Adapted from Stephen King novel, 1984’s Firestarter is a film about a girl with a very special power.
Back in the day, a bunch of college students needed weed money so they took part in a government experiment. Half of them were told that they were being given a placebo. The other half were told that we would be given a low-grade hallucinogen.
Surprise! The government lied! It turns out that everyone was given the experimental drug! Some of the students ended up going crazy. One unfortunate hippie clawed his eyes out. Meanwhile, Vicky (Heather Locklear) gained the ability to read minds. She also fell in love with Andy McGee (David Keith), a goofy fellow who gained the ability to mentally control people’s actions. They married and had a daughter named Charlie (played by a very young Drew Barrymore). Charlie, it turns out, can set things on fire! She’s a firestarter!
Well, of course, the government can’t just leave the McGees out there, controlling minds and setting things on fire. Soon, the McGees are being pursued by the standard collection of men in dark suits. Vicky is killed off-screen, leaving Charlie and Andy to try to find some place where they’ll be safe.
Good luck with that! This is the government that we’re talking about. The thing with films like this is that the government can do practically anything but it never occurs to them to not all dress in dark suits. I mean, it just seems like it would be easier for all of these secret agents to operate if they weren’t automatically identifiable as being secret agents. Anyway, Andy and Charlie are eventually captured and taken to The Farm, a really nice country estate where Andy and Charlie are kept separate from each other and everyone keeps talking about national security.
Running the Farm is Capt. Hollister and we know that he’s a bad guy because he wears a suit and he’s played by Martin Sheen. Working with Hollister is John Rainbird (George C. Scott), a CIA assassin who kills people with a karate chop across the nose. When Charlie refuses to show off her firemaking abilities unless she’s allowed to talk to her father, Rainbird disguises himself as a custodial engineer and proceeds to befriend Charlie. Of course, Rainbird’s plan is to kill Charlie once she’s displayed the extent of her powers….
Stephen King has written that he considers this film to be one of the worst adaptations of one of his novels but, to be honest, I think the movie is actually a bit of an improvement on the source material. Firestarter is probably the least interesting of Stephen King’s early novels. Supposedly, Charlie was based on King’s youngest daughter and, reading the book, it’s obvious that everyone’s fear of Charlie is mostly a metaphor for a father trying to figure out how to raise a daughter. Unfortunately, instead of concentrating on those primal fears, the book gets bogged down in boomer paranoia about MK-ULTRA experiments.
The movie, however, is just silly enough to be kind of charming. For example, consider the way that Andy grabs his forehead and bugs out his eyes whenever he uses his powers. Andy’s powers may be slowly killing him but he just looks so goofy whenever he uses them that you just can’t help but be entertained. And then you’ve got Drew Barrymore sobbing while setting people on fire and George C. Scott growling through all of his dialogue and even Martin Sheen gets a scene where he gets excited and starts jumping up and down. (And don’t even get me started on Art Carney and Louise Fletcher as the salt-of-the-Earth farmers who try to protect Andy and Charlie….) Some of the special effects are a bit hokey, as you might expect from a film made in 1984 but occasionally, there’s a good shot of something (or someone) burning up. It’s all so over-the-top and relentlessly dumb that you can’t help but be entertained. You can even forgive the fact that basically nothing happens between the first 10 and the last 15 minutes of the movie.
Firestarter‘s silly but I liked it.