAGERS) and his wife Norma (Louise Fletcher: THE EXORCIST II, STRANGE INVADERS, INVADERS FROM MARS, MAMA DRACULA, PREDATOR: THE CONCERT, VIRTUOSITY). But the story of a father desperately trying to protect his daughter from very bad people is the core of this movie and it’s compelling enough to overlook a lot. The father-daughter chemistry between David Keith and Drew Barrymore feels genuine and the weird situation and constant threat makes you care what happens to them.
I give FIRESTARTER three shriek girls.
SEPTEMBER 20 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : FIRESTARTER
I can’t piece together why I suddenly was really hot to see this, but I was, and I’m glad I did, as this is a bewitching mixture of total cheesy crap and somewhat cool story, and that can make for quite an entertaining time! We open with this startilingly inappropriate music by Tangerine Dream [Tangerine Dream—Ha! Ha!] that seems to have been lost from some undercover cop drama about the seedy underbelly of Miami or whatever. The rest of the music is not so bad, but starting in this way leaves one with the impression that the entire score is fatally off. Then we have Drew Barrymore [I haven’t seen her this young in quite a while, and it was a bit of a shock] and her somewhat hot Daddy running from some agents or whatever. They get in a cab that is driven by Antonio Fargas of Foxy Brown, and Daddy starts having flashbacks.
It would seem that Dad was part of this experiment in which a bunch of people were given small amounts of a hallucinogen. Dad is on a bed right next to a hot, dewy, young Heather Locklear, and the drug makes them both Horrrrrr-neeeee. Some other folks, as we see from a short scene in which a guy is bleeding from the eyes, did not react quite so well. Anyway, soon Dad and Heather are married and give birth to Drew, who is named Charlie. They notice early on that Drew can heat things with her mind [but she supposedly can’t control it], and apparently one day Drew got mad at Mommy. Drew says “I made Mommy scream!” and it’s hard not to imagine the charred corpse of Heather Locklear laying on the kitchen floor. We don’t see that, but we do see a little mini-version in which Drew sets Heather’s baking mitts on fire. Dan screams at her “Don’t do that ! It’s a bad thing!” which is probably what gave Drew the deep psychological complex she seems to suffer under, in which she keeps saying “I did a really bad thing” and her Dad tries to tell her she didn’t. I found this whole guilt complex thing really interesting, though it kind of disappears after the first hour.
But… you know how, according to Freud, boys have the Oedipus complex, wherein they want to murder their father and gain the love of their mother? Well, the counterpart in girls is the Elektra complex, and that’s what has happened here: Drew killed her Mommy and now she has Daddy all to herself. Which one thinks about as it becomes more and more impossible to ignore the creepy molestation vibe that keeps creeping in when you’re seeing Drew be chloroformed unconscious, or when her Dad says “You’re all I’ve got in this world, and I’m happy about that, because I’m crazy about you,” and she responds “I’m crazy about you too, Daddy.”
Anyway, at one point Drew sees an Army guy who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant and now is dumping her. Now, you might not think that an eight-year-old girl could understand all of what was happening there, but apparently Drew is quite precocious, because she gets pissed and sets the guy on fire. This is the first time we see that her using her powers apparently has the side effect of blowing gentle winds on her, because her hair flies out in a somewhat ludicrous fashion every time she uses them.
But her Dad has powers, too. He can move things, but mostly he wields the power of suggestion. One of my favorite moments is when he blinds two people! He just says “You’re blind,” and next thing you know they’re crawling around on the ground going “Argh! I can’t see! I’m blind! Help! I can’t see! Help! I'm Blind! ” The entire script is actually amusingly declarative in that way, with some guy at the beginning saying things like “They got away! Quick, let’s get back to the car and chase them down!”
So Drew and Daddy get a ride from this trucker who, luckily, is already prone to believing in secret police, government experiments, conspiracies, and the like. He takes them home to his wife, Louise Fletcher of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Brainstorm, and Exorcist II: The Heretic. The government agents soon show up, and Daddy encourages Drew to use her powers, for the first time, to kill on purpose. It’s kind of awesome to see her just blow all these people away [though I don’t think we necessarily needed to see every single individual car explode]. After this she feels really, really bad and promises never to use her powers again. The old grandpa got injured during this fight, and Louise, in the language of the bluntly straightforward script, says “Take the Jeep and get away! Just get away!” So they go out riding to Maine or somewhere that looks like it.
