The King of Wilmington - Firestarter (1984) Drew Barrymore Goes Unmatched
Hello folks and welcome to the first review of 2011 here at The Lair. Some time back I made a call out into the void of Facebook asking what people would like to see from the Lair this year. I didn’t get a whole lot of response, but one of my readers, Greg, suggested a look at something very specific, Stephen King films from the ‘80’s and 90’s filmed in his hometown of Wilmington, N.C. Even though I am no huge Stephen King fan, I couldn’t let such a strange request go unanswered. So I took a trip through the old IMDB, checked out which films had been lensed at Wilmington's EUE Screen Gems Studio, the largest domestic movie and television production house outside of California. When it opened back in 1984, it wasn't under the auspices of EUE Screen Gems, but rather the more celebrated name De Laurentiis Entertainment Group Studios, and one of the first films produced in the area was the 1984 Stephen King film Firestarter. So with no further ado I give you the first entry in The King of Wilmington.
Back when Andy McGee (David Keith) and his future wife Vicky (Heather Locklear) were college students, they decided to make a few extra bucks volunteering for a clinical trial of a drug called Lot 6. While it made some of the other students go mad or claw their eyes out, it gave Andy the ability to control minds and Vicky the ability to read them. It should come as no surprise that the pairing of the two might result in something beyond their abilities. Their daughter Charlie (Drew Barrymore) has the power to set things on fire with her mind, and unchecked, perhaps even holds the destructive force of a nuclear bomb. This draws the attention of “The Shop”, a secret government agency determined to catch Charlie and use her as a weapon. After they kill Vicky, Andy and Charlie go on the run, but they are eventually captured by mercenary John Rainbird (George C. Scott) and taken to “The Shop”. Once there, they try everything to gain Charlie’s trust, but when they fail in the worst way possible, they will truly find out what power lies inside of a little girl.
Filmed in and around the Wilmington, NC area, including parts of Lake Lure and Chimney Rock National Park, Firestarter’s backdrop is very recognizable to anyone familiar with the lower Appalachian area of North Carolina. The bucolic scenery is in stark contrast to the action in the film. While surrounded by lush greenery and crystalline lakes, Charlie and her father are pursued by the exact inverse, an organization bent of weaponizing a little girl. While King’s telekinetic adventure is the stuff of science fiction, it is a fact that the United States government has in the past participated in secret testing both of substances such as LSD and in pursuit of latent paranormal abilities. King’s story uses these kinds of experiments as a jumping off point for spinning one of his favorite kinds of tales, one of a loss of innocence.
In the ‘80’s no one did innocent better than Drew Barrymore. Only two years earlier she had won America’s heart as little sister Gertie in E.T., and here she taps into the same kind of wide eyed wonderment though tinged with sorrow. Even from the beginning of the film, Barrymore’s Charlie is still very much a little girl, but after a year on the run with the guilt of her mother’s death hanging over her head, she is a little girl with a head full of troubles. These are only magnified tenfold as she comes under the sway of John Rainbird who masquerades as a janitor to gain her trust. Charlie had a tenuous grasp on her powers, how and when to use them, even though her father tries to teach her about the “little bad and the big bad”. Once her last tie to humanity is severed, there is no wonder she becomes a force of nature, and one has to wonder what “The Shop” thought would happen. Barrymore impresses here in a way I have seen very few child stars do exhibiting pathos beyond her years as the film’s emotional toll wears on her character.
If Barrymore is the innocent of Firestarter, then the devil must be George C. Scott’s John Rainbird. I assume Scott’s character was supposed to be of Native American decent, but if you ask me he must have been descended from Ol’ Scratch himself. Not only does his character attempt to use Charlie for his own ends, but he also has a plan to kill Charlie with his bare hands in order to prove his power in the next world. While Martin Sheen and Moses Gunn play characters whose evil has the cold impersonal nature of a Government functionary, Scott’s Rainbird is a mental case to say the least. As with so many of King’s stories, evil is not always one thing, and in this case, it wear several faces. Between the innocence of Barrymore and the evil of Scott lies David Keith’s performance as Andy McKee. He is a man who will do what it takes, at all costs, to defend his daughter, and in the end, it is his final words to his daughter that shapes the outcome of the film.
Firestarter was originally offered to director John Carpenter, but he was let go from the project before he even started due to poor reviews of his film The Thing. (It is now almost impossible to think about The Thing being poorly received.) In his place, the film was given to director Mark L. Lester whose previous credits include 1976’s Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw and 1982’s The Class of 1984. (In 1985 he filmed another unconventional father/daughter tale when he helmed Commando.) While Firestarter is no incredible piece of cinema, Lester provides the film with a well paced plot, an exciting climax, and a genuinely wonderful performance from his child star. All of this is enhanced by the film’s score by prog rockers Tangerine Dream who would famously score 1985’s Legend for Ridley Scott. Fans of Italian prog rockers like Goblin or the compositions of Fabio Frizzi should take note as Dream’s score is full of the moody atmospherics that make Italian soundtracks so popular.
I have to admit I’m not really a Stephen King affectionado. While I’ve read a few of his books over the years (I prefer Barker or better yet King’s son Joe Hill.) and seen a number of the films based on his works, they rarely leave me impressed. In this case Firestarter not only captured my imagination on film, it also lead me to run out to my local used book store and picked up a well loved copy of King’s novel. It also made me excited to see what more The King of Wilmington might have in store for me. I doubt I will find all of King’s films from the Tarheel state to be as good, but who knows. I mean for next week I have a film called Maximum Overdrive directed by Stephen King himself. That has got to be great, right?