Directed by Keith Thomas.
Starring Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Zac Efron, Michael Greyeyes.
Horror, US, 94 minutes, certificate 15.
Released in the UK in cinemas May 13th by Universal
John Carpenter supplies the soundtrack for this cinematic update of Stephen King’s 1980 novel. I mention this not just to report that it is a reliably excellent score but to remind readers that Carpenter himself was slated to direct the 1984 adaptation, but after the mystifying underperformance of THE THING at the box office Universal replaced him with the anonymous Mark Lester. For genre fans it is one of the great what ifs, one of a large list of unmade films that spark off thoughts of what could have been. Now with this updated version it is a prospect that makes you wish for it even more. Director Keith Thomas’ update, much like the previous version, fails to make the right impression and makes you wish Carpenter got to do more here than provide the soundtrack.
Clocking in at a brief yet lengthy feeling ninety-four minutes, FIRESTARTER tells the story of Charlie McGee, a young girl with pyrokinetic abilities. Her whole life has been spent on the run from DSI, a department that ran secret tests on her parents trying to mine their telekinetic abilities. Living under the radar and attempting to keep Charlie’s abilities in check, her telepathic father is forced to take her on the run after Charlie causes an incident at her new school. With the deadly assassin Rainbird in pursuit, Charlie is forced to face up to her deadly powers and get them under control.
The storyline from King’s novel has been cut down to its bare bones and then changed with often baffling results. Rainbird, whose motivations in the novel were creepy and complex has been changed almost completely here with a massive change that aligns him more with Charlie and her family. It is a change that fails to add anything new to the film and makes one wonder why it was included here. Michael Greyeyes tries his best with the role but the script lets him down badly as it does the rest of the cast. Saddled with the lead role, Ryan Kiera Armstrong fails to make her poorly written and cliched character convincing and Gloria Reuben as DSI agent Captain “Cap” Hollister has to spout embarrassing dialogue and keep a straight face simultaneously. As Charlie’s father Zac Efron comes off best here with a likable performance that manages to make a convincing fist of what he has been saddled with.
All of what transpires onscreen here and how poorly it has been handled is quite a surprise. With his previous film THE VIGIL, Keith Thomas made a very promising debut using limited means to make a menacing and atmospheric supernatural chiller. Here, aside from the promising credit sequence that display the horrific effects of the medical trial set up by “The Shop”, one of the most memorable aspects from the book, there is nothing at all to suggest that this is from the same director. Fans of King’s novel will also be sorely disappointed with the large number of changes and excisions that have been made to turn what should have been a blockbuster adaptation into nothing more than a knock off of HEROES with its bloodless action and direction.
Whether all this is due to the director’s own shortcomings or studio meddling is anyone’s guess. Its inexplicable sudden ending, especially to readers of the book, seems to have been settled on by everyone involved in the hopes of a possible sequel. It looks doubtful that another entry will happen. Maybe another remake in the next forty years will get it right but, in the meantime, at least we have a new John Carpenter soundtrack to keep us going and wonder at what we could have had.