SPOILERS > > >
Anyway, the forces of evil are gathering in the form of Martin Sheen, who sports a rather tall bouf as some government guy, and George C. Scott [GCS] as this kind of bounty hunter with a considerable beer belly, a leather jacket, and a ponytail. He sort of reminded me of Richard Marcinko. The two of them are warned that Drew in fact could constitute a nuclear weapon, once she grows up and her powers are really mature. GCS will capture her and her dad, so long as he gets to keep little Drew afterward, “for disposal.” What are you going to do with her? Martin sensibly asks. “She’s very beautiful,” GCS says. “She’s very young. Yet inside her is the power of the Gods. We’re going to be close, she and I. Oh yes, very close.” YOU SEE WHAT I MEAN ABOUT THE MOLESTATION VIBE?!?!?
Anyway, Drew and Daddy are shot with tranquilizers in a scene that is actually pretty scary and creepy, and they are taken to “The Shop,” where the experiments take place. There the Dad is taken to one chamber where he is kept hopped up on drugs, while Drew is placed in a nicely-furnished room with no windows and one heavily-locked door. Barrymore and Sheen share a good scene as he tries to befriend her [“I’ve begun to think of you as my own daughter”] and she ain’t havin’ it. Then GCS comes in, pretending to be a janitor, but really just to get closer to her and earn her trust. These scenes never quite gel, as we know that she could incinerate any of them any time she feels like it. And the only thing keeping her from it is a poorly-drawn guilt complex. But anyway, soon GCS PUTS HIS HAND ON HER KNEE, and Drew, in the uncomfortably worldly way she has in this movie, pushes it off, seemingly perfectly aware that he has made a sexual advance. Again, as with the scene where the soldier got his girlfriend pregnant, there’s the question of: “Why does an eight-year-old understand all this?” Later GCS [his character is named Rainbird, by the way] puts Drew to bed, and it’s clear he is trying to replace her Dad.
Anyway, Sheen and GCS make Drew perform a lot of experiments, leading Sheen to have a really long freak-out scene as he is amazed at her talents. Then she’s reunited with her Dad, and they’re both somehow lured into a barn, where GCS is going to kill Daddy for once and all. Now, does it seem like a good idea to lure a girl who can start fires with her mind into a wooden barn that’s full of all sorts of combustible hay? I’m just saying. There is one clever element where GCS has filled the barn with horses, knowing that the little girl would never kill all the horses. Anyway, her dad gets shot, and he DIES! That was a surprise. Then Drew gets really pissed and destroys everything in sight. At this point she has somehow magically become bulletproof, and can also shoot flaming bowling balls at things such as models of helicopters or houses. Anyway, she destroys this whole neighborhood in the kind of detail we’ve become accustomed to.
Then she goes and finds the grandpa who helped them earlier, and he takes her to the door of the New York Times, where she’s going to tell her story and blow the lid off this whole thing. The last thing she says is to look at the grandpa and say “I’m doing it, Daddy. I love you.” One has to piece together that she is probably spiritually talking to her father, though the impression it gives is that she’s wholly forgotten her father and is now calling the grandpa guy “Daddy.”
< < < SPOILERS END
This movie is loaded with flaws, to be sure, but I liked it anyway. This director, Mark L. Lester, is also the director of Roller Boogie, Commando, and the appealingly-titled Gold of the Amazon Women and Truck Stop Women. The story is just kind of cool; Drew is like a little X-Man, and the whole concept of people with powers and everything is always fun. I also like the concept of a girl’s uncontrollable rage causing this fire, and how she has trouble controlling it, and also doesn’t know the full range of her powers. In many ways, it’s like Carrie; her anger unleashes powers that she doesn’t know how to control and doesn’t know the extent of. And then her Dad being able to move things and blind people and stuff… it’s all just pretty cool.
Part of the problem [aside from the poor script and shoddy direction] is that there’s very little real drama. Like I said, we know that Drew could char any of these people in a second, so the only drama that could exist is that arising from her internal struggle with guilt, and whether or not she will allow herself to let her powers out. And, as I also said, that aspect of the story is bungled. One, Drew is a fine actress for a child, but she’s not good enough at that age to convey this deep internal struggle, and the script just doesn’t take the time in the second half to develop it. So the whole thing is inherently undramatic. You’re just waiting for her to get pissed and cut loose. All that said, this thing is ripe for a remake, so long as they took it seriously and were prepared to put all the requisite psychology in.