FIRESTARTER’s Glow Still Burns Strong

The touching story of a girl and her special talent.

Recently I was asked, along with several others, to compile a list of our top 10 Stephen King films as part of a special poll for, which I happily submitted. In looking at everyone else’s lists, the usual suspects were there in the form of Carrie, Misery, and The Shining. Other lists, such as mine, contained more wild card choices including Christine, Apt Pupil, and Sleepwalkers. Yet it was interesting to note how 1984’s Firestarter appeared in a small handful of the lists. This solidified for me the film’s status as both a glorified cult classic and a minor King entry; and after a revisiting of the film, it’s easy to see why.

In Firestarter, desperate father Andy (David Keith) is on the run with his young daughter Charlie (Drew Barrymore) from members of a secret organization known as “The Shop,” who are hell bent on using Andy’s powers of telekinesis and Charlie’s abilities to start fires for their own use.

There’s no disguising Firestarter as anything but pure ‘80s Stephen King, especially where its themes are concerned. The most apparent of these is the appearance of otherworldly gifts and the secret agency out to exploit them. Beyond that, the story of Firestarter calls to mind the idea of misunderstood social outcasts on the run from the harshness of society as well as the darkness of evil organizations, another long-time King motif. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Firestarter teeters between the notions of innocence and experience where Charlie is concerned. Her childhood has been greatly compromised by her powers and the fact that she’s being hunted for them, forcing her to grow up much faster than she needs to. Perhaps it’s because of this that the movie is surprisingly low on the ‘80s cheese level, opting for heart and sensitivity. Despite this, Firestarter is edited and paced in the most dynamic of ways, which keeps it from feeling straightforward, cliched, or boring, but rather mysterious and sparse where its tension and action are concerned.

Firestarter definitely comes off as a very worthy addition to the secret government agency genre that was prevalent in the ‘70s and especially in the ‘80s where the idea that your government was out there watching and waiting to get you was more than prevalent. However, the heart of the film, without question, is the story of a father’s love and devotion for his daughter. The way the dynamics between Andy and Charlie play out is touching and real, while the focus on the two as valuable prey being hunted remains incredibly visceral. Heroic is the only way to describe a father who is willing to fight a powerful, unstoppable force knowing he may well lose, and the moniker fits Andy to the core, who never once flinches from staring down the men who want to take his daughter away from him. However tired and exhausted he becomes with each passing hour on the run, his fight continues if it means Charlie gets to live to see another day.

Keith is as heartbreaking as they get as a father doing anything and everything to protect the only good thing he has left in the world. There isn’t one instance where Andy comes off as a cliche, but rather as the most devoted and desperate of fathers. Barrymore follows up her scene-stealing performance in E.T. by showing how capable a child actress she was, alternating between precociousness and intensity. Of all the veteran character actors in the film, which includes Martin Sheen, Art Carney, and Louise Fletcher, only George C. Scott has anything noteworthy to do, creating a villain who is appropriately chilling, maniacal, and controlled.

To Firestarter’s credit, the film maintains a great amount of tension, especially in sequences which sees Scott hunting the pair from atop a tree. There’s no question that this is a movie which works far better as a straight-up cat and mouse chase than anything else. Admittedly, the film does lose a bit of its energy and excitement once Charlie and Andy are both caught and are promptly experimented upon. Firestarter is oftentimes forgotten when it comes to going over the seemingly endless list of Stephen King adaptations. This is especially true when considering Carrie (already a classic by then) explored many of the same themes in much more potent ways. Yet, thanks to a number of great set pieces, including the farm standoff and the wonderfully over-the-top finale, coupled with a real heart, Firestarter is a welcome addition to any Stephen King poll.

The Package:

Playing with Fire: The Making of Firestarter is a Barrymore-less, standard, dry, and frankly straightforward making-of retrospective which, along with commentaries, makes up the bulk of Firestarter’s special features.

The Lowdown:

Not the kind of beloved King favorite fans or first-timers will expect it to be, Firestarter still represents the master of horror at his ‘80s best.

Firestarter is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Scream Factory.

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