Firestarter (1984)

There seem to have been a lot of telekinetics running around in the Eighties.

Particularly if you start looking a little early, at Carrie, in 1976, and The Medusa Touch, The Fury and Patrick in 1978.  Scanners appeared in 1981, with a horde of sequels to follow, The Sender came out in 1982, and Tobe Hooper got into the act with Spontaneous Combustion in 1990.  Telekinesis even appeared in the comedies Modern Problems (1981) and Zapped! (1982).

It was enough to make you suspicious of anyone with throbbing veins in his forehead.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, that cute little girl from E.T., Drew Barrymore, got to play a little girl with incredible powers of pyrokinesis in a major adaptation of a Stephen King novel.

Somehow, a remarkable amount of King’s horror output seems to revolve around science fiction, although the results are usually mixed at best.  The same an be said about his movies, which have veered unpredictably from horrible to massively entertaining — sometimes in the same film!  Here we do find a hint of the supernatural which shows up in some of his more SF stories, as, when Charlie uses her powers, she insists on having some water or ice on hand where she can send something — something she talks to as if it were a separate entity — to be extinguished.

I’d forgotten that this was one of Dino De Laurentiis’ productions.  At the time, I knew him for his campy versions of Flash Gordon and King Kong, but here he offers a straightforward adaptation of the novel, with some of the most impressive fire effects that have appeared in any movie.

At the time, their only option was to do these effects live and in-camera, with real fire, and real stuntmen getting set aflame.  It may be easier to do everything digitally these days, and no one is likely to engage in fire effects at this scale ever again thanks to the risk and expense involved, but then no one will ever make a cinematic firestorm that looks half as real again, either.

While the fire is clearly the real star of the film, Drew is quite good (not that a lot is actually asked of her), Martin Sheen gets to play the main villain, Hammer stalwart Freddie Jones gets a very short role, and George C. Scott plays the disturbingly twisted assassin John Rainbird.

George seems an odd choice for the role.  I’ve always seen him as an essentially limited actor, one who plays these gruff and stolid types:  think Patton and you’ve got the idea.  Strangely he does actually work here, but mostly because the things he says in such a calm, straightforward sort of way are so utterly horrible that the contrast of having George say them makes them seem that much worse.  Mind you, despite the name “Rainbird” (which isn’t actually used that much in the film), I’d never have guessed he was supposed to be some sort of undefined Hollywood Indian, even with the ponytail and beaded coat.  A lot of children of the Seventies and ex-Viet Vets dressed that way, and many went in for equally eccentric names.  George carries off the coat well enough, but I really don’t buy the ponytail, particularly when his haircut is conservative everywhere else.

The storyline — of the secret agency chasing people with strange talents — is very familiar, even for Stephen King (see, for example, his short lived TV series The Golden Years, which actually features the same secret organization!), and I really don’t think the score by Tangerine Dream works particularly well (I suppose because it sounds too “Eighties.”  Oh, well, at least their dream-like score for The Keep fits perfectly).

But these do not detract much from a solid, well-crafted and thoroughly entertaining film which was one of the better genre films of the Eighties — and one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever made.

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