Friday, May 20, 2011

Stephen King Month: Firestarter (1984)

I'm pretty sure Firestarter is the first Stephen King movie I ever saw, although I'm not sure if I ever managed to see the whole thing. I remember watching bits and pieces of it on TV as a kid, but watching it again this week, I definitely noticed a lot of unfamiliar parts. Obviously the TV snippets were enough for me back then, and seeing the whole film hasn't really changed that judgment. Characters on the run from secret government experiments was a popular plot device in the '80s, and the first half of Firestarter is a fairly uninspired chase movie, with seriously crappy acting from David Keith as telepath Andy McGee and Drew Barrymore as his pyrokinetic daughter Charlie. The movie improves a little in its second half, after George C. Scott shows up as a devious and possibly insane government agent, and the action shifts to a secret compound where Andy and Charlie have been imprisoned.

It's still pretty cheesy (especially the awkward, stunt-filled climax), and Keith and Barrymore are still pretty bad, but Scott really digs in to the role of the damaged government agent who's seen too much and has calmly gone off the deep end. The way he cheerily manipulates Charlie and then coldly talks about how he plans to kill her is pretty chilling, and Scott gives it every bit of casual menace it deserves. His character's fate is about as disappointing as everyone else's, but at least he offers up some excitement along the way.

Firestarter was Barrymore's first role after her breakthrough in E.T., and it smacks of producers trying too hard to give her something edgy and impressive. Even though she's become a better actress as she's moved into adulthood, she's still fundamentally sort of cutesy and whiny, and those qualities really drag down her performance here. Charlie is meant to be formidable and intimidating, but even when she's burning down the entire compound and killing dozens of people at the end of the movie, she just looks pouty and cranky. Firestarter is really more sci-fi than horror, but that final sequence should be at least a little unsettling. Instead, Barrymore (along with the second-rate effects) makes it sort of silly. Scott's performance aside, sort of silly is about the best this movie has to offer.

How far to Castle Rock: Andy and Charlie spend the movie's first half on the lam from the government, but they never make it to rural Maine.

No comments: