It seems as if somebody ought to be able to make a decent horror movie based on Stephen King’s Firestarter. But this second attempt, produced by Blumhouse, is even worse than the 1984 Drew Barrymore–starring version.
Written by Scott Teems (Halloween Kills) and directed by Keith Thomas (The Vigil), the new Firestarter starts off with a promising bit of energy. There’s an apparently idyllic family scene featuring young parents Andy and Victoria McGee (Zac Efron and Sydney Lemmon) doting over their baby Charlene, nicknamed Charlie, that ends abruptly with the entire nursery going up in flames.
Baby-terror in this case makes particular sense, because Charlie has developed pyrokinesis as a result of being born to parents who have psychic and telekinetic abilities. Rather than being innate, their abilities were induced when, as college students, Andy and Victoria took part in what they assumed were harmless scientific studies involving drug testing. These experiments were actually overseen by the Shop, a covert government agency running a programme inducing, and attempting to weaponise, supernatural powers.
Charlie is introduced as a troubled eight-year-old (played by newcomer Ryan Kiera Armstrong) suffering from nightmares and a weakening ability to repress her fire-starting impulses in reaction to fear, anger, or pain. Holding back the fiery “bad thing” is made ever more impossible by the fact that she’s going to school and getting bullied. She’s considered weird because she’s the only kid in school without a phone or a laptop, which her parents are withholding to keep them all off the grid — it seems the Shop’s agents are now trying to hunt the whole family down.
Apparently, they never considered homeschooling.
In interviews, Stephen King approves of the way this new film version spends times introducing the family at length before the mayhem really starts. Whereas his novel begins with Andy and Charlie already on the run, only indicating in flashbacks the earlier experiences of the family and the fact that Victoria had been killed by the Shop:
One of the things that I love is how family oriented [the new film] is; they seem like a real family to me. And the camera kind of hinges to the left and you see a fire extinguisher on the wall…
But personally, I think King’s way was better. This film spends a lot of time with the parents arguing over how best to bring up their little firestarter. Dad is on Team Repression, whereas Mom thinks Charlie needs to learn how to express her emotions in healthier, non-burning ways, which is such a dumb series of exchanges given the extremity of the situation. Especially once Charlie incinerates a cat because it scratched her. And soon she’s pretty mad at her parents too…
It’s hard not to think of that great 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone called “It’s a Good Life,” in which the six-year-old boy with terrifying supernatural mental powers and no impulse control holds an entire small rural town full of people in a state of abject subjugation, because if they irritate him even slightly — by word, deed, or even thought — he “wishes them into the cornfield.” And nobody ever comes back from the cornfield. Pretty soon it’s clear that someone’s going to have to murder the child before he destroys them all, only how to do it without even thinking about it and tipping him off?
But a film like Firestarter is never going to grapple with anything like that level of horror. The character who says of Charlie, “Terminate her!” is the vile former Shop boss who began the evil drug experiments in the first place, played by appropriately skull-headed actor Kurtwood Smith.
It seems to take ages before the inevitable Charlie-related “incident” at school finally blows the family’s cover. The Shop’s assassin, sent after the family by new Shop boss Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben), is a Cherokee-named John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes of True Detective). He’s soon at the McGees’ door, telling Victoria bitterly that, before the Shop got around to experimenting on posh, white college girls, they started on “lab rats” like himself, people considered manifestly disposable.
It’s a bit counterintuitive that Rainbird would work for the Shop since they destroyed his life, a conflict of interest which is never fully explained. It’s one of the odder departures from King’s original narrative, which features Rainbird as a psychologically damaged Vietnam War vet-turned-assassin who develops a sick obsession with Charlie. A narrative dramatising various overt and covert ways that the American government is destroying the lives of its citizens indicates how King’s novel, published in 1980, was still coasting on the countercultural fumes of the 1960s and ’70s, full of anti-government rage expressed in Andy’s final directive to his daughter: “Burn it all down, Charlie.”
As King himself notes,
I was also in full don’t-trust-the-government mode when I wrote that book. We were still talking about Vietnam at that time. There was a hangover from that in the late ’70s. And there was all kinds of stuff going on where you just could not trust the government.
It was a product of the post-Watergate era, a time in which respectable, mainstream institutions like the New York Times and even the US Congress were revealing shocking truths to the public about what their own government had been up to during the Cold War — state-sponsored assassinations and even government experiments in LSD-induced mind control. Decades later, declassified documents showed that the CIA had even attempted to study and develop extrasensory perception (ESP) and telekinetic powers in potential agents. It was called Project Stargate, and designed to counter a Soviet program reported to be engaged in the same activities.
Firestarter, the novel and original movie, seem like part of a mini-post-Watergate genre that included David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) and Brian de Palma’s The Fury (1978). The Fury sounds a lot like Firestarter — same shadowy, secret government op turning psychic kids into weapons; and the same outcome as the kids turn on their handlers with spectacular acts of violence.
Though obviously the black ops Shop is still operating in this adaptation of Firestarter, any anti-government fury is thoroughly muddled and obscured. And the filmmakers don’t have the guts to make the “burn it all down, Charlie” finale as simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating as the one in Carrie (1976) — that rare, great adaptation of a Stephen King novel. The Firestarter actors, who are no doubt capable of being more effective than this, are stranded in their roles, limping along sadly from scenario to scenario with nothing cohering. Sometimes even the choppy editing underscores the lack of dramatic unity. Though on the plus side, John Carpenter — who was fired from directing the original Firestarter — and his son, Cody, collaborated on the score.
By the end of the film, there’s still a vague impression that maybe the whole scorched-earth calamity we’ve witnessed was the result of faulty parenting — with Dad especially to blame, because of his insistence on Charlie continuing to tamp down her feelings so as not to incinerate her surroundings. That’s repression you see, and we all know repression is bad.
Though there’s a promising comedy skit to be had in a parodic Firestarter in which Charlie’s Mom lives and continues to raise her according to wellness-industry platitudes about how to healthfully channel her feelings. You can see them in a blazing room, with Mom scorched all over, hair smoking, reiterating patiently, “It’s okay to get mad, Charlie, because anger is an important emotion that everyone needs to express.”
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of Filmsuck, USA. She also hosts a podcast called Filmsuck.
Featured image: Blumhouse
This article was first published on Jacobin.