Horror Film Review: Firestarter (dir by Mark L. Lester)


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.

Automotive Stardom: The California Kid (1974, directed by Richard T. Heffron)


In 1973, a customized 1934 Ford three-window coup appeared on the cover of the November issue of Custom Rod.  The car had been created by legendary customizer Pete Chapouris and it was called The California Kid.  The cover caught the attention of television producer Howie Horowitz, who thought that maybe the car could become a star.

A year later, the car starred in it’s own made-for-TV movie.  Naturally, that movie was called The California Kid.

The California Kid takes place in 1958 in the small town of Clarksberg.  Clarksberg is known for being a town that does not tolerate speeders.  Sheriff Roy Childress (Vic Morrow) lost his wife and daughter to a speeder and, ever since, he’s become a fanatic about making sure that people respect the speed limits.  He’ll give a ticket to anyone who he sees going too fast.  He’ll even impound your car.  And if you don’t learn your lesson or if you try to outrun him, he’ll get behind your car, give it a push, and send both you and your vehicle plunging over the side of a mountain.

That’s what happens to Don McCord (Joe Estevez), a Marine who was just trying to get back to back to his base on time.  After Don and his car go over the side of a cliff, the official ruling is that it was an accident.  However, Don’s brother, Michael (Martin Sheen, real-life brother of Joe Estevez), doesn’t buy that.  Determined to prove that his brother was murdered, Micheal rolls into town, behind the wheel of the California Kid.

The California Kid is a typical 70s car chase movie.  There’s not much going on other than the sheriff chasing the Michael and the California Kid.  Martin Sheen coasts through the movie, doing the James Dean impersonation that he perfected in the previous year’s Badlands and Vic Morrow plays his thousandth sadistic authority figure.  The supporting cast is full of familiar names who don’t get to do much.  Michelle Phillips plays the waitress who falls in love with Martin Sheen.  (It’s always a waitress.)  Stuart Margolin is Morrow’s deputy and keep an eye out for Nick Nolte, playing a mechanic.  Interestingly, The California Kid was written by Richard Compton who, a year later, would direct Notle in his first starring role in the 1975 car chase film, Return to Macon County.  Of course, the real star of the movie is the car and the California Kid earns its star billing.  The movie might not be anything special but there’s no way you can watch it and not want to drive that car.

This is a made-for-TV movie so you won’t hear any profanity and the characters are all as simple can be.  However, there are enough shots of cars going over cliffs to keep chase enthusiasts entertained.

A Movie A Day #318: The War At Home (1996, directed by Emilio Estevez)


The year is 1972 and it is Thanksgiving week in small town America.  The Colliers are getting ready for the holidays.  Maurine (Kathy Bates) is intent on preparing the perfect Thanksgiving meal.  Bob (Martin Sheen) is keeping an eye on his car dealership and wondering why kids today are not as respectful as they once were.  The two Collier children are coming home from school.  The youngest, Karen (Kimberly Williams), is hoping she can keep the peace because she knows that her older brother, Jeremy (Emilio Estevez), has returned from Vietnam a changed man.  Suffering from severe PTSD, Jeremy is haunted by flashbacks and angry at everything, especially his father.  The only reason he even attended college was so he could be near his girlfriend (Carla Gugino) and even she has told him that she no longer feels comfortable around him.  When Jeremy returns home, his family first tries to ignore the problems that he’s having adjusting to civilian life but Jeremy is determined not to be ignored.

Emilio Estevez famously agreed to appear, for free, in the third Mighty Ducks films in return for Disney agreeing to produce and distribute The War At Home.  Unfortunately, this heartfelt movie has never gotten the attention that it deserves.  While Estevez’s direction is never subtle and the script , which was based on a play, is often heavy-handed, The War At Home is redeemed by the powerful performances of Estevez, Bates, Sheen, and Williams.  Bates is especially good as the perfect homemaker who is revealed to be smarter than anyone realized.  The War At Home is a good but overlooked film that is still relevant today.

A Movie A Day #315: That Championship Season (1982, directed by Jason Miller)


Four former high school basketball players and their coach gather for a reunion in Pennsylvania.  Twenty-five years ago, they were state champions.  Now, they are all still struggling with the legacy of that championship season.  George (Bruce Dern) is the mayor of Scranton and is in a fierce race for reelection.  Phil (Paul Sorvino) is a wealthy and corrupt businessman who is having an affair with George’s wife.  James (Stacy Keach) is a high school principal who is still struggling to come to terms with his abusive father.  James’s younger brother, Tom (Martin Sheen), is an alcoholic who can not hold down a steady job.  The Coach (Robert Mitchum) remains the Coach.  All four of the men still want his approval, even though they know that he is actually an old bigot who pushed them to cut too many corners on their way to the championship.

