Charlie McGee (Drew Barrymore) has a special gift: she can light fires by sheer force of will. Although she has the face of an angel, she wreaks incendiary havoc simply by making two fat little fists. In Firestarter, Charlie (short for Charlene) and her father, Andy (David Keith), flee a specialized government intelligence agency called The Shop, which would like to tap into the little girl’s power. That power is the strange fruit of an insidious drug, called Lot 6, which The Shop’s Dr. Wanless (Freddie Jones) administered to her parents when they were college students. Of 10 guinea pigs, Andy and Vicky (Heather Locklear) were the only survivors. Now Dr. Wanless theorizes that Charlie’s ability, which resides in her pituitary gland, may set off nuclear explosions after she reaches puberty.
Firestarter begins rather clumsily by setting up the story through a series of flashbacks interspersed with scenes of Andy and Charlie’s flight. But it soon turns into swift and moving entertainment. Adapted from the Stephen King novel, the theme is King’s most familiar: the sanctity of the family and the horror of its dissolution. The Shop murders Vicky, and when its henchmen capture Charlie and Andy the separation of parent and child is more painful to the viewer than the sight of Charlie’s setting aflame any anonymous agent. Even
more terrifying is the trust Charlie places in an “exterminator,” John Rainbird (George C. Scott), who masquerades as a likable cleaning man at The Shop to win her confidence. Betrayal by adults is one of the most profound traumas of childhood, and that theme gives Firestarter the power to send shivers up the spine. During the apocalyptic ending, as Charlie hurls fireballs at her tormentors and razes The Shop, her revenge has a righteous fury.
Despite the film’s fractured opening, director Mark Lester builds the story’s momentum surely and smoothly. He also overcomes a technical flaw: the movie was shot for a wide-screen format, which sometimes flattens the images and undermines the intimacy of certain scenes. Firestarter1 s success lies in the believable bond that Keith and Barrymore create as father and daughter. Barrymore is especially winning: she is plangent without being sickly sweet and feisty without resorting to overacting. As Rainbird, the Indian assassin with a disfigured eye and a long grey ponytail, Scott makes a frightening villain. He has a private spiritual obsession with Charlie’s gift; his colleagues at The Shop call him crazy, and the gleam in Scott’s eye certainly does not disprove them. Rainbird is an outsized character, but Scott makes his mystical babble believable. And Firestarter is a tall tale, but the moviemakers tell it with fiery flair.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.