Pros: One supporting performance.
Cons: Everything else.
With about a buck-fifty spent on the screenplay and millions on the special effects, Firestarter, a botched adaptation of Stephen King’s frightening novel, blows cold a whole lot more than it does hot. With source material this riveting, how could the filmmakers have missed? In 1969, a group of ten college students agree to be tested on with an experimental hallucinogenic drug for money; unknown to them, a deeply-covert branch of the CIA known as The Shop is behind it. While one student winds up bloodily clawing his eyes out with others committing similar violent actions upon their person, two of them manage to live through the ordeal and soon thereafter marry, producing a daughter capable of telepathically setting anything and anyone on fire when angered. The Shop sends agents to kidnap both the daughter and father (himself capable of mentally making people do anything he wants against their will) to study for defense-departmental purposes; after the mother is killed, they find themselves on the run with very little in the way of resources to stay one step ahead of their constant pursuers.
A dark and disturbing read, the novel was; but the film is something else entirely -- a long-winded bore with lots of nondescript padding in between the action sequences. We should be held captivated by the goings-on and swept away by the supposed immediacy to it all, yet the writing is shoddy (the father wants to go public with their abilities to make them safe yet sends a letter to The New York Times rather than actually going there), the characters weakly drawn (with so little dimension, they come off as mere ciphers who we have absolutely no emotional stake in), and the direction not nearly agile enough to glide over the inconsistencies (there are more interesting camerabatics in a Sesame Street rerun). And the mangy look of the thing! Atrociously photographed by Giuseppe Ruzzolini with some scenes looking as if they’d been lit with fifty-watt bulbs, there’s no visual life on top of the zero-narrative that fails to tantalize with the potential of the title character maybe darkly developing a juicy thrill for the violence she's so capable of afflicting on whomever she sees fit.
Obviously, the main concern here was the pyrotechnic set pieces, and while oodles of stuntmen are listed in the credits, these egregious effects aren’t nearly well choreographed in the vein of De Palma’s The Fury and Cronenberg’s Scanners -- they’re overly-mechanical exercises minus the visceral intensity and ingenuity necessary to tantalize us in even the slightest manner. (Also in the party-pooper department is a rare boo-hiss music score by Tangerine Dream.) A famous director once said that the way to adapt a novel is to just take all the standout stuff out and work it from there, but the problem with this in the Horror genre is that most in the way of characters and drama end up getting jettisoned while the fantastical stuff stemming from them gets prioritized and thrown front and center, and as a result loses the organic clarity to give it substantiation. As for the talented cast that includes David Keith, Martin Sheen, Art Carney (who makes the only considerable impression), George C. Scott and Drew Barrymore as the title character, I hope their piggy banks got considerably fattened by participation in this ungainly mess worthy of the most scurrilous scorn -- not to mention several well-deserved Razzies as well.
An entry in the latest Lean 'N Mean writeoff: