10 remarkable things about Firestarter (2022)

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Firestarter was a bit of a misfire for Blumhouse in 2022, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of remarkable things about it. Things like these…

NB: The following contains spoilers for Firestarter (2022).

“I have ten commandments,” the great filmmaker Billy Wilder once said. “The first nine are, ‘thou shalt not bore.’”

In spite of itself, Blumhouse’s 2022 take on Stephen King’s Firestarter is seldom boring. Its dialogue is often clunky, its storytelling decisions bizarre, but it’s still fascinating in all that clunky bizarreness.

Most poorly-reviewed films – and Firestarter was most definitely that – are simply dull or forgettable. The 1984 adaptation of Firestarter, for example: Drew Barrymore was pretty good as the young lead, but it was far from the most memorable Stephen King adaptation ever made.

Firestarter 2022, on the other hand, is quite remarkable. Remarkable in the 10 following ways:

John Carpenter does the music

John Carpenter
John Carpenter. Credit: John Carpenter.

In one of 1980s cinema history’s bigger injustices, John Carpenter was once set to the original version of Firestarter. That was, until he made 1982’s The Thing, which so repulsed critics at the time that Universal promptly gave Firestarter to director Mark L Lester. Almost 40 years later, Carpenter – and his son Cody – got another brush with Firestarter, with the director coming up with a typically ominous electronic score for Blumhouse’s film. (Daniel Davies is also credited with the film’s music.)

We can only imagine what a Firestarter adaptation directed by Carpenter in his 1980s pomp might have looked like. The score – all murmuring synths and marching rhythms – at least gives us an idea of how it could have sounded. Pretty good, as it turns out.

There’s a baby with its head on fire

Crivens. Credit: Blumhouse Productions.

From the beginning, Firestarter feels like a horror film made in the typical Blumhouse style. All of which means that the young family at its core – father Andy McGee (Zac Efron) mother Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) and daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) – live in a dimly-lit house with an eerily long hallway connecting all the rooms.

A Blumhouse movie also means we need a short, sharp shock in the opening minutes – hence a dream sequence in which Efron’s dad rescues his infant daughter from a burning crib, only for the wee bairn’s head to spontaneously catch fire. It’s a fitting portent to come, in that it’s so violently over the top that it’s more likely to evoke titters than gasps of horror.

Firestarter’s credits sequence then tells us that Andy and Vicky were once voluntary test subjects as students, with a drug called Lot-6 giving them psychic and telekinetic abilities.

Over a decade later, 11 year-old Charlie is displaying powers of her own: when she’s cornered or stressed, she has a tendency to make objects (or people) spontaneously catch fire. Fortunately, Charlie has a normal, stable family and goes to a school where the teachers are attentive and competent.

Oh, wait…

Charlie goes to a school where anarchy reigns

A teacher (left) being useless while a bully (right) chucks a ball at Charlie (centre). Credit: Blumhouse Productions.

Schools are often a crucible of torment in Stephen King’s work, and this is particularly true in Firestarter. The shy, quietly volatile Charlie’s nemesis is a spiteful little classmate named Gavin, who repeatedly calls her things like “goober” and “weird” – a situation made worse by Charlie’s teacher, Ms Gardner (Tina Jung) who actively ignores the bullying going on right in front of her. This all builds to a scene where Gavin lobs a ball at the back of Charlie’s head and screams, “Weirdo! Run away you freak!”

True to form, Miss Gardner sees this unfold and does absolutely nothing about it. Fortunately for Gavin, Charlie decides not to toast him on the spot and rushes off to destroy a toilet cubicle instead.

As it turns out, Charlie and her family are on the run from a shadowy cabal of government scientists (the Department of Scientific Intelligence) which means that, when the school calls the police over the bog-wrecking incident, the McGees are forced to go on the run.

