Firestarter (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Plan B Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (27th July 2018).
The Film

Firestarter (Mark L Lester, 1984)

Firestarter begins with Andy McGee (David Keith) and his eight year old daughter Charlie (Drew Barrymore) on the run from a group of government officials who work for a department known as ‘The Shop’. Both Andy and Charlie have psychic ‘gifts’: Andy has the ‘push’, an ability to use the power of his mind to convince someone to do whatever Andy wants them to do; and Charlie has the power of pyrokinesis.

Whilst on the run, Andy recollects how he met Charlie’s mother Victoria (Heather Locklear). Andy and Victoria volunteered for a series of experiments conducted by Dr Joseph Wanless (Freddie Jones). Working for ‘The Shop’ with the aim of finding a way to weaponise the human brain’s hidden powers, Wanless was attempting to stimulate the pituitary glands of his subjects by injecting them with the mysterious compound entitled ‘Lot Six’. This had some devastating results for members of the test group to which Andy and Victoria belonged.

However, Andy and Victoria survived and became lovers, their union resulting on Charlie. For the first eight years of Charlie’s life, they live quietly, presumably in hiding from The Shop. However, one day Andy returns home to find Victoria dead: she has been tortured, presumably for information leading to Charlie’s whereabouts. Rushing outside, Andy sees Charlie being led into a van by two government agents. Andy uses the ‘push’ to make the men hand Charlie over before, in revenge for the murder of Victoria, making them blind.

In the present, Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen) enlists the help of the ruthless but mystical Rainbird (George C Scott) in tracking down Charlie. Rainbird vows to help Hollister, but only ‘on the condition that you’ll give her to me for disposal when you’ve finished with her’. Using a long range rifle and tranquiliser darts, Rainbird manages to catch both Andy and Charlie, who have fled to Charlie’s grandfather’s lakeside house.

The Shop take both Charlie and Andy back to their laboratories. They separate father and daughter, hoping to persuade Charlie to participate in their tests. Rainbird goes ‘undercover’ as a lowly cleaner, thereby winning Charlie’s trust. Hollister enlists Dr Pynchot (Moses Gunn) to deliver the tests, and within them, Charlie proves her pyrokinetic ‘talent’, her abilities becoming stronger with each subsequent test. However, Andy makes plans to escape from The Shop with his daughter.

To some extent, like Brian De Palma’s Stephen King adaptation Carrie (1978) before it, Mark L Lester’s Firestarter is a subversion of the ‘bad seed’ films that focus on deviant children, including Mervyn LeRoy’s 1956 picture The Bad Seed (based on William March’s 1954 novel of the same title) and Robert Mulligan’s The Other (1972): during the 1970s, ‘bad seed’ films like The Other came increasingly to draw a connection between the ‘bad seed’ and supernatural phenomena, a trend most commonly popularised within the spate of films about demonic possession of young people (mostly young women) that followed the success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist in 1973. In an essay looking at Chris Columbus’ Home Alone (1990), Joe L Kincheloe associates Firestarter with the likes of The Exorcist, The Bad Seed and It’s Alive (Larry Cohen, 1974), stating that this group of films ‘recognized adult hostility but projected it onto evil children as a means of concealing it’, pointing ‘to a social tendency of parents to view their children as alien intruders’ (Kinchelow, 1998: 164).

However, Firestarter is different from some of these other films inasmuch as throughout the film, Charlie and her father display nothing but love and affection for one another, their trajectory being a flight from a government that wishes to harness her powers for its own destructive purposes. Unlike the murderous children of The Other and The Bad Seed, Charlie is fundamentally good, displaying an internal conflict over the consequences of her powers that manifests itself in the guilt she expresses for accidentally setting her mother’s oven gloves on fire. (Andy tries to help her negotiate this issue by introducing her to the concept of ‘the big “bad”’ and ‘the little “bad”’ – ‘lesser and greater evil’.) However, like most children her age Charlie is prone to moments of panic and tantrums during which her pyrokinesis becomes destructive – most notably at the end of the film, when she is left alone after the murder of her father, turning the full weight of her powers against the members of The Shop. As Simon Brown has said, ‘Although she [Charlie] has powers like Carrie and the story draws upon the theme of the child as Other, King’s Charlie is a sad and innocent little girl with a strong moral compass who uses her pyrokinesis sparingly throughout the novel’ (Brown, 2018: 69). As Brown notes, unlike The Exorcist or The Bad Seed, Charlie (and her father) aren’t the antagonists of Firestarter: the ultimate villains of both novel and film are the government forces who persecute Charlie and Andy, ripping their family apart, and ‘the spectre of child abuse through The Shop’s experimentation with Charlie and through John Rainbird’s obsession with killing her in order to absorb her power at the moment of death’ (ibid.). Although a horror novel (and film), Brown suggests that ‘the horror within the story is, at its core, political’, and hence King himself has labelled Firestarter ‘a political novel’ (ibid; King quoted in ibid.). For Brown, Mark Lester’s film adaptation of King’s Firestarter places a heavier emphasis on action, but nevertheless it is still fundamentally structured on an opposition between Charlie’s ‘good’ family and The Shop’s ‘bad’ government agents.

