Directed by Mark L. Lester and based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King, 1984's Firestarter was made at the height of Stephen King movie mania and also benefitted from the casting of a young actress who had just been crowned America's latest movie darling, Drew Barrymore (fresh off of E.T.). Throw in George C. Scott and Martin Sheen and put Lester, the man behind the masterpiece that is Class Of 1984, in the director's chair and you've got a sure fire hit, right? Right? Well… sort of. Firestarter isn't up there with the best cinematic adaptations of King's work but it's a pretty solid movie and one worth revisiting if you haven't seen it in a while. Shout! Factory's new Blu-ray release is absolutely the right way to do just that, but more on that in a few paragraphs.
When the movie begins, Andy McGee (David Keith) and his daughter Charlie (Barrymore) are fugitives, running from government officials employed by a super-secret agency known as ‘The Shop' led by Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen). Why? Well, Andy has the ability to manipulate peoples' thoughts through his supernatural abilities while Charlie is blessed/cursed with a power that sees her able to start fires whenever she pleases by starring and concentrating at whatever it is she deems burn-worthy. How did they get to be this way? Well, some time ago Andy and Vicky (Heather Locklear), the women who would be Charlie's mother, were test subjects in a super-secret government experiment where they were injected with an equally super-secret cocktail that wound up giving them these powers. When Charlie was born, she developed abilities of her own thanks to the effects of these experiments.
With Charlie's mom having passed on, Andy's flying solo and if he isn't likely to win father of the year, he is at least trying to keep his little girl away from the government agents he knows will do her harm. The government, you see, thinks that Charlie would make an excellent weapon. In order to get what they want, The Shop employs a man named John Rainbird (George C. Scott) to help put into place a kidnapping scheme, but Andy and Charlie aren't going to go down without a fight.
Featuring supporting efforts from the likes of Freddie Jones, Art Carney, Antonio Fargas, Louise Fletcher and Moses Gunn alongside the lead players, Firestarter definitely benefits from a strong cast. Sheen is great as the sneaky lead agent, he's got that air of pompous authority about him in this picture that serves his character well and he brings a stern persona to the part that works quite well. George C. Scott is impressively sleazy in his part, and without wanting to spoil things we'll let it suffice to say that he's unsettlingly believable in this villainous role. David Keith as the noble father only out to see that he and his kid get a shot at leading their own lives is fine too. There are a few moments where the script asks us to accept him in the part and we have to stretch a little to do so but all in all he's not bad. As to young Ms. Barrymore? It's interesting to see her in this picture, she's actually very good in the part. She clearly was an adorable kid and so we get this interesting cute/deadly dichotomy going on in the film that makes it interesting. Appearance are, after all, frequently deceiving. Aside from her looking ‘right' for the role, she's also able to handle the dramatic side of the story well enough too. Often times child actors can sink a horror picture (genre fans know this only all too well) but Barrymore cruises through all that's asked of her in Firestarter and not only that, she makes it look easy.
The movie also features pretty strong production values. The effects sequences are good for their time, the frequent use of complex pyrotechnics in the last half of the picture being the big stand out set pieces here. These are all done sans CGI and were clearly quite complex. On top of that, the film also features an interesting and delightfully quirky score from Tangerine Dream that helps to keep things sounding good. The movie does, however, suffer from some pacing problems (particularly in the middle stretch where the film feels a little too talky for its own good) and from some of its clichéd ideas feeling a little played out. However, if you dig your horror pictures with a good healthy dose of government conspiracy theories and appreciate solid effects work and impressive thesping, Firestarter proves to be well worth revisiting. It isn't the last word in cinematic terror by a long shot, but it's a solid thriller that proves to be quite entertaining.
Firestarter arrives on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 2.35.1 widescreen on a 50GB disc taken from a new 2k scan of the film's interpositive. There's not much to complain about here in terms of picture quality, this is a pleasing, film-like transfer. There's very good detail present throughout and the image is very clean, showing no serious print damage, just the odd speck here and there. Colors are handled really well, appearing quite natural throughout and those orange hues in the film's finale really popping nicely. Skin tones look good and the disc is well authored, meaning it is free of any obvious compression artifacts. The transfer is also, thankfully, devoid of any heavy noise reduction or edge enhancement problems.
The only audio option on the disc is an English language DTS-HD Mono track, with optional subtitles available in English only. While some might lament the absence of a surround mix, there's nothing wrong with the representation of the film's original mix on this disc. Clarity and balance are rock solid throughout, and we wind up with very clear dialogue and nice resonance for the film's score. There are no noticeable problems with any hiss or distortion to note. This mix sounds just fine.
Shout! Factory has done a really nice job here, in terms of the extra features, starting with an all new commentary track recorded with the film's director, Mark Lester. The track does suffer from a fair bit of dead air here and there but when Lester is engaged, he's interesting to listen to. He offers up some thoughts on what it was like adapting King's source material to the big screen, he talks about the different cast and crew members that were involved in the production and he shares some thoughts on handling some of the more effects-intensive sequences featured in the picture.
Up next is a new fifty-two minute documentary on the history of the film entitled The Making of Firestarter that is made up of new Interviews with Lester, cast members Freddie Jones, Drew Snyder, stuntman Dick Warlock and composer Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream. Lots of good stories here, covering everything from working on location in North Carolina to acting alongside the likes of Barrymore, Sheen and Scott as well as details on the score and on the effects work. There are some great behind the scenes photos used throughout here as well. Schmoelling also shows up in a separate seventeen minute piece called Tangerine Dream: Movie Music Memories. This covers not only his work on Firestarter but also some of the other scores that Tangerine Dream has been responsible for over the decades with some interesting details provided on the instruments that were used to compose them. Both of these featurettes are very well done and quite interesting.
Outside of that we get two trailers for the feature, a two and a half minute live performance of ‘Charlie's Theme' by Schmoelling, a still gallery, four and a half minutes of radio spots, menus and chapter selection. The Blu-ray case comes housed in a slick cardboard slipcover.
Firestarter starts off strong, stumbles a couple of times in the middle stretch and then finishes with a bang, resulting in an uneven but enjoyable and well-acted film that offers up some solid performances and impressive set pieces. Shout! Factory's Blu-ray release looks and sounds great and features a solid array of supplements as well. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.