Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: March 14th 2017
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
After its release in 1976, Carrie cast a long shadow well into the next decade, where it loomed most obviously over those films that were just shameless rip-offs. Movies like Jennifer, The Initiation of Sarah, The Spell, and even Evilspeak leave little doubt about their primary influence. However, Stephen King’s story and De Palma’s adaptation also sparked a renewed interest in psychokinetic horror in general. For a pretty decent stretch, several filmmakers and franchises were drawn to this trend: De Palma himself helped himself to second with The Fury, while David Cronenberg hatched Scanners. Hell, even Jason Voorhees eventually got in on the action in a movie that was basically pitched as Jason vs. Carrie.
By 1984, King himself had returned to the well multiple times (and even brought Cronenberg along again to The Dead Zone), so Dino de Laurentiis’s production of Firestarter feels almost perfunctory. In a lot of respects, it’s an also-ran, a sort of obligatory melding of all of these previous films—if one were to perform an autopsy of it, you’d easily be able to identify the organs and DNA that have been spliced together to form Firestarter.
None of this makes it a particularly bad film. Certainly, plenty of serviceable—if not great—films have thrived despite their familiarity, and Firestarter falls somewhere along the middle of that range. Some bursts are certainly…well, I don’t know if we’ll call them “inspired” since the whole thing feels like a patchwork, but it certainly has its moments, particularly during its bookends. The opening is quite evocative, capturing an in medias res chase sequence that finds Andy McGee (David Keith) on the run with his daughter Charlie (Drew Barrymore). Shadowy agents prowl the streets in a car, pursuing the duo with what is surely a sinister intent.
Flashbacks and other expository scenes fill in the blanks: Andy was once the subject of an experiment involving hallucinogens that left both he and his future wife (Heather Locklear) with the brain-warping ability to project images and control other people’s brains. Charlie inherited both of these abilities and can start fires at will, making her both a commodity and a liability for The Shop, the government agency that funded these experiments in the first place. Some of the agents—chiefly Martin Sheen’s Captain Hollister—want to harness Charlie as a weapon; others, like George C. Scott’s John Rainbird, know she’s too dangerous to be kept alive and are conspiring to kill both her and her father by any means necessary.
I really do love the early stretch of Firestarter where Andy and Charlie are constantly fleeing from The Shop’s agents. It’s a sequence that finds them moving from airports to dingy motels, with stopovers in a rural Tennessee farmhouse and Chimney Rock, North Carolina*. The film moves with a brooding sense of purpose here, and the script provides plenty of action beats for both Charlie and Andy to show off their abilities. Even more importantly, it allows the audience to understand the bond between this unconventional father and daughter. Keith’s folksy earnestness especially shines through—I’ve always found him to be a somewhat odd presence, but he does a pretty decent Kurt Russell thing here as a somewhat rugged but decent everyman.
His turn isn’t the only thing that might remind you of a John Carpenter film. Most of Firestarter’s first half gives off some vague Carpenter vibes, which if fitting since he was up for the job until The Thing’s poor box office performance gave Universal cold feet. Mark L. Lester eventually landed the gig and provided a pretty decent glimpse of what Carpenter’s take might have looked like, at least during that first half, which is full of sleek, ominous widescreen vistas. Lights gleam menacingly off of shiny surfaces and Tangerine Dream’s evocative soundtrack adds to the mood in the same manner as Carpenter’s synth noodlings do. It’s definitely not a slight or a backhanded compliment to say Lester puts on a fine Carpenter imitation (right down to aping his signature credits font), though it does kind of contribute to the notion that Firestarter feels like an umpteenth generation Xerox.
The déjà vu persists when Andy and Charlie are captured and taken to The Shop, where the nefarious agency performs experiments on the poor child in an attempt to gauge the scale and scope of her abilities. Between the conspiratorial vibe and the clinic setting (not to mention the presence of Martin Sheen), it’s all very, very Cronenbergian. Lester doesn’t quite have those masterful chops, so this stretch of the film is a bit deflating and needs a bit more of a pulse. Still, even it features a terrific, shifty performance from Scott, whose character befriends Charlie under the pretense of being an orderly. At times, even the audience can’t be sure about his motivations—is he sincerely trying to help Charlie, or is he simply manipulating her? Less mysterious is Andy’s plot to free himself and his daughter from The Shop’s clutches by deceiving its agents, and these two plot threads weave around each other, spiraling towards an inevitable conclusion.
