Friday, June 23, 2017


I'm not telling anyone anything new when I say that the field of Stephen King film adaptations is littered with landmines. Each step taken is a risky one and if you keep going you are going to be injured - badly. For decades now long into the night intoxicant-inspired conversations have taken place arguing which King adaptations are actually worth a damn and which ones are so bad they're unwatchable. Even films some consider classics (THE SHINING, CARRIE, THE DEAD ZONE) have their detractors and some of the ones generally thought of as crap are sometimes hailed as underappreciated works of genius (THINNER, DREAMCATCHER, SLEEPWALKERS). I'm tempted to find a way to fund a study that correlates the age of the first time viewer with the estimated quality of King adaptations but barring that unlikely money sinkhole there seems no good test for  judging where someone will fall on any particular film.

Personally I think most of the worst versions of King stories have been made for the small screen. Even the best of them neuter the material, excising the elements that give his tales their visceral kick, blanding them down to dull, middle of the road tales of clichéd horror. I haven't seen any of the new crop of work being done for streaming services (11.22.63, CASTLE ROCK) so maybe that is the visual medium that will allow his often lengthy stories to perfectly blossom.

I was a teenager when I read King's book FIRESTARTER and also when I saw it's film adaptation in 1984. At the time I knew the film was not very good but I kind of got a thrill from seeing the novel transformed into a two hour Cliff Notes report. It was instructive to a young me, showing how something could strive to be pretty faithful to it's source material but still feel artificial and plastic. Coming out the same year as the miserably awful CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984) it showed me that some King stories might be best left on the page.

I've never considered Firestarter to be a particularly good book and the film did nothing for me so I never returned to rewatch it even when endless cable reruns were available. The only memories that had stuck with me from over thirty years ago were of George C. Scott being pretty creepy and Drew Barrymore's hair flying around whenever she used her pyrokinetic powers. These were not the kind of memories to inspire a return visit. So, what did make me watch FIRESTARTER (1984) again after all these years? A Blu-Ray release, of course.

The first thing I should say is that the film actually makes an attempt to do well by it's source material. It works hard to cram several hundred pages of prose into roughly two hours. What it can't do is make this story into something that feels all that interesting and that is bizarre. The broad outline of the story is incredible and should have made for a hell of a tale but it just never catches fire. (See what I did there?) Instead the film jumps around introducing it's huge cast of vaguely defined characters and then blowing things up without ever really giving us much to hang onto. The film uses broad, often caricatured types to shorthand things so it can get onto the business of racing through the many stages of the story. The only injections of shading for the characters come from the casting of some very good performers in key villainous roles.

George C. Scott is great here giving his role a lot of deadly menace. Introduced as a straightforward CIA bad guy killer he inserts himself into the super powered child's life so that he can take her life after becoming her friend. That is one sick idea and is worthy of a film on it's own but having it in this story kind of throws off things. It's clear that head villain Martin Sheen has no desire to kill his amazing potential super weapon so why he tolerates Scott's killer to be anywhere near Barrymore is a mystery that makes the final act of the film silly. But it is a pleasure to watch the scenes with these two actors making their plans and carefully sparing. It's also a joy to watch the great British character actor Freddie Jones in his one scene with them as they argue over the correct course of action. As an actor Jones almost always seems on the brink of losing his mind so these three together make for very entertaining viewing. And, to be clear, these men are giving this film their full attention and turning in very good work but it's all in service of a story that just isn't very good.

The same can be said for the great Art Carney as a do-gooder farmer that helps out Barrymore and her father in the first half of the movie. He turns in a solid, nuanced performance that is much more than the material deserves. Sadly, the same cannot be said of Louise Fletcher as his character's wife. Her line deliveries are embarrassingly flat sounding like an actor that thought she was going to get either another take or at least a close-up to emphasize her part. She is simply terrible here and isn't helped at all by her director.

One of the film's biggest failings is the choice to very rarely cut into the dialog scenes with any close-ups to give the actors some help getting across the emotions of the characters. About thirty minutes into the film I began to notice how almost all of the film is composed of master shots of multiple actors who should be given some individual insert shots but are not. This has the effect of not only dampening the effectiveness of several performances and distancing us from the emotions onscreen but it also makes big sections of the film pretty dull. Composing your film primarily of master shots gives the feeling of watching a filmed play and destroys any dynamic energy you might be able to coax from your actors. This is supposed to be a science fiction horror movie! We need to have a sense of heightened passion, deep rage, outbursts of intense power that frightens us but most of the time we are simply distant observers of events of little consequence. This poor choice is the mistake that damns FIRESTARTER to second rate status on the list of Stephen King adaptations. For all the explosions, stunts and star power on display the film just isn't very interesting and there is no excuse for it. The word boring should never be used to describe a horror film. 

No comments: