It’s the 1980s and Stephen King is as big of a superstar writer of horror fiction as he could possibly be (and has ever been since). Since the publication of his first novel, Carrie, Hollywood has been calling him at his house in Bangor, Maine. With the double whammy of Brian De Palma’s Carrie and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, filmmakers are pillaging his bibliography for a short story or novel to adapt. The Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis was one of the first to option as many as he possibly could, with his first production one of the best, The Dead Zone, directed by David Cronenberg.
Laurentiis would go on to produce a slew of films based on King’s work, and he even hired King himself to direct an adaptation of his short story Trucks into the feature Maximum Overdrive, a film King can’t even remember directing because he was so coked out of his mind. Besides The Dead Zone, the most notable one of this series is undoubtedly Firestarter, which was directed by Mark L. Lester, hot after the surprise success of sci-fi/punk/teen cult classic Class of 1984. He wasn’t the original choice, however—John Carpenter had been hired, but due to The Thing being a massive flop (now considered by many to be his best film) he was let go. Nevertheless, he would end up following up that with his own Stephen King adaptation, Christine.
Lester and Laurentiis went about casting the film with major stars who were also considered serious actors, like Martin Sheen and George C. Scott. The film is about a couple who at some point in the late ’60s or early ’70s have partaken in series of medical experiments involving an incredibly powerful hallucinogenic drug. The experiments are clearly loosely based upon the real-life Project MK Ultra, in which the US government used mainly LSD on participants to see if it could be used as a form of mind control—a horrifying programme that wasn’t halted officially till 1973, although there are plenty of conspiracy theories claiming that it ended with the Jonestown massacre in 1978.
The couple gain telekinetic powers due to the experiments, and when they give birth to a girl, she ups the telekinetic powers to pyrokinetic powers. The government soon learns of the girl’s gifts, and the mother is killed. The father, Andy McGee (David Keith), and his daughter Charlie (Drew Barrymore) go on the lam, but Andy keeps writing these stupid letters to newspapers to protect them. However, these give away their location so they have to move frequently. Naturally the government department behind the experiments—”The Shop,” led by Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen)—eventually captures them with the help of Agent John Rainbird (George C. Scott), and more experiments happen.
The film is a bit of a hot mess. but an incredibly enjoyable one, mainly due to the cast that Lester and Laurentiis was able to put together. Drew Barrymore was a massive star after E.T. and carries a lot of her innocent charisma in that role over into this—right before she became the teenage hellraiser of the coming years. Scott’s greatest roles, with the exception of his lead role in The Exorcist III, were certainly behind him at this point, but he revels in the campiness of the script and is clearly having a ball. Sheen is more grounded and also has less of the meaty role than Scott, but he had just come off doing The Dead Zone. He was wonderfully twisted in that film, and this is something of a pale imitation of that performance. David Keith is an actor who has never really made a massive dent in the world of cinema, but has some cult credentials with Firestarter, the strangest surreal killer film ever made, White of the Eye, and directing an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” as The Curse.
Firestarter the has the problem that many “prestige” horror films do, including many Stephen King adaptations: pushing two hours, it’s far too long. The book clocks at a long 426 pages, which automatically becomes challenging to make into a two-hour movie. Either you need to streamline the novel or use it jumping-off point (like Kubrick’s The Shining) to make your own interpretation. King himself was not a fan of the film, describing it as “flavorless; it’s like cafeteria mashed potatoes.” Still, it’s not without plenty of ’80s fun, especially with the cast and the numerous scenes of little Drew Barrymore catching stuff on fire with her mind!
It’s an interesting time now for King adaptations, after those initial classics early on and the odd great film here and there, mostly by Frank Darabont (including the modern classic The Shankshank Redemption) because with Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services. Now you can take your original content and make your adaptation into an eight-hour film, or in the theatrical realm you can split it into two films, like the magnificent IT from last year. It comes as no surprise that a remake of Firestarter is in the works with Blumhouse producing it.
Plan B has compiled a beautiful set for the film, with a nice hard slipcover, a reproduction of the iconic poster and even some lobby cards. The special features on the disc are ported over from the Shout Factory release, including a solid retrospective making-of, Lester’s commentary track and a featurette on the score by Tangerine Dream, which I have to admit is not one of my favourite scores by the German band. Johannes Schmoelling also supplies a live performance of “Charlie’s Theme.” Plan B has added an extra commentary track by horror writer and anthologist Johnny Mains, and the disc is rounded off with trailers, a radio spot and of course a booklet on the film.