In short: if Charlie’s school had a zero-tolerance approach to bullying, the events of Firestarter probably never would have happened. Not that the teachers are the only inept people here…

Zac Efron plays a spectacularly useless dad

Zac Efron: world’s greatest dad. Credit: Blumhouse Productions.

Do you remember that episode of The Simpsons where we learn that Marge is frightened of flying? In response, Homer says to Lisa: “The important thing is for your mother to repress what happened. Push it deep down inside her, so she’ll never annoy us again.”

Andy says pretty much the exact same thing to his wife about Charlie. “It’s too dangerous!” he says of his daughter’s growing powers. “She has to shove it down and keep it hidden!”

Charlie, understandably, is quite frightened about her ability to fry and boil things with her mind. Her father’s supportive response? A bellowed, “Tough luck, Charlie! This is who you are!”

This top bit of parenting leads us to:

Charlie sets her own mother on fire… then goes out for ice cream

These things happen, we guess. Credit: Blumhouse Productions.

We should pause here to point out that, as batty as Firestarter is, the acting isn’t at all bad. Efron and Lemmon do their best with the characters they’re given, and Ryan Kiera Armstrong is by turns sympathetic and creepy as the pyrokinetic kid at the film’s centre – certainly, the latter was by no means deserving of the downright cruel Razzie nomination she was lumbered with in 2022.

No, Firestarter’s real problem lies in its dialogue and plotting. Like that burning baby head mentioned earlier, Firestarter constantly goes for shocks but winds up overshooting and conjuring up something guffaw-inducing instead. As the bickering between Charlie and her parents described above grows in pitch, the girl inadvertently uses her powers to set her mother’s arms on fire.

In theory, it’s a moment that should be up there with Carrie and Scanners in the psychic horror stakes, but instead comes off more like something out of Mrs Doubtfire. Director Keith Thomas tries to up the stakes by showing some pretty gnarly glimpses of poor Vicky’s wounds (seriously, she needs a hospital), but these are undercut again by the baffling storytelling decision to have Andy take Charlie out for a bite of ice cream.

Fun fact: I once accidentally burned down the shed on my mum’s allotment when I was five years old. One thing I remember quite vividly is that I wasn’t offered ice cream afterwards.

Kurtwood Smith appears in his pyjamas

The great Kurtwood Smith in his jim-jams. Credit: Blumhouse Productions.

Years ago, producer Jason Blum once told me that his company’s films attracted such high-profile talent because they were often shot in LA, and their brief shoots meant that actors could get back to their families after a day’s filming.

Firestarter seems to take this approach a step further. RoboCop veteran Kurtwood Smith physically appears in just one scene as scientist Dr Wanless, and the fleeting role doesn’t require the veteran actor to stand up or even get changed. In fact, Smith seems so relaxed in his pyjamas that we almost wonder whether the sequence was shot in his own house.

Smith’s job, really, is to provide a bit of foreshadowing. The scientist who’s indirectly responsible for Charlie’s fiery powers (he created the Lot-6 serum), Dr Wanless warns that those abilities will only grow as she ages. “One day,” Wanless says, “she may be capable of creating a nuclear explosion simply with the force of her mind. Terminate her!”

Through no fault of Smith’s, it’s an awkward scene – part of it doesn’t even appear to be in focus, and tonally, it doesn’t really match the rest of the film. Those pyjamas do look comfy, though.

Charlie incinerates a cat

“What 11 year-old hasn’t burned a stray cat to death?” Credit: Blumhouse Productions.

Despite Dr Wanless’ warnings, shadowy science firm boss Captain Hollister (a glowering Gloria Reuben) wants to capture Charlie and somehow harness her powers. To this end, he despatches psychic assassin Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to find Charlie and her family. Already injured by her own daughter, the luckless Vicky is then murdered by Rainbird – a confrontation which forces Andy and Charlie to jump in their car and flee for their lives.

As Firestarter threatens to turn into a roadtrip horror movie, Charlie stops off for a scratchy encounter with a stray cat, which the girl promptly burns to a crisp.

Again, it’s a horror moment that tips over into unintentional comedy, partly due to the startling grimness of the whole thing, and partly because Andy – again earning his World’s Greatest Dad mug – then forces Charlie to put the horribly burned mog out of its misery.

“Good job!” he says encouragingly, as the girl tearfully finishes the poor cat off.

The pair then share a scene in which they bury and then pray over the cooked feline – which means the film spends more time mourning the dead cat than Charlie’s mother.

“Dear god,” Andy’s faltering prayer goes, “please let this cat be happy in… cat heaven. And, um… it’s like a big cat party up in heaven.”

“And bless mommy, too,” says Charlie.

“Yeah, bless mommy too,” nods Andy, as though he’d almost forgotten about his wife already.

Charlie plays with some chickens

Hours of fun, these chickens. Credit: Blumhouse Productions.

As Andy and Charlie try to stay one step ahead of Rainbird, they hitch a lift with a kindly local, Irv (the late John Beasley). “We’re very normal,” Andy says, a little too quickly, as he tries to convince the old chap to give them a lift to Boston. A hundred dollar bill and a bit of psychic manipulation later, and Irv agrees to give them a ride, only to decide a few minutes later that they should head back to his house for a quick sandwich.

It’s at Irv’s leafy farmhouse that we get the following, immortal exchange:

Charlie: Would it be okay if I played with your chickens?

Irv: [chuckles] Just watch out for the turds.

Andy: Try not to cook any of them!

That’s Andy, there, cheerfully poking fun at his own daughter’s inadvertent animal slaughter from a few minutes before.

The filmmakers decided to get rid of an exploding crow

At some point, even Firestarter’s makers seemed to realise that the film probably shouldn’t feature too much animal death. By the mid-point, we’ve already seen a frog stabbed with a scalpel (part of Charlie’s science class) and a cat burned to death next to a dumpster. Fortunately, Charlie took her father’s advice and avoided cooking any chickens – but a quick look at Firestarter’s trailer reveals that a crow wouldn’t have been so lucky.

In the promo you can see above, Charlie’s shown glaring at a crow sitting in a tree. The bird then spontaneously combusts in a shower of black feathers. The trailer also contains an admittance from Charlie that “I don’t wanna hurt anyone, but it feels kinda good”.

It’s likely that, at some point in post-production, Blumhouse realised that Charlie was beginning to look a bit too psychotic for her own good, and so the crow murder was quietly trimmed out. Caw blimey.

The ending diverges from the book in a quite baffling way

Wait… what? Credit: Blumhouse Productions.

After a confrontation at Irv’s farmhouse, Rainbird manages to incapacitate and capture Andy. Meanwhile, Charlie scampers off into the woods, where she most definitely doesn’t murder a crow for looking at her funny. The scene is therefore set for a final, fiery showdown between Charlie and the villains at their brutalist science facility – an action set-piece that feels consciously styled on the psychic battles in Stranger Things.

It’s here that Firestarter 2022 diverges quite majorly from the book; while Charlie goes on a rampage in both, the book ends on something of a positive note: she and Irv go to the press with the intention of exposing the evil scientists’ experiments to the world.

In the Blumhouse Firestarter, Charlie successfully burns down the science lab, Captain Hollister, an army of security staff, and even her own father. On a benighted beach outside, she’s met by Rainbird, who picks the kid up and trudges off with her in the darkness. This is the same Rainbird who killed Charlie’s mother only a day or so earlier.

It’s one final jaw-dropping narrative decision in a movie filled with them. Is it intended to leave things open for a sequel? Are Charlie and Rainbird friends now? If so, Firestarter’s failure to set the box office alight makes a follow-up unlikely – which is a pity, because we’d be quite fascinated to see what batty adventures Blumhouse would have taken Charlie off on next. Firestarter may be a lot of things, but as we’ve hopefully established, it’s seldom boring.

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