Though Cannon film may have been best known for producing action films with actors like Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, and Michael Dudikoff, they occasionally tried to improve their image with a prestige picture like That Championship Season.  Not only is this film based on Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play but Cannon also hired Miller himself to direct.  (Before Miller was brought in, That Championship Season was nearly directed by William Friedkin, who directed Miller in The Exorcist.)  While no one knew the text better than Miller, this was also his directorial debut and sometimes, his inexperience shows.  The first half of the movie does a good job of opening up the play but the second half takes place almost entirely in the Coach’s house and is very stagey, never escaping its theatrical origins.

One thing That Championship Season has going for it is an excellent cast. Dern, Sorvino, Keach, and even Sheen rarely got roles with as much depth as the ones that they got here and four of them make the best of the opportunity.  As for Robert Mitchum, he was known for being a mercurial actor but here, he gives one of the better performances of the latter half of his career.  Because of the efforts of the ensemble, That Championship Season is one of the better Cannon prestige pictures, though Chuck Norris is still missed.

Cleaning Out The DVR: O (dir by Tim Blake Nelson)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  This could take a while.  She recorded the 2001 high school film O off of Cinemax on July 6th.)

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

O (Mekhi Phifer) is one of the only black students attending an exclusive high school in South Carolina.  Despite a past that involves petty crime and drugs, O appears to have his life on the right track.  As the captain of school’s basketball team, O is the most popular student at his school.  Everyone looks up to him.  Everyone wants to be him.  He’s even dating Desi (Julia Stiles), the very white daughter of the school’s very white headmaster (John Heard).  At a school assembly, Coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen) describes O as being like a son to him.  When O is awarded the MVP trophy, he shares it with his teammate, Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan).

Watching all of this with seething jealousy is Hugo Gaumont (Josh Hartnett).  Hugo is a teammate of O’s.  In fact, he even thought that he was O’s best friend.  That was before O shared his award with Michael.  Making Hugo even more jealous is that he happens to be the son of the coach.  For every kind word that Duke has for O, he has a hundred petty criticisms for Hugo.  Whereas O has overcome drug addiction and is proclaimed as a hero for doing so, Hugo is secretly doing steroids, trying to do anything to improve himself as a player and hopefully win everyone’s love.

So, Hugo decides to get revenge.  Working with a nerdy outcast named Roger Calhoun (Elden Hansen), he manipulates O into thinking that Desi is cheating on him with Cassio.  He also tricks Cassio into getting into a fight with Roger, leading to Cassio getting suspended from the team.  To top it all off, Hugo gets O hooked on drugs, once again.  Finding himself consumed by a violent rage that he thought he had under control, O starts to obsess on determining whether or not Desi has been faithful to him…

If that sounds familiar, that’s because O is basically Othello, transported to modern times and involving privileged teenagers.  Even though the whole modernized Shakespeare thing has become a bit of a cliché, it actually works pretty well in O.  Hugo’s obsessive jealousy of the “cool kids” feels right at home in a high school setting and director Tim Blake Nelson and writer Brad Kaaya do a fairly good job of transporting Shakespeare’s Elizabethan melodrama to the early aughts.

(Actually, O was filmed in 1999 but it sat on the shelf for two years.  After a spate of school shootings, distributors were weary about releasing a film about high school students trying to destroy each other.)

Admittedly, O has its share of uneven moments.  Martin Sheen, playing the type of role that always seems to bring out his worst instincts as an actor, goes so overboard as the coach that he threatens to sink almost every scene in which he appears and Rain Phoenix is miscast as Hugo’s girlfriend.  Even Julia Stiles struggles a bit in the role of Desi.  However, both Mekhi Phifer and Josh Hartnett are perfectly cast as O and Hugo.  Phifer brings just the right amount of arrogant swagger to the role while Hartnett is a sociopathic marvel as Hugo.  Tim Blake Nelson’s direction is occasionally overwrought, relying a bit too heavily on a groan-inducing metaphor about taking flight and claiming the spotlight.  However, both Nelson and the film deserve some credit for not shying away from directly confronting and portraying the source material’s cultural and racial subtext.

O is hardly perfect but it is always watchable and, at its best, thought-provoking.

A Movie A Day #184: A Letter From Death Row (1998, directed by Bret Michaels)


Songwriter Michael Raine (Bret Micheals) moved to Nashville from Philadelphia, searching for a new life.  Instead, he ended up convicted of murder and sentenced to death.  Michael says that he is innocent but the police have a video tape of him smothering his girlfriend with a pillow.  Michael says it was just a sex game.  He was in the bathroom, testing out his karate moves, when someone else broke into the house and smothered the victim for real.