If Charlie is akin to a fuse that’s been lit and is slowly inching towards going off, then the climax is the long-awaited explosion. Remember how I said you’d have no trouble identifying the various influences Firestarter cannibalizes? Well, the climax is definitely the easiest to pinpoint, what with all the fire and people dying horribly at the hands of a righteously pissed off girl. It’s a straight-up reenactment of the prom massacre from Carrie, only the high school gym has been traded out for a more spacious compound that allows Charlie to wreck even more shit. As derivative as it is, it’s still hard to be too dismissive of any sequence that features multiple people engaging in insane fire and vehicle stunts. It’s not quite as gory or as legitimately hellish as De Palma’s capper, nor is it underpinned by as much emotion (Charlie is more of a blank cipher than Carrie White), but it is a rousing little number all the same.
And it’s not like it’s a total drag in getting there. Firestarter isn’t without its merits throughout, even if they might be stretched a bit thinly over a 114-minute runtime. Having not seen it in at least a 15 years, it struck me as perhaps being more derivative than it ever did before—I suppose that’s just the natural result of seeing all of the superior films it’s riffing on now. Still, there’s a place for it in this particular genre movement since it’s among the pulpiest of the lot. Firestarter is the film you reach for on the shelf when you want a breezier, schlockier take on this type of material, and that’s fine. It takes all kinds to make a horror trend, and sometimes that entails a movie where an 8-year-old Drew Barrymore roasts a bunch of dudes.
*I visit Chimney Rock at least a few times a year, and Firestarter confirms the entire place is a time capsule—it's barely aged in 30 years.
Despite its impressive pedigree and its status as a minor cult classic, Firestarter hasn’t had the most noteworthy home video history. A trio of DVD releases and a lone Blu-ray release yielded a total of zero supplements (though one of the DVDs did pair it with this 2002 made-for-TV sequel), so it’s the perfect candidate for the Scream Factory collector’s edition treatment. Their new release is fine and most certainly represents an improvement, all the way down to the presentation, as the new transfer has been struck from a 2K interpositive restoration.
The supplements finally give the film its due, at least somewhat. Besides Lester’s newly recorded commentary, the centerpiece here is “Playing with Fire,” another signature retrospective from Scream Factory. Running at 52 minutes, it’s a decent look back and boasts the likes of Lester, Freddie Jones, Drew Snyder, Dick Warlock, and Johannes Schmoelling from Tangerine Dream. It’s a heavily anecdotal documentary that scatters about various random recollections: Lester has a lot to say about his interactions with De Laurentiis, while Warlock really gets into the minutiae of the stunt work. In fact, there’s an entire 15 minute chunk here devoted exclusively to the insane fire stunts performed on set, which is awesome considering these guys rarely get their due.
Obviously, it would have been nice if Scream had been able to bring back Barrymore, Keith, or Sheen, whose absences are quite noticeable here since they’re essentially the film’s biggest (living) stars, but that’s likely much easier said than done. This is definitely a case of Scream doing the best with what they have, and, again, literally anything would be an improvement over the previous releases.
The other two supplements feature Schmoelling exclusively. One is a 17-minute interview where he recounts Tangerine Dream’s reformation and eventual move towards scoring films throughout the 80s; the second is a 3-minute bit where he performs a lovely, stripped down version of “Charlie’s Theme” on a piano. Even if this doesn’t begin to account for Tangerine Dream’s massive popularity and contribution to film, it’s a nice nod in their direction.
The usual promo stuff—trailers, radio spots, and a stills gallery—fill out the rest of the extras, plus Scream has outfitted the release with reversible cover art, just in case you want your shelf to boast the indelible artwork that graced every video store throughout the 80s and 90s. Just about the only thing that's really missing is the aforementioned Firestarter: Rekindled, and, given Scream's history with delivering titles we never thought we'd seen on Blu-ray, I wouldn't completely write off that possibility just yet. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: