How hot a commodity does Stephen King remain in Hollywood? Hot enough that there are at least two movies being released in 2022 based on books by King which have already been adapted for the screen. Horror fans will have to wait until September before sinking their teeth into filmmaker Gary Dauberman's new version of Salem's Lot, which was previously turned into a 1979 miniseries by Tobe Hooper, but they can now watch Blumhouse's Zac Efron-starring Firestarter, based on the same novel that inspired the 1984 movie with a young Drew Barrymore. Our the burning question: which Firestarter is most worth firing up?
Ken Woroner/Universal; Everett Collection Firestarter (2022) and Firestarter (1984)
The 1984 film stars Barrymore as Charlie McGee, a young girl with pyrokinetic powers who is fleeing from a sinister government organization called "The Shop" with her father Andy, played by David Keith. Andy has been training Charlie to use her powers properly by getting her to turn bread into toast with her mind but it is the unfortunate Shop agents who get browned as Barrymore's character periodically sets them ablaze. The supporting cast is notable for a few reasons. Oscar-winners Art Carney and Louise Fletcher play a couple who befriend Charlie and Andy, while Martin Sheen portrays the head of the Shop just a year after his performance in David Cronenberg's adaptation of King's The Dead Zone. Finally, another Academy Award-winner, George C. Scott, is inexplicably cast as the seemingly First Nation assassin John Rainbird, who has a fondness for punching his targets' noses into their brains and an unhealthy interest in our heroine.
The earliest adaptations of King's work were directed by some of the era's most notable auteurs with Brian De Palma turning Carrie into the 1976 horror classic and Stanley Kubrick transforming The Shining into the unforgettable (if disliked-by-the-author) 1980 movie. Many of the King movies from the '80s were financed by the parsimonious Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis who employed less-feted directors to oversee 1985's Cat's Eye and 1985's Silver Bullet, before backing a then-addicted-to-cocaine King to make 1986's box office dud Maximum Overdrive.
Everett Collection Firestarter (1984)
De Laurentiis' company also produced Firestarter, which was originally to be directed by John Carpenter, before a slashing of the budget caused the Halloween filmmaker to depart the project and set his sights on adapting another King novel, Christine. Instead, Firestarter was made by Mark L. Lester, who had brought the world the 1979 disco film Roller Boogie and would go on to direct 1985's Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring Commando. Lester capably delivers the sight of stuntmen wandering around on fire but allows the film to sag badly once Charlie and Andy are captured and taken to the Shop's headquarters, a mansion whose tony nature is as inexplicable as Scott playing a Native American. The director is little helped by Barrymore, whose E.T.-era button-cuteness ill-serves this particular project. While Sheen and Scott portray the film's villains, Charlie is still the movie's monster, the character capable of committing mass murder with her mind. Alas, even when Barrymore's character is turning her tormentors into crispy critters, the young actress exudes all the threat of someone trying to decide between ice cream flavors.
The new Firestarter is a leaner and, in a good way, meaner affair, which is less faithful to the source material while also hitting the book's essential beats. This time, Charlie is played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Zac Efron portrays Andy, Gloria Reuben effectively takes the Martin Sheen role, and, mercifully, Indigenous-Canadian actor Michael Greyeyes is Rainbird, who in this iteration, also has telekinetic powers. Meanwhile, the always-welcome Kurtwood Smith pops up as a regretful scientist whose experiments on Charlie's parents turned her into an outsized Zippo lighter.
Ken Woroner/Universal Pictures Zac Efron and Ryan Kiera Armstrong in 'Firestarter'
The film is directed by Keith Thomas from a script by Halloween Kills co-writer Scott Teems and boasts a soundtrack by John Carpenter, finally getting into the Firestarter business almost four decades on. Thomas came to the attention of Blumhouse via his 2019 ghost tale The Vigil, which is a much more atmospheric and scary film than this. Still, the director keeps matters moving along at a clip and successfully frames Charlie as a character of real, possibly apocalyptic, threat. In this, he is assisted by Armstrong, who manages to add a whiff of genuine danger to her performance.
If Thomas' Firestarter never really exploits the body-horror potential of a power that allows its wielder to literally boil the blood of their victims, the film does also have moments of genuine unpleasantness absent from the original. It is not to spoil much to say that, combined with director Eskil Vogt's also just-released The Innocents, this is the worst week ever to be a cat in a film about kids with telekinetic powers.
While the first Firestarter offers a beguiling fix of nostalgia, the new one is the version most likely to spark with horror fans in 2022. Hopefully, things will get truly twisted when someone inevitably lights the fuse on a third adaptation.
The new Firestarter is available to watch in theaters and on Peacock. Watch the trailers for both films below.
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