In prison, Michael is interviewed by Jessica Foster (Lorelei Shellist), who says that she is working on a book that has nothing to do with her other job as chief adviser and mistress to the governor of Tennessee (Swan Burrus).  Meanwhile, another prisoner on death row, a former priest named, I’m not joking, Lucifer Powers (Drew Boes), claims that he has been framed by the governor and only Michael can help him get justice.

A Letter From Death Row not only starred Poison frontman Bret Michales but it was directed, produced, written, and scored by him as well.  If it sounds like a vanity project, it is.  It was also apparently a passion project.  Michaels had something important to say, though I doubt anyone could guess what it was from watching this movie.  Making a movie as incoherent as A Letter From Death Row requires real commitment.  Just check out the scene where the sadistic prison guards make Michael remove his false teeth before allowing him to speak to Jessica.  A less committed director would have cut this scene, just because it was unnecessary and did not add anything to the movie.  Not our Bret.  He knew it was important to show the world that he could act like a man with no teeth.

Like Michaels’s other film, No Code For Conduct, both Martin and Charlie (or Charles, as he insisted on being called at time) Sheen are giving co-star billing in A Letter From Death Row.  However, Martin is only on screen for 90 second and Charlie’s role as a police officer is literally a case of blink and you’ll miss him.  The rest of the cast was made up of local Tennessee actor and it shows in their frequently stiff performances.  Radio talk show host Phil Valentine is especially bad as Raine’s defense attorney.

I would not call A Letter From Death Row a good film but, even if it is for all the wrong reasons, it is still more interesting and watchable than No Code For Conduct.  As opposed to the blandly serviceable work that he did on No Code For Conduct, Bret Michaels embraced his pretentious inner film school grad for A Letter From Death Row.  Dutch angles, extreme closeups, black and white flashbacks (or are they flashforwards?), oversaturated color, and random slow motion are all used to tell this incredibly pointless story.  Michaels not only divides the movie into chapters (complete with titles like “The Famous Final Scene”) but also includes scenes of himself writing and reading the movie’s script.  Bret directs the Hell out of this movie and, if nothing else, the contrast between his ambition and the actual results makes the movie as watchable as the typical train wreck.

Though maybe not for the reasons intended, A Letter From Death Row ain’t nothin’ but a good time.

A Movie A Day #183: No Code of Conduct (1998, directed by David Lee…sorry, Bret Michaels)


From the strange period of time in which Charlie Sheen wanted people to call him Charles, comes this generic action movie.

Detective Jake Peterson (Charles Sheen) is a loser.  Even though his father (Martin Sheen) is the chief of police, Jake is so bad at his job that he has been assigned to work in the evidence locker.  His wife (Meredith Salenger) is always yelling at him for being a neglectful father.  The only person who likes Jake is his partner (Mark Dascasos, who is wasted) and partner’s never live for long in cop movies.  When Jake discovers that evil businessman Julian Disanto (Ron Masak) is plotting to smuggle Mexican heroin into Arizona, he has a chance for redemption but it will not be easy because Disanto is not only working with a corrupt DEA agent (Paul Gleason, of course) but he also has a band of psychotic henchmen.

This predictable and not very exciting action film is interesting for two reasons.  First of all, it was directed by the poor man’s David Lee Roth, Bret Michaels.  At the time, the future star of Rock of Love and Celebrity Apprentice winner was best known for being the lead singer of the most boring hair metal band of the 80s, Poison.  It is always interesting when someone who found fame as something other than a filmmaker tries his hand at directing.  Sometimes, the results can be surprisingly good and sometimes, the result is No Code For Conduct.  Michaels and Sheen (who co-wrote the script) may have been trying to pull off an homage to the action films of their youth but No Code For Conduct has more in common with the work of Uwe Boll than the work of William Friedkin.

The other interesting thing about No Code for Conduct is that, even though “Charles” and Martin are top-billed, it is actually a four Sheen/Estevez movie.  Renee Estevez briefly appears as a cop while Martin’s brother, Joe Estevez, is in charge of the police motor pool.  If No Code For Conduct is an act-off between the members of the Sheen/Estevez clan, Joe emerges as the clear winner.  Charlie does his wide-eyed intense thing.  Martin goes through the movie with a “the shit I do for my son” air of resignation.  Renee is not around long enough to make an impression.  But Joe?

Joe Estevez is the man!

Joe Estevez, the only Estevez that matters