Awesome ’80s In April: Firestarter (1984)

firestarter poster

One of my aims for this series is to watch films that I knew about as a kid during the 1980s but for whatever reason have never bothered to watch. All kinds of films were floating around the cultural ether – films that I’d seen trailers for or seen on Siskel & Ebert, or that my friends were talking about, but that didn’t appeal to me for some reason. Or that I just never wound up seeing. As an adult, a lot of these films have some kind of appeal, but not enough to usually make me sit down and watch them.

Firestarter is a good example of this. It starred Drew Barrymore, who was the biggest child star at the time. I was actually too young to watch the film when it came out in 1984, but she had something of a career resurgence in the 1990s by taking on more mature (and sometimes scandalous) movies like Poison Ivy (1992), The Amy Fisher Story (1993), and Boys on the Side (1995). I was a fan of the actress as a teenager and though Firestarter was a few years old at that point it was still very much part of the culture. It was often shown on cable television and the video stores still had copies of it on their shelves.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Firestarter was part of my cinematic memory, even though I never did watch it. It is that kind of thing that fascinates me and those are the types of movies I’ll be trying to watch this month.

The film is based on the Stephen King novel of the same name and follows one of his more regular themes – that of people with psychic ability and the secret government agencies that want to exploit it.

Barrymore plays Charlie a girl with pyrokinetic powers. She and her father Andrew (David Keith) are on the run from those secret government agents. Years before Andrew and his wife were given experimental drugs by that agency which gave her the ability to read minds and him the ability to control them. The agency killed his wife and kidnapped Charlie. He got her back and that’s why they are on the run.

Eventually, they get caught and the Agency director (Martin Sheen) and his hitman (George C. Scott pretending to be Native American and sporting the most ridiculous-looking ponytail) attempt to befriend Charlie so they can get her to master her powers.

Writing all that out makes the film sound pretty good, but I’m afraid I have to tell you it is mostly a snore. The government plot is dull as can be, George C. Scott’s performance is just plain odd, and for a more about a girl who can start fires with her mind (and is titled Firestarter), it sure takes its time letting the girl start fires with her mind. It finally gets going in the last fifteen minutes or so and that scene is a real corker with tons of action and blazing fire action. But getting there takes a lot of effort.

Oddly enough it did make me want to read the book. The bones of the plot are good, and exactly the sort of thing King is good at writing. There is a scene in the film where Charlie and the father are picked up by an old man and taken back to his home where the man’s wife fixes them lunch. It is a perfectly fine little scene in the movie, but you just know King expanded it for multiple chapters allowing these characters to really bond and for us to get to know them. That’s the sort of thing King excels at, but that tends to get shortened down to nothing on the big screen.

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