“Firestarter” is in fashion. It’s not just that the 1984 classic has been given the Blumhouse Productions remake treatment, in theaters and broadcast on Peacock, but the beloved ’80s ensemble “Stranger Things,” which seems heavily influenced by the Stephen King story, returns to Netflix this month. .
“Firestarter” was one of star Drew Barrymore’s first movies after “ET” and helped launch her career. Nominated for her first Golden Globe that year for her performance in “Irreconcilable Differences,” she was 7 years old at the time.
As a kid of the ’80s, I also strongly linked “Firestarter” with “Escape to Witch Mountain,” the 1975 movie where kids have powers, powerful men want them, and keep kids prisoner on rich estate. As in “Firestarter”, there are horses (classic manipulation tactic for psychic girls).
Does “Firestarter” hold up? It never really had much at first – Roger Ebert gave it two stars and most critics reacted similarly – but the film still looms large in the ’80s imagination. Like some kids, I bet I saw the movie on television in the afternoon when I was too young to have done it. It was remarkable at that moment to see a little girl, a girl my age, summoning strength, enduring brutal heat, murder people.
It taught me the power of children (good practice for when I became a parent). But “Firestarter” also reminds me of the helplessness of being young and the consequences of not being heard, of never being believed.
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Based on a 1980 King novel, 1984’s “Firestarter” is about a girl, Charlie (Barrymore), who develops pyrokinesis, the ability to create and control fire with her mind. Charlie has inherited her physical ability after her parents Vicky (Heather Locklear) and Andy (David Keith) participated in a paid science experiment as college students in which they were given a hallucinogenic solution known as LOT-6. . As a result of the experiment, Vicky developed the power to read minds while Andy gained the ability to control minds (though not without increasing pain and damage to self). Charlie can also see the future.
Those were years of dark and strange deaths, even on children’s shows, even of household appliances.
As you can imagine, the government is interested: specifically, a shadowy operation known as the Store. They want to weaponize young Charlie and get rid of her parents.
Charlie is a powerful character, and playing her was an emotional experience for the child actor. As an adult, Barrymore told ET Canada, “when you’re seven years old and you think you can blow people up with a ball of fire, he’s really empowering.” Not only does Charlie conjure up fire hot enough to cause a concrete wall to burst into flames, but the wind kicks up as he uses his powers, combing her feathered blonde hair back like a supermodel. This is an iconic image that “Stranger Things” paid homage to in one of its Season 2 posters.
“Stranger Things” is also reminiscent of “Firestarter” from big plot points (secret government operations in a small town, children inheriting psychic abilities after their parents participated in LSD-like experiments as youngsters, nosebleeds when Andy uses his powers) down to minor details (white vans, men in silver fire suits).
Like Eleven, Charlie barely breaks a sweat when conjuring flames, though hurting people causes him emotional torment. She is stuck in a confusing and ethically nebulous position; Her parents, especially her father, want her to control and take care of her fire, but they also want her to turn it against her enemies at any time.
In her daughter’s mind, she conflates accidentally burning her mother with her mother’s (unrelated) death, something I also linked as a child watching. Though tame for 2022 (I wonder what Blumhouse is going to do here), the original movie does have some grotesque moments, made all the more horrific by their confusing brevity, like Vicky’s death. Another example: the other participants in the experiment are not doing as well as Vicky and Andy, with one man apparently gouging out his eyes.
Those were years of dark and strange deaths, even on children’s shows, even of household appliances. The spinning clothes dryer in “Firestarter,” with gouts of blood all around it, and the folding ironing board took on larger-than-life, threatening qualities to me, as did the blender and microwave in “Gremlins.”
Throughout, her physical appearance is commented on as “a pretty little miss”.
Charlie can’t help but feel obsessively guilty about his mother. Coupled with her powers of fire and fortune-telling, she has a strong sense of moral justice, more highly developed than most of the adults around her. She burns a man by verbally abusing and firing his heavily pregnant girlfriend. As Andy says, her power “always goes to someone you don’t like.”
Charlie fits too. She is a born criminal because she is had be be. When she and Andy go on the run, fleeing the store, she lies easily. She doesn’t break her cover and gets mad at her father when she does.
But for all his professionalism, Charlie is still very young. His emotions change rapidly, something Barrymore does masterfully, changing from fine to petulant, from full of anger to sad. That’s being a little kid. The difference is that his crisis can kill people. And the way other people talk to her and treat her about his ability, even his parents, not only illustrates his power, but his impotence
Yes, she can conjure a fireball. But her father physically shakes her when she goes too far. She is manipulated into putting on displays for the Store. And throughout, she comments on her physical appearance as “a pretty young lady,” as the farmer says she stops by to help her and Andy.
Charlie may have powers. But she is also a girl, a girl at that. Probably the best example of the helplessness that comes with it is her relationship with John Rainbird: George C. Scott plays a native man who is a store killer disguised as an orderly who befriends Charlie. Phew. John poses as Charlie’s friend to get her to do what the Store wants. But the price of her is that he wants her after her, when the Shop is done with her, in part because, as he says, she is so young and beautiful.
It’s hard being a girl. Most of us can’t destroy creepy old folks with a ball of fire that shoots out of our brains.
It’s impossible to watch the original “Firestarter” without reading some darkness here, even beyond the killer’s obvious psychopathy. He wants to be the one to kill her. Does he want more than that? When John tries to shoot Charlie, she insists that she look him in the eye and he tells her that he loves her. (Insert gagging sounds from my son, a young horror fan, who I introduced “Firestarter” to in this replay.)
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It’s hard being a girl. Most of us can’t destroy creepy old folks with a ball of fire that shoots out of our brains. Good for Charlie. She uses what she has. And while she’s not a manipulator, as my son pointed out, she lies well but trusts the wrong people, she turns people’s belief in her gift (that she can control it, that it’s not that extreme) against her. . Underestimating any child, especially a girl, is a bad idea.
The new version of “Firestarter” is in theaters and airing on Peacock. Watch a trailer below, via YouTube.
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