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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

How ‘Firestarter’ Fails to Clear Even a Low Bar for Stephen King Adaptations [Revenge of the Remakes]

There’s a thin, blurry line between remake and adaptation. Keith Thomas’ Firestarter is both an adaptation of Stephen King‘s incendiary novel and a remake of Mark L. Lester‘s 1984 adaptation with the same name. Any crossover depends on how screenwriters take creative liberties with King’s source or how strictly each title follows the horror author’s literary blueprint. Some might argue adaptations don’t belong in the “remake” category, but tough noogies. “Revenge of the Remakes” is my column. In my opinion, modern filmmakers can’t ignore the nostalgia of original films should they adapt an already adapted source.

Then again, 2022’s was more of a “Firestopper” than “starter” in the way it came and went — eh? (Remember, you’re stuck here with me, it’s not the other way around). Thomas’ Jewish horror nightmare The Vigil was my favorite genre title of last year, and none of that suffocating brilliance is present in Blumhouse’s latest remake attempt. I’m surprised there’s enough to write about for the column, given how it’s so disappointingly bland and one-dimensional, but the remake aspect inspires a conversation within. One about taking horror titles out of their zany 80s element and giving them a dimly lit, straight-faced makeover that meets King’s more gonzo ideas with a fire extinguisher to make concepts Blumhouse marketable.

The Approach

Neither film will earn historical recognition as a classic, but Firestarter belongs in the 80s by current comparisons. Mark L. Lester and screenwriter Stanley Mann honor the more ludicrous supernatural elements of a telekinetic father and his pyrokinetic daughter. Government conspiracies run rampant, and the film wastes no time cutting to the chase (literally). There’s a mania to the entire production that only snowballs as Drew Barrymore plays a mature but pint-sized Charlie McGee. That’s without mentioning how practical effects turn the finale into an explosive circus act in splendidly outrageous ways. For better and worse, Lester and Mann meet Stephen King’s flammable family tale with a full tank of gas.

Thomas and screenwriter Scott Teems attempt something more streamlined, grimmer, and geared towards an effortless production experience. Zac Efron steps in as Andy McGee, who’s given telepathic powers years prior during a drug trial for some chemical solution called Lot-6. He lives quietly and humbly with his telekinetic wife, Vicky (Sydney Lemmon), and pyrokinetic daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). They’re trying to stay hidden from the Department of Scientific Intelligence (DSI), which fails when Charlie has a heated outburst at school. DSI’s Captain Jane Hollister (Gloria Reuben) hires superhuman assassin John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to terminate Charlie before her powers become too dangerous.

The most considerable differentiation hits from the start — Lester embraces 80s conspiracy chaos, whereas Thomas attempts a more dramatic build within family dynamics. Vicky is a “main” character, not a Heather Locklear flashback. One Firestarter hits the steamy-simmering ground running, while the other eases into any action suspense elements. Not a bankrupt decision by choice, but problems arise as we watch what should be a fascinating home life dynamic between powerful people fall flat like flames without oxygen. There’s a drastic change in scope that feels like Firestarter: The Family Drama because Thomas hides Lot-6 backstories and further DSI expansion in the credits (like sweeping exposition under the rug). Today’s Firestarter aims for modernization but boringly strips away so much of the paranoid 80s charms that at least feel soulful in their excessiveness.

Does It Work?

The pun chosen for my review title upon the film’s release was “Firestarter fizzles,” and that reaction has only cemented over time. The film’s justification for distancing itself from hackneyed 80s tropes and tendencies isn’t rewarded by anything superior. The distillation of Charlie’s journey is unspectacular by current horror standards, where everything’s taken deathly serious yet lacks even the slightest emotional connections between characters and audience. Scott Teems’ screenplay shifts dulled focus onto the McGees for a slower first act, underdevelops the DSI organization to the point where their motives are barely understood, and charts the least interesting route along Andy and Charlie’s much shorter journey.

The bar for Keith Thomas’ remake wasn’t remarkably high, but 2022’s Firestarter limbos under with impressive ease. Mark L. Lester understands what it takes to build a relationship between Charlie and Rainbird, as well as define “The Shop” (DSI) under Captain James Hollister (Martin Sheen). It’s never a straightforward catch-and-kill thriller; Stanley Mann writes a standout role for a wee Drew Barrymore to explore as a child with hazardous abilities trying to figure out who she can trust (Andy, Rainbird, Hollister). Teems doesn’t honor or acknowledge the character development happening in these moments — the same for a more compassionate yet inflammatory farmhouse pitstop with Irv (Art Carney) and Norma (Louise Fletcher) under Lester’s direction. What 1984’s Firestarter lacks in structural integrity is saved by characters we care about beyond serum gifts. Thomas’ redo does the opposite.

There’s intrigue left on the table by avoiding DSI outside of a too-short climax where Charlie starts spewing fireblasts. Worse off, all those altercations between Andy (David Keith) and Charlie versus The Shop in 1984’s versions disappear. Charlie’s confrontations with great responsibility and deathly consequences are a gradual lesson that spans enough time to ensure her defense attacks make sense. Teems turns Rainbird into the merciless hunter who snipes local law enforcement and becomes a stock footage antagonist that weakens any DSI threats and downplays excitement once generated by countless ties-and-sunglasses agents from The Shop’s beehive. The “less cast, smaller scale” approach is acceptable if your storytelling is tight — Teems’ screenplay is a mess and falls apart too soon to allow the bargain-bin Firestarter adaptation to burn bright.

The Result

Zac Efron Firestarter

Keith Thomas awed us with The Vigil — I can’t say the same for 2022’s lifeless, lightless Firestarter. Everything seems stripped for parts, and what we get is a delightful stumbling through scenes that take a batty Stephen King novel way too serious for its own good. Mock 80s movies all you want, but Mark L. Lester nails the finale of his Firestarter as Charlie lays waste to countless DSI guards, scientists, and complicit bystanders. Drew Barrymore scrunches her face and starts hurling fireballs that send golf carts rocketing into the air like blazing comets. Victims of her pyrokinesis flail around as stunt performers in safety suits scamper about lit ablaze, showcasing the golden era of practical effects. As cheesy and overplayed as some aspects can be, Lester’s Firestarter earns its guffaws over and over as Charlie is put through a gauntlet of facility tests and then scorches the earth with a memorably five-alarm payoff.

Thomas’ Firestarter is a homogenous chore of moodless performances and darkened cinematography with no distinctive pop. David Keith might draw laughs from some crowds as Andy goes full-on mentalist when rubbing his temples and sweating while using his powers. Still, Efron’s blank stare into his target’s eyes before some post-production blood drips from Andy’s peepers is infinitely worse. Every tactic Teems’ screenplay uses to differentiate is the worst possible choice and makes the maligned 80s original look like one of the best King adaptations in canon by comparison. Modernization isn’t the enemy here — it’s a lack of enthusiasm, broad strokes at originality, and an exceptionally scattershot script that may not be the script’s fault. 

I’d love to know if Firestarter found itself cut to bits in the editing room because many reveals seem like they should hold more meaning, but context is missing. Kurtwood Smith gets a single scene as Dr. Joseph Wanless — in charge of Andy and Vicky’s experiment — and he’s the only one who didn’t get the memo that Blumhouse’s remake wasn’t also an 80s product. Wanless fusses with piles of colored sugar while contemplating Lot-6’s unintended consequences, then Smith’s erratic character vanishes. Later in the film, Charlie encounters a DSI agent who removes his flame retardant helmet like he’s supposed to be familiar — no reaction, no memory. Scene after scene, characters contradict themselves like editors remember nothing from previous footage. All before an absolutely baffling ending where the man who ruthlessly eliminated Charlie’s mother becomes her protector, after Andy goes against his own words to mentally “push” his daughter into incinerating him and Hollister — like, what? Firestarter (1984) can be called “silly” and “cheesy,” but Firestarter (2022) earns its “forgettable” and “nonsense” descriptors with far more damning tones.

The Lesson

Friday the 13th Firestarter

Blumhouse’s vision for Firestarter — which Stephen King approved after multiple screenplay rounds — is what happens when “modernization” doesn’t respect its elders. There’s no soul at the core of Scott Teems’ narrative. It’s a cobbling together of these steely and less emotive parts that treat the 80s like this irredeemable era where movies were coke-driven, overblown disasters. Our new Firestarter gets back to basics but does so without an ounce of imagination or flicker of originality. Visual effects are distractingly lackluster and excitement much less frequent, which is enough to note how creatives involved learned all the wrong lessons from watching 1984’s Firestarter. At least there’s a synthy-slick John Carpenter soundtrack?

So what did we learn?

  • Modernization is a positive remake reason that can yield negative results when there’s a “better than” air about things.
  • Remakes can’t be worse than those that bring nothing new to the party and only subtract.
  • Firestarter (1984) feels at home in its decade; Firestarter (2022) tells us nothing about our current horror movement.
  • Good directors can make bad remakes.

This one hurts because you love to see an indie filmmaker strike gold and get immediate studio recognition. Keith Thomas came into this remake with so much momentum. The Vigil is astonishing, and I pray Thomas has many more opportunities to ascend that high once again. No jokes, no sarcasm. Film journalists are film lovers of the highest order (the ones with their hearts in the right place, at least), and while our writing will always stay true to our beliefs, there’s no worse feeling than seeing a project fail so spectacularly. I hope for the most glowing rebounds for everyone involved — now, let’s put this blemish behind us.

In Revenge of the Remakes, columnist Matt Donato takes us on a journey through the world of horror remakes. We all complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality whenever studios announce new remakes, reboots, and reimaginings, but the reality? Far more positive examples of refurbished classics and updated legacies exist than you’re willing to remember (or admit). The good, the bad, the unnecessary – Matt’s recounting them all.

The post How ‘Firestarter’ Fails to Clear Even a Low Bar for Stephen King Adaptations [Revenge of the Remakes] appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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