Young Charlene ‘Charlie’ McGee (Drew Barrymore) has the ability to start fires with just a glance. Along with her loving father, she threatens the government agency, ‘The Shop.’ The question is, do they want to control her psychic power… or do they want to destroy her? (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
The most interesting thing about Mark L. Lester’s Firestarter (1984) isn’t its quality, but its connection to similar movies not based on Stephen King books/stories. A key point is that it so closely resembles at least two other movies about telekinetic/telepathic outcasts on the run from covert government agencies. These include Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978) and David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981). Curiously, it doesn’t seem like anyone involved was knowingly stealing ideas, despite the many connections between filmmakers.
Obviously Firestarter and The Fury have ties to Carrie (1976), since King wrote the former and Carrie director Brian De Palma made the latter. I assume that King wrote Firestarter and De Palma directed The Fury in part to recapture the glory of Carrie, which had propelled both of them into A-list fame. Add to that the fact that Cronenberg directed The Dead Zone the year before Firestarter’s theatrical debut (1983) and the whole thing reeks of one big cannibalistic cabal of plot theft. What, exactly, had inspired multiple movies that utilized the same basic narrative concepts (these are hardly the only three movies that use the ideas)? Perhaps newly released knowledge of the CIA’s MKUltra mind control experiments (it was made public in 1977, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act) was on everyone’s mind at the time, or maybe the Reagan era’s rampant patriotism stewed contempt for government oversight. Maybe horror and sci-fi filmmakers were reading a lot of X-Men comics in the ‘80s. Whatever the case, it became a recognizable enough ‘80s trope to somewhat define the era, including parts of Netflix’s catchall ‘80s sci-fi trope series, Stranger Things (2016).
Acknowledging that none of these films were great, Firestarter is definitely the weakest link in the chain. Like Lewis Teague and Daniel Attias, who directed Cat's Eye (1985) and Silver Bullet (1985), respectively for producer Dino De Laurentiis, Lester was tasked with making his movie from a weak source script. Having never read King’s novel, I can only assume that Stanley Mann’s adaptation was to blame for the adaptation’s lacklustre quality. I’m not sure that even a great filmmaker could’ve gleaned a genuinely good movie from such drab, talky material, though, besides some agile editing between flashbacks, Lester’s direction doesn’t do much to elevate the material. He also seems to have struggled with his cast, as he managed to get fatally lethargic performances from David Keith, Martin Sheen, and George C. Scott – not to mention that he wastes Louise Fletcher in a three line role. For the record, Drew Barrymore is very good. It’s easy to see why De Laurentiis would endeavour to build his next King movie, Cat’s Eye, around her talents. For the record, De Laurentiis’ company was also behind Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone and King’s own Maximum Overdrive (1986) during the 1980s.
As the film lumbers past the hour mark and into its hundredth saccharine-sweet father-daughter moment, it becomes clear that Firestarter doesn’t really resemble any of Lester’s grungy and more distinctly Lester-esque movies, specifically Class of 1984 (1982) and everyone’s favourite continuity-error-filled Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Commando (1985). In fact, it actually resembles a John Carpenter movie, which might not be a coincidence, since Carpenter had been slated to direct for a while during pre-production. Screenwriter Bill Lancaster prepared a Stephen King-approved script, but, when The Thing (which Lancaster wrote, 1982) flopped at the box office, distributor Universal Studios dumped Carpenter. He ended up having the last laugh, though, because he ended up directing a different, more liked, and more financially successful King adaptation for Columbia Pictures in Christine (1983). He even beat Firestarter to theaters by several months.
Like most Stephen King adaptations from the ‘80s, Firestarter has had a healthy life on home video. After being regularly available on VHS (as well as pan & scan Laserdisc) from MCA, it was released stateside on non-anamorphic DVD via Image and anamorphic DVD via Universal. MGM released anamorphic discs throughout Europe. There were also Castle Home non-anamorphic and Scanbox Entertainment anamorphic releases in the UK. Blu-ray versions were made available from Universal in the US and NSM Records in Austria as recently as 2014. For their special collector’s edition re-release, Scream Factory has gone back to the original interpositive film elements to create a new 2K scan and restoration. The 1080p, 2.35:1 image is definitely an upgrade over the Universal disc. Overall clarity is impressive and cinematographer Giuseppe Ruzzolini’s often soft, widescreen compositions are well-preserved with improved detail and color quality. Skin tones are warm, the green backdrops are quite lush, and blue elements appear brighter, all without desaturating the oranges and yellows that are so vital to the fire sequences. The transfer is not without its problems, though. These range from typical authoring process noise, obvious, though not excessive DNR effects, and notable haloes, usually along the edges of background shapes. Combined, these artifacts can make some shots, often dark interiors, appear uneven, verging on plain old dirty. Fortunately, these issues are mitigated when the footage is in motion.
Firestarter is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio and its original mono sound and 2.0 stereo placement. This is a nicely balanced and surprisingly dynamic mix for a single-channel production that includes many deep-set layers of noise. Dialogue is clean and the effects never peak or buzz, even at high volume levels. The only thing separating this from most stereo mixes from the era is the lack of directional cues – there’s still the illusion of immersive sound. One of the film’s finest assets is its original score by psychedelic progrock group Tangerine Dream. Many of the scare cues are sort of obnoxious, shrill, high-end synth notes, but the major themes counteract the pyrotechnics with memorably mellow grooves. The score is smoothly integrated with the effects to the point that neither overpowers the other, unless clearly intended.
Scream Factory has put considerable effort into creating brand new extras for Firestarter, making up for years of barebones DVDs and BDs (with the exception of the NSM Records BD Combo Pack, which featured a fan/expert commentary with Daniel Perée & Lisa Schmidt). The all-new extras include:
Commentary with director Mark L. Lester – The director isn’t paired with a moderator and doesn’t seem to have prepared for the track. As a result, there’s a lot of silence between random little factoids about the production. I’m sure fans will be happy to have any commentary at all, but it was a trial for me.
Playing With Fire: The Making Of Firestarter (52:40, HD) – This new retrospective documentary is the perfect antidote to the commentary. Lester opens the discussion with a breakdown of the early production, his involvement (he’s under the impression that the Carpenter/Lancaster script was ditched, because it was too far from King’s novel), and the casting process. He’s most excited to recall all the corners they cut to save money. Other interview subjects include actor Drew Snyder and Freddie Jones, who talk about their performance experiences; stuntman/actor Dick Warlock, who recalls some of the hairier fire stunts; and Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream, who briefly sums up his involvement.
Tangerine Dream: Movie Music Memories (17:07, HD) – Further discussion with Schmoelling, this time including a more in-depth recollection of the band’s history and their entry into soundtrack writing.
Live performance of "Charlie's Theme" by Schmoelling (2:33, HD)
Trailers and a radio spot