With the glut of Stephen King novels adapted into movies during the early-to-mid 1980s, it became all too easy for certain films to fall through the cracks. It was even easier, in fact, when so many of those movies were high-profile productions made by A-list directors like Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg, and John Carpenter. One can understand how a movie like Mark L. Lester’s Firestarter, an adaptation of King’s 1980 novel of the same name, wound up getting overlooked. I’m guilty of it myself, having seen the movie and promptly filed it with the other middle-of-the-pack Stephen King movies. Luckily, Scream Factory has a new Blu-ray that has me reconsidering my opinion and hopefully will allow other horror fans to rediscover a really cool film.
Drew Barrymore plays Charlene “Charlie” McGee, the young daughter of college professor Andy McGee (David Keith). When he was a student, Andy and his wife (played in a brief role by Heather Locklear) submitted to a series of medical experiments that imbued them with special powers—powers that they passed down to their infant daughter, Charlie. Andy has the ability to read and control minds, while Charlie can start fires at will. After Andy’s wife is killed by government operatives from a research facility known as The Shop, he and Charlie go on the run. Ultimately, they are tracked down by Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen), who runs the operation, and a mysterious man known as Rainbird (an eyepatch-clad George C. Scott), an assassin with nefarious plans for Charlie. First, though, he becomes her friend. And that’s when the bad things start to happen, leading to a final showdown that’s quite literally explosive.
These days, Firestarter is probably best remembered as the first starring vehicle for a young Drew Barrymore after her breakout role as Gertie in E.T. She was just seven or eight years old when the movie was made, and her performance in Firestarter is both one of the movie’s strong suits and one of its biggest drawbacks. Getting a convincing performance from a child actor is no doubt very challenging, and Barrymore had already picked up a few bad habits in front of the camera for Firestarter. Sometimes, she feels forced and artificial in that kid actor way; at others, the naturalness that made her wonderful in E.T. shines through again and you forget she’s acting. She’s just being a kid on screen. Normally, I wouldn’t spend this much time analyzing the performance of a child—they’re all doing the best they can—but because so much of the movie rests on Barrymore’s shoulders, it’s impossible not to notice when she doesn’t always appear up to the task.
Nearly everything else in the movie sings. Though it was originally intended to be a John Carpenter film (he was let go after Universal was disappointed with the box office numbers for The Thing if you can believe it), directing duties ultimately fell to Mark L. Lester, an extremely underrated genre filmmaker whose credits include Class of 1984, Commando, and Showdown in Little Tokyo. Lester takes a page from Carpenter and makes the most of his widescreen compositions, effectively staging some huge action scenes on a limited budget.
Though Blu-ray is less forgiving of the fireballs being hurled around in the movie’s climax (some wires can now be seen), the number of ambitious fire stunts and the amount of big effects on display is quite impressive. Where Lester gets King’s material right, though, is in his focus on the characters. Firestarter is, at its core, a touching story of father and daughter, and Lester serves that relationship well, aided in large measure by David Keith giving one of his best performances. Though the adaptation adheres closely to King’s novel, Lester puts the focus on the relationships instead of the plot.
Though he’s miscast as a Native American, George C. Scott might just be Firestarter’s secret weapon, bringing the novel’s most colorful character to life in characteristically larger-than-life fashion. He makes a couple of big choices in his performance, but the way Scott is able to vacillate back and forth between the menacing Rainbird and the sensitive “John” (his secret alter ego he uses to trick Charlie into trusting him) is an incredible piece of acting. In a movie that’s full of bad people who want to do bad things to good people, Scott stands out as the worst of them. His scenes tend to be the best in the movie, though he’s given a run by a host of character actors that includes Sheen, Art Carney, Louise Fletcher, and Freddie Jones. This is one of those genre movies with a title and a pedigree that looms large enough that many of us forget just how many good actors appear in it, and sometimes even just how good a film it really is.
Previously available on Blu-ray from Universal, Scream Factory’s Blu-ray boasts a new 2K scan of the film, presented in full 1080p HD, and looks better than it ever has before. It also comes with a host of new extras, beginning with a newly recorded commentary with director Lester. He’s also interviewed in a new, nearly hour-long retrospective documentary that also includes comments from actors Freddie Jones, Drew Snyder, and Dick Warlock (who plays one of Sheen’s goons and also performs stunts in the movie), as well as Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream, the band that contributes the movie’s incredible score.
It’s unfortunate that some of the other stars didn’t participate (I’m sure it’s not for lack of Scream Factory trying), as I would love to have heard from Barrymore or David Keith about their experiences on the movie. Schmoelling gets his own interview featurette (in German, subtitled in English) about composing the score, and also appears in a really neat piece in which he performs “Charlie’s Theme” live on camera. Rounding out the bonus features are a couple of trailers, an original radio ad, and a gallery of production and marketing stills.
I’m so glad I revisited Firestarter thanks to this Blu-ray, because I found a terrific movie I have too long taken for granted. It may never share the rare air of the best-loved King adaptations, but the film at least deserves to be in that second tier of movies made from his work that are really good but overlooked—a class that includes films like Silver Bullet and The Dark Half. Sure, at just under two hours the movie is a little too long, but it has (mostly) great acting, a great score, really fun fire effects, and typically strong direction from an unsung hero of genre cinema. Combine that with Scream Factory’s fantastic transfer and an array of bonus features and you have one of my favorite Blu-ray releases of the year so far. As the kids might say, this disc is fire. And yes, I’m ashamed of myself for that line.
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 4/5