ByDavid Bronstein, writer at
Life is but a movie
David Bronstein

A certain generation may here Firestarter and think not of this Stephen King inspired movie but of the music group, The Prodigy who had a huge hit in the mid 1990s with a song of the same name. Of course the song had no relation to this movie, but it is worth taking a look back at this 1984 film, in a time where Hollywood was obsessed by the works of King.

John Carpenter was originally set to direct Firestarter, the director had impressed with the likes of Halloween (1978), The Fog (1979) and The Thing (1982) however according to Carpenter the box office failure of The Thing despite high praise from the horror community had resulted in the studio shunning him. Not even the success of Christine in 1983 another Stephen King inspired tale would convince the studio. With a budget of $9m the movie made just over $20m in North America alone. And so the studio turned to Mark L Lester.

Lester's last effort had been the much praised Class of 1984 released in 1982. Lester has said of working on Firestarter that it was the hardest movie he has ever had to direct. Indeed Firestarter would be Lester's first mainstream movie behind the lens. Lester would go on to direct Commando (1986) with rising star Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role and cult trash classic Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991).

The star of the film was eight year old Drew Barrymore, a natural actress who had risen to worldwide fame as the 'little girl' in E.T. two year's prior to this movie. In a strange coincidence Barrymore always believed she would play the title role of Charlie. She once recalled that she was allowed to buy the book based on the fact that her mother believed she looked like the girl on the back cover.

Her mother in the film who passes on the 'power' to Barrymore was played by Heather Locklear who at the time was setting heart pulses racing in T.J. Hooker. However Locklear's role is more of a cameo as she is killed off early in the film, and therefore the movie becomes a hide and seek chase with Barrymore being protected by her father played by David Keith who has powers of his own but is weak. Keith had just come off of The Lords of Disipline before getting this role. According to some sources, though never quite confirmed Keith was the 14th choice to play Barrymore's father.

As aforementiond Stephen King could do no wrong as far as Hollywood was concerned, recent movies based on his books had included Carrie (1976), The Shining (1980) and The Dead Zone (1983). It could also be claimed that the studios were in an era of ESP/telekinesis. From Carrie to Coma (1978), Scanners (1981) and Modern Problems (1981) though the latter starring Chevy Chase was more on the lighthearted side.

Firestarter's huge draw was what an 8 year old innocent looking girl could inflict on anyone and anything at any time. Get her angry and she could produce fire at will. To follow the plot we must take a few steps back to when Charlie's mother is killed (Locklear) by THE SHOP who were behind the vast experiments that Charlie's parents undertook to earn some money in their college years. Not only did they kill Charlie's mother but they also abducted Charlie for experimentation. Charlie's father finally succeeds in breaking her out and thus begins the classic chase movie.

Now Firestarter could never be marketed on Barrymore's talent alone and the studio knew that they would require a few big names. And they got them. In came Martin Sheen who had ironically just starred in King's The Dead Zone, George C Scott was another valued recruit and the likes of Art Carney and Moses Gunn only bolstered the cast even more.

Sheen played another bad guy just like he had in The Dead Zone this time the character of Hollister the head of THE SHOP. Though we learn as the film progresses that he becomes more sympathetic to Charlie and her father's problems even though he orders that they be caught and captured. One reason for his slight sympathy is his right hand man played viciously well by George C Scott. Scott plays John Rainbird who would rather shoot first and answer questions later. Indeed his hatred is confirmed when he quotes that he wants to karate kick Charlie and break her nose until she bleeds to death! Thankfully we are spared that but Scott's devilish performance means we never remain comfortable as to Charlie's chances around him. Indeed the film takes a neat turn when Scott pretends to be Charlie's friend to get information and trust from her.

Perhaps the best really was saved until the last and one senses that Barrymore would have had a great time setting fire to everything and wishing fireballs upon the bad guys- it's one huge explosion and there's something rather cute about that coming from a little girl against her evil pursuers. Rather much refreshing than say, an evil entity doing the same thing.

Firestarter was just about a modest hit, it reclaimed it's budget in North America and then the profits came in from foreign territories, but it was on reflection a box office failure. A television show and a sequel followed a generation later but none of these were able to better this effort. Firestarter is far from perfect. David Keith was perhaps miscast and it's hard to get away from the feeling that you're watching a TV movie as opposed to a mainstream one.

But for the near 2 hours running time the movie never let's up and rarely bores. It is of course not to be taken too seriously and was only a crackle in the horror genre, but it is fun all the same and certainly worth a revisit.


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