The conflict between family/community and government seems, within the context of the film, irreconcilable. The forces of The Shop work to disrupt and persecute Charlie’s family, and ironically, by destroying Charlie’s family they transform the little girl – whose parents were trying to teach her to control her pyrokinesis – into the very thing they fear. When Hollister, Rainbird and Wanless meet for the first time in the film, Wanless warns Hollister that he must ‘expunge them [Andy and Charlie], wipe them from the face of the Earth [….] Andrew McGee and his daughter constitute the greatest threat that has ever faced this nation’. Hollister, at this stage doubtful of Wanless’ hyperbolic claims, asserts simply ‘That’s a lot of crap’, adding that ‘She’s just a little girl. She can light fires, yes. But you’re making her sound like Armageddon’. ‘Suppose we have a child here who is some day capable of creating a nuclear explosion simply by the power of her will’, Wanless suggests, provoking Hollister into a different train of thought: ‘What if we could train this little girl, and others too? Could we ever have more powerful weapons?’ This exchange of dialogue precipitates Hollister’s decision to use Rainbird to capture Charlie, so that The Shop may experiment with her powers and possibly weaponise them. However, in hunting and persecuting Charlie and Andy, Hollister unwittingly makes Charlie more dangerous than, if left alone, she otherwise would have been.

The conflict between government and family/community is consolidated when Charlie and Andy briefly seek refuge with farmer Irv Manders (Art Carney) and his wife Norma (Louise Fletcher). Sensing that Andy and Charlie are on the run, Irv nonetheless invites them to his home and offers them dinner. These scenes are offset by scenes taking place at The Shop: the large, inviting Manders farm being juxtaposed with the sprawling militarised space of The Shop. When government agents arrive at the Manders farm en masse, planning to take Charlie, Manders demonstrates a show of solidarity with the two fugitives he has befriended, warning the government agents to leave his land and threatening to use his hunting rifle against them. Manders is shot and wounded, but Charlie uses her pyrokinesis to devastating effect, incinerating a number of the government agents and destroying their vehicles, enabling herself and Andy to escape.

In between these two irreconcilable opposites is Rainbird. Played with quiet but sincere menace by George C Scott, Rainbird is an expert assassin who is not bothered by his conscience but who has deeply mystical beliefs. (In the novel, Rainbird is a Native American.) Rainbird vows to help Hollister catch Charlie, but only if The Shop will turn Charlie over to Rainbird ‘for disposal’ once they have finished their tests. ‘You are mad’, Hollister tells Rainbird in response. ‘So are you. Mad as a hatter’, Rainbird asserts, ‘You sit here making plans for controlling a force that’s beyond your comprehension, a force that belongs only to the gods themselves […] We’re gonna be close, she and I’. Rainbird’s plan is to kill Charlie with his bare hands whilst gazing into her face: he believes that by doing so, he will be able to absorb her powers. ‘It’ll be quick. [I’ll] be looking at her face the whole time. [I] will know her power’, so that Rainbird ‘can take that power with [me] into the other world’. When Charlie and Andy are captured, Rainbird proves himself able to navigate both sides of the government-family dualism: where Hollister and his team are unable to convince Charlie to participate in the tests of her abilities, Rainbird helps to change Charlie’s mind by masquerading as a lowly cleaner in the facility. Unlike Hollister and his team, Rainbird is able to communicate with Charlie by speaking to her on an appropriate level, without patronising her or underestimating her intellectual abilities. He wins her sympathy by telling her of his experiences as a captive of the Viet Cong during the war in Vietnam, which given the sincerity of Scott’s delivery may be assumed to be a ‘true’ story from the background of Rainbird himself.

For its first half, Firestarter adopts a non-linear structure, providing the viewer with information on a piecemeal basis. The film juxtaposes the past and present as Charlie and Andy flee from the agents of The Shop, interspersing into this flashbacks to Andy’s first meeting with Victoria at Dr Wanless’ experiment with Lot Six, and glimpses of Charlie’s life at home – the development of her powers, her guilt at accidentally causing her mother’s oven gloves to burst into flames after a disagreement. These moments of analepsis culminate in the flashback that depicts Andy returning home to find Victoria dead, having apparently been tortured by agents of The Shop, and Charlie being loaded into a van. Andy reacts by using his ability to ‘push’, forcing the government agents to hand Charlie back to him, and then using his powers to make them blind (in retaliation for Victoria’s murder).

By Drew Barrymore’s account, the filming of the special effects sequences was something of a nightmare for the child actor: in one scene, fire chips were flung at Barrymore without the protection of a Plexiglass screen; in another, Barrymore was ordered to stand in a spot whilst ‘burning pieces of metal’ were dropped from a helicopter above her, and one of these momentarily landed on her shoulder (Barrymore, 1990: 84-5). Her worst experience, however, was in the scene in which her character watches one of the government agents burst into flames; Barrymore and her eight year old double, with whom Barrymore was watching the effect, were traumatised when the stuntman ‘exploded—and I mean burst—into huge, leaping flames [….] It seemed like a disaster, like the guy was being fried in front of us, and everyone was clapping. We didn’t realize the stuntman was protected’ (ibid.: 85).

Firestarter was at the time one of the biggest Stephen King adaptations to go into production, with a budget of $15 million. Like 1984’s other notable Stephen King adaptation, Children of the Corn (Fritz Kiersch), Firestarter was a critical and commercial flop on its initial release to cinemas. Writing in the Globe and Mail, critic Liam Lacey called Firestarter ‘the one film version of King’s work that most accurately captures the experience of reading his rambling, modern gothic novels: the movie is overly long, structurally unwieldy and chock-a-block with characters so two-dimensional they’d have trouble winning an audition for The Bugs Bunny-Roadrunner Hour’ (Lacey, quoted in Rolls, 2009: 70). Stephen King himself was very open in his criticism of Firestarter, resulting in a memorable back-and-forth between King and director Mark Lester in the February, 1991 issue of Cinefantastique. Lester insisted that King had approval of the script and was enraptured by the dailies whilst the film was in production, asserting that ‘I’m just appaled that a man of his wealth would actually stoop to these slanderous comments that he makes about people, attacking these movies [….] [T]o have a person so intimately involved, who actually approved the script and loved the movie, and collaborated every step of the way in the making of the film, come out and attack the movie, to me is sickening’ (Lester, quoted in Wood, 1991). Lester continued by stating that ‘He [King] may be a hero to your magazine, but underneath I don’t know what’s wrong with the man. He’s got a sick side, I guess. I’ve wanted to say this for years because he’s attacked me so many times in print. He should call and apologize to me’ (Lester, quoted in ibid.). King responded in a letter to Cinefantastique, printed in the same issue, in which he says that Lester is simply ‘just another director who ended up with his scalp dangling from a pole outside the lodge of Chief Dino De Laurentiis’, arguing that throughout his career as a producer, De Laurentiis confused ‘spectacle’ with ‘quality’ (King, 1991).

Video

Firestarter is presented in 1080p, using the AVC codec. The film, which is uncut and runs for 114:23 mins, is presented in its intended 2.35:1 screen ratio. Shot anamorphically on 35mm colour stock, Firestarter looks very handsome on this Blu-ray release from Plan B Entertainment. The presentation would seem to utilise the same 2k restoration from interpositive elements as the US Blu-ray release from Shout! Factory.

The photography makes strong use of shorter focal lengths, with the result that many scenes are characterised by staging in depth. This sense of depth within the original photography is communicated very well in this presentation. Colours are consistent and stable, the lush greens of the vegetation in the many outdoor scenes being communicated excellently and skintones being natural throughout. Daylight scenes can look a little harsh, but from the opening sequence, which takes place on city streets at night as Andy carries Charlie and the pair flee from the government agents, low light sequences fare very well. In terms of contrast, midtones are balanced very nicely, with a defined gradation into the toe. Blacks are a deep, rich black.

The structure of 35mm film is retained by a solid encode to disc.

Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.


Audio

Audio is presented via a LPCM 1.0 track. This track is deep and has good range. Dialogue is audible throughout. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included. These are easy to read and free from errors.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An audio commentary with director Mark L Lester. This is the same audio commentary that was included on Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release in the US. Lester offers some interesting reflections on the making of the film, but there are some long periods of silence and much of his comments overlap with the information contained in the retrospective documentary that is also included on this disc.

- An audio commentary with Johnny Mains. Mains, a horror writer and anthologist, brings a more objective approach to the film. This track is exclusive to Plan B’s release. Mains discusses the picure’s relationship with the source novel and discusses Firestarter’s position in the arena of Stephen King adaptations. He reflects on Lester’s career as a director and talks about the input of Dino De Laurentiis into the material. It’s an interesting commentary, Mains enthusiasm for the horror genre being evident throughout.

- ‘Playing with Fire: The Making of Firestarter’ (52:40). In this documentary, previously seen on the US Blu-ray release from Shout! Factory, director Mark Lester recalls the making of the film, discussing how he came to be involved with the project and discussing its relationship with King’s source novel. Lester’s comments dominate the documentary but are included alongside snippers of interviews with Johannes Schmoelling, of Tangerine Dream, and actors Freddie Jones, Drew Snyder and Dick Warlock.

- ‘Tangerine Dream: Movie Music Memories’ (17:07). In this featurette, also included on the Shout! Factory release in the US, Johannes Schmoelling discusses his work with Tangerine Dream, reflecting in particular on the band’s work for cinema on films like William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) and Firestarter. Schmoelling talks about how Tangerine Dream approached scoring Firestarter. Schmoelling speaks in German; optional English subtitles are provided.

- Live Performance of ‘Charlie’s Theme’ (2:33)
. Johannes Schmoelling performs ‘Charlie’s Theme’, from the Firestarter soundtrack, for the camera.

- Stills Gallery (16 images)
.

- Radio Spots (4:34)
.

- Trailer (1:32)
.

The package also includes a set of art cards, reversible sleeve artwork, a folded poster for the film, and a booklet that features an essay about the film from Charlie Oughton.

Overall

Firestarter had a poor reputation, perceptions of the film arguably tarnished by Stephen King’s frequent criticisms of it. Admittedly, the film pales in comparison with Brian De Palma’s Carrie and, for that matter, De Palma’s similarly-themed Fury (1978, adapted from John Farris’ novel) or David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1982). However, Firestarter contains some potent imagery, such as when Rainbird uses tranquiliser darts to knock out both Andy and Charlie at Charlie’s grandfather’s lakeside cottage, and Rainbird wanders out of the treeline followed by numerous men in hazmat suits. The film also benefits from a strong cast; though David Keith’s performance as Andy sometimes falls a little flat (and, to be fair, the script doesn’t give him a great deal to work with), actors in secondary roles shine throughout – from Sheen and Scott to Art Carney and Louise Fletcher. (Antonio Fargas has a great small role – little more than a cameo – as a taxi driver.)

In all, Firestarter is an interesting film, better than its reputation might suggests but not quite as good as some of its contemporaneous similarly-themed films. Plan B Entertainment’s Blu-ray release is strongly recommended, however. The presentation of the main feature is very pleasing, and this is supported by some excellent contextual material: in particular, the commentary by Johnny Mains - which helps situate the film within an appropriate context in terms of the horror genre (and conspiracy theories surrounding rumoured experiments by the US government) - and the retrospective documentary, which covers the production in detail. It’s a superb release of the film.

References:
Barrymore, Drew, 1990: Little Girl Lost. London: Pocket Books

Brown, Simon, 2018: Screening Stephen King: Adaptation and the Horror Genre in Film and Television. University of Texas Press

Kincheloe, Joe L, 1998: ‘The New Childhood: Home Alone as a Way of Life’. In: Jenkins, Henry (ed), 1998: The Children’s Culture Reader. London: New York University Press: 159-77

King, Stephen, 1991: ‘King on Firestarter: Who’s to Blame?’ Cinefantastique (February, 1991)

Rolls, Albert, 2009: Stephen King: A Biography. London: Greenwood Press

Wood, Gary, 1991: ‘Firestarter’. Cinefantastique (February, 1991)


Please click to enlarge:
vlcsnap_2018_07_27_21h02m28s454
vlcsnap_2018_07_27_21h02m39s937
vlcsnap_2018_07_27_21h03m10s057
vlcsnap_2018_07_27_21h04m28s638
vlcsnap_2018_07_27_21h04m33s231
vlcsnap_2018_07_27_21h04m39s781
vlcsnap_2018_07_27_21h04m54s418
vlcsnap_2018_07_27_21h05m04s802

 


DVD Compare is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Amazon Europe S.a.r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.fr, and amazon.de.