Flame of Fire (2022) – cult horror movies

Firestarter (2022)
Directed by: Keith Thomas
Written by: Scott Thames
Starring: Gloria Rubin, Michael Gray, Ryan Keira Armstrong, Sidney Lemon, Zac Efron

fire starter
Directed by Keith Thomas

Charlie is a fire starter – a quirky fire prankster – and has been since birth. Whenever she gets nervous or upset, a flame soon follows her – so you can imagine her parents fearing that she’s reaching puberty. The pre-credit sequence, followed by one of those gallery-packed montages where we zoom in on notes written with words like “telekinesis” and “experimental,” tells us they have powers, too. Andy can get inside people’s heads and “push” them – think of the Jedi mind trick – and Vicki can move things around with her mind. In their wake is the Department of Scientific Intelligence, also known as The Shop: a secret government agency that made mother and father this way as part of a series of experimental drug trials. As such, the family should fall asleep and do everything they can to get their baby down before it burns the world down.

No, this is not the most original assumption. Although, to be fair, when King wrote the source material in 1980, the mysterious organization and magical kid plot wouldn’t feel pedestrian. There will never be another story about a female character who masters her superpowers by learning to control her emotions. However, in the days of Stranger Things, X-Men, and the Marvel cinematic universe, you’ve likely seen it before in several other forms. Heck, this new talk is playing superheroes. Of course, there’s also the 1984 movie – which I haven’t seen yet. So ever since the idea, Firestarter has been fighting an uphill battle for relevance. Not that it should be a problem: a lot of other films have shown us that originality isn’t as important as a decent, well-told story. However, there are major issues with how this is written. Most importantly, except for Charlie herself, no one feels like a character in her own right. Instead, they serve as a supporting educational role in a shallow moral story.

For example, it’s nice that Andy and Vicki have different philosophies about how to raise their daughter, and that’s a good source of stress. However, we get very little insight into their relationship, or even parenting when they aren’t debating how best to help her. King’s strength as a writer has always put ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, but in this flick the characters can’t be linked, and the situation isn’t particularly interesting. Zac Efron, now old enough to reliably play the role of a father, albeit not without a father, is trying very hard but doesn’t have much to work with. Same with Gloria Robin as the main villain, Captain Hollister. However, Michael Gray is perhaps the worst serving member of the cast, as is the Rainbird: a rentable Native American weapon that was also part of the experiments. As an antagonist, he’s very kind — in understandably removing now problematic elements from the book, screenwriter Scott Tims (Halloween Kills) left almost nothing. The belated attempt to give him an emotional arc is laughable and means a load of content has been cut short to make it just over 90 minutes long.

Other issues come from the same source material. While this is a relatively loose retelling of King’s book (I can’t comment on the 1984 movie), it still has most of the same story. Like that, we’re building to an opposite climax as open roads give way to nondescript passages in an ugly building and close fights. Unfortunately, the action scenes don’t quite amount to much either – we don’t have the equivalent of a curry party. Instead, it’s wet, clumsy and looks like it’s done on a TV movie budget. Not that the last part should be a problem. Likely-themed Freaks, which has been among my favorite films of the past five years, has worked around its obvious financial limitations by approaching characters first and carefully building the world. Hence, while the few set pieces were simple, they were also as tense as everyone else. But by contrast, there isn’t enough drama or depth for Firestarter to make it function as anything other than an action-driven superhero origin story. And with so many others, she can’t compete.

None of this was surprising. King isn’t just a horror guy – he’s written great dramas, and as anyone who’s read his great works The Dark Tower can tell, his science fiction can be pretty cool. However, he often has a great script and then fails to do much with it. For most of its regular readers, which I include myself in, Firestarter is a mid-level book. It doesn’t come down to much – especially to his high standards, although it’s far from his worst (in my opinion it’s probably Cell, which also sucked on the big screen). It only makes sense that the movie would be on roughly the same level. Honestly, if anyone called it their favorite movie version of King’s story, I’d assume they haven’t seen much else. But it’s nowhere near as poor as things like The Mangler, Dreamcatcher, or Maximum Overdrive. The early parts about the family staying hidden and the weirdness of being a little girl growing up without the internet are intriguing (it will appeal to the feds). However, after racing through them, we were left with an acceptable but unremarkable offer.

evaluation: ★★☆☆☆

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