Color, 1984, 114 mins. 23 secs.
Directed by Mark L. Lester
Starring Drew Barrymore, George C. Scott, David Keith, Freddie Jones, Heather Locklear, Martin Sheen, Art Carney, Louise Fletcher
Plan B (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), NSM (Blu-ray & DVD) (Austria RB/R2 HD/PAL), King Records (Blu-ray & DVD) (Japan RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Universal, Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1)
Made at the height of Stephen King movie mania in the mid-1980s, Firestarter remains an odd entry from an era when it was wedged in with a rabid St. Bernard, a cat-fighting wall troll, killer trucks, and homicidal cornfield children. The 1980 source novel was King's sixth (under his own name) and continued his branching away from traditional horror, something he had been exploring with the apocalyptic The Stand and the episodic thriller The Dead Zone. In theory this might sound like a younger variation on Carrie, but in fact it's closer to science fiction with a heavy dose of hungover '70s paranoia thrown in, both of which would continue to recur in future King novels. The process of bringing it to the screen was a fairly swift one given the spike in King adaptations, with this one produced in North Carolina by the Wilmington-based Dino de Laurentiis Company (which brought back star Drew Barrymore for another King film, Cat's Eye, a year later). The end result didn't impress critics at the time and, in hardly a rare case, earned scorn from King himself, but it made a strong impression on young '80s viewers and proved to be enough of a cult classic to inspire a TV sequel years later as well as several parodies and imitations.
Heavily inspired by the stories of real-life government experiments and any number of rampant conspiracy theories, the story follows the impact of a test study in a drug called LOT-6 on two college students, Andy McGee (David) and Vicky (Locklear), who end up marrying and having a child, Charlie (Barrymore). As it turns out, the experimental drug has given all three of them extraordinary abilities with the parents able to read minds and Charlie able to set anything aflame. This setup is conveyed via flashbacks as Charlie and Andy are on the run, the latter conspicuous thanks to the nosebleeds he gets when he uses his telepathic powers. Agents from a shadowy department called The Shop are responsible for Vicky's death and eager to get their hands on the two survivors, with ruthless assassin John Rainbird (Scott) brought in to capture them -- but perhaps at a very great cost.
Originally intended by Universal as a project for John Carpenter before the box office failure of The Thing (with Carpenter instead hopping to Columbia to do another King film, Christine), Firestarter was handed over to director Mark L. Lester, a seasoned exploitation veteran with films like Truck Stop Women, Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, Roller Boogie, and the incredible Class of 1984 under his belt. That seemed to be enough to inspire confidence in handing over the reins here, kicking off a brief but glorious studio tenure that saw such action favorites as Commando and Showdown in Little Tokyo. He's an unexpected but interesting choice here, using very wide compositions courtesy of cinematographer Giuseppe Ruzzolini (Teorema, Short Night of Glass Dolls) and a terrific, pounding score by Tangerine Dream to give the film a slick, glossy atmosphere. He's less assured with the performances; Barrymore fares well as a sympathetic and powerful Charlie, while David Keith, Martin Sheen (as a stoic head honcho at The Shop) and (briefly) Locklear are mostly left at sea with roles that don't exactly play to their strengths. Then there's character actor Freddie Jones, who's just plain out there in a small but showy part that has him cranking the eccentricity up to the rafters, and an oddly cast George C. Scott who's compelling as always even though he's a far cry from the Cherokee Vietnam vet of the book (and a bit less pervy than his literary counterpart). Of course, the real draw here is the prospect of seeing Drew Barrymore torch the crap out of everything in sight, and the film absolutely delivers with a fireball-blasting climax that sends dummies, trucks, and men in fire suits catapulting through the air in flames all over the screen.
Not surprisingly, Firestarter has been a home video mainstay since the '80s including a DVD bow from Image Entertainment, a Blu-ray and DVD reissue from Universal, and a double feature DVD with Firestarter 2: Rekindled under the studio's icky, thankfully retired "The Franchise Collection" banner. Scream Factory gave the film its first bona fide special edition on U.S. Blu-ray in 2017, with a U.K. one following in 2018 from Plan B(a label from the same folks behind Signal One). Both releases feature a new 2K scan of the interpositive, which looks surprisingly gorgeous and easily blows away the earlier Universal Blu-ray; fine detail is very impressive with the frequent wide shots focusing on characters positioned at opposite ends of the frame relying more than ever on little touches in the production design around them. Those deep, inky blacks are beautiful to behold, too (with the Plan B just a notch darker), serving as a nice visual nod to the inspiration of '70s thrillers (which carries over to some narrative echoes of Three Days of the Condor as well). The film is given a very high bit rate on both editions, occupying 35.37 GB of space on the U.K. and 34.23 GB on the U.S. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 stereo track (with optional English SDH subtitles) is perfectly functional for a mid-level '80s mix, featuring some adequate channel separation and nice support for the score without giving your home sound system a very stressful workout.
Both Blu-rays sport an informative audio commentary with Lester (who's fun as always and chats quite a bit about adapting to his biggest project to date at the time) and new video extras kicking off with "Playing with Fire: The Making of Firestarter" featurette (52m40s) featuring interviews with Lester, Jones, Drew Snyder, stunt man/actor/onetime Michale Myers Dick Warlock, and Tangerine Dream's Johannes Schmoelling. There's also a separate, longer interview with Schmoelling (17m7s) about the brief but glorious run of Tangerine Dream scores (he came on just before Thief) as well as a live piano performance by him of "Charlie's Theme" (2m31s). A theatrical trailer (the 2.35:1 version) is also included along with a batch of radio spots (4m32s) and a still gallery. An alternate, dupey-looking 1.78:1 trailer (edited very differently and scored with the theme from Sorcerer) can also be seen on the Scream Factory release, while a third 1.78:1 trailer -- again, completely different from the others -- can be found on Trailer Trauma 3: '80s Horrorthon. The Plan B adds a substantial exclusive new extra in the form of a second audio commentary with "horror writer and anthologist" Johnny Mains, who analyzes (in a leisurely Scottish brogue) both the film and novel as a variation of King's recurring murderous but sympathetic youngsters, the drug experiments that ran through American pop culture throughout the past century, fears over CIA activity, real-life pyrokinesis, and the De Laurentiis cycle of King adaptations including this film's slightly bumpy road to completion. The Plan B release also comes housed in a thick, surprisingly luxurious slipsleeve containing a folded poster (featuring the theatrical key art design), a pack of art cards, and a 24-page insert booklet featuring "Twisted Firestarter: Bringing Charlie to Life," a very extensive liner notes essay by Dr. Charlie Oughton.
Plan B (Blu-ray)
Scream Factory (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on July 13, 2018.