Throughout the 2000s, horror fans were besieged by remakes that were neither wanted nor appreciated, including (but not limited to) those from 2003. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2005 Fog and The Amityville Horror2006 black christmas, The hills Have Eyes, The wicker man, the omen and When a stranger calls2008 prom night2009 Friday 13and and Step-fatherand the 2010s freddie. It was a dull era of substandard renovations that gave a modern, glossy sheen to works that had never required such treatment, and with rare exceptions (notably the two Halloween movies), it was all about cash that exploited familiar, easily marketable properties to a new generation of genre audiences hungry for something sinister and sick to enjoy with their friends on a Friday night.
When that trend died down, another emerged, led by stranger things and like-minded projects that pulled beloved gems from the 1970s and 80s for nostalgic homages. Whether these remix projects were any more original than the remakes that came before them remains up for debate, but it’s in that context that we now get Fire starter, a new Blumhouse-produced version of Stephen King’s 1980 novel about a young girl who can set things on fire with her mind. It was still one of the author’s earliest efforts, but it cemented itself into the public consciousness primarily via Mark L. Lester’s 1984 film adaptation, which starred a young Drew Barrymore, just emerged from its decisive role in AND the extra-terrestrial– as Charlie, a pyrokinetic child who struggles to come to terms with her unruly habit of setting off conflagrations. Not that he deserved to be remembered; despite an impressive cast rounded out by George C. Scott, Martin Sheen, Louise Fletcher, Art Carney, David Keith, and Heather Locklear, it was a lousy movie that lacked horror, suspense, personality, or intriguing thought in his infernal head.
All of which brings us to Keith Thomas’ 2022 iteration of King’s tale, an ill-conceived endeavor that straddles the line between the crummy redesigns of 20 years ago and the newer homages of the past decade. Premiering simultaneously in theaters and on Peacock today (May 13), Fire starter feels, from the start, almost completely DOA – a somewhat shocking turn of events given that former director Keith Thomas The Vigil was a restrained yet effective slice of religious horror. Thomas’ talent for menacing low-light action is once again evident in his latest. Yet the only mood evoked by this misfire is one of extreme torpor, and the only response it elicits is confusion as to why anyone, including headliner Zac Efron, thought that it was worth his time or energy in the first place.
In a generic house in a featureless town in an unidentified location, Andy (Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) live with their daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), who is anything but normal, as evidenced in a dream sequence. opening in which a little Charlie sets fire to her cradle, then to her own head! Andy wakes up from this shaken reverie and subsequently finds his daughter playing with a Zippo lighter in the dark of their kitchen. She talks about how “something feels weird about my body”, i.e. her ability to shoot flames out of her torso (aka “the bad thing”). Andy reminds her that when this uncontrollable feeling overwhelms her, she should calm down by focusing on everyday objects in her field of vision. Once Vicky appears, he offers to make them all pancakes, though because Efron can’t sell himself as a father (even with a superficial beard), this gesture of loving fatherhood proves ridiculously inauthentic.
A credit sequence of grainy VHS footage explains that, as college students, Andy and Vicky were part of a scientific trial involving a hallucinogenic chemical compound that granted them telepathic and telekinetic powers, which they then passed on to their girl fire starter. This storyline that LSD is bad was a by-product of the book’s specific era in 1980, and therefore sounds like totally out of place in a 2022 story. Nonetheless, Thomas and company dutifully stick to it, presenting it as the reason why this clan is hiding from The Shop, the underground organization responsible for their condition and eager to redeem them for further study of lab rats.
Charlie learns of this state of affairs when she explodes in a sizzling fashion at school (stimulated by bullies) and at home (injuring her mother), thus catching the attention of Captain Hollister of The Shop (Gloria Reuben), who seeks advice from his predecessor, Dr. Joseph Wanless (Kurtwood Smith) and hires another enhanced test subject – John Rainbird of Michael Greyeyes – to hunt Charlie. Soon, Andy and Charlie are on the run from the capture of the powers that be, the infamous dark of which is also a holdover from the 1970s. alley behind a building (where Charlie hilariously frys a cat) and at the residence of an elderly man (John Beasley) whom Andy mind controls to help their theft.
“This scenario that LSD is bad was a byproduct of the book’s specific time in 1980, and therefore sounds like totally out of place in a 2022 story.”
Say that nothing is happening in Fire starter is an understatement; rarely has a film gone through fewer narrative stages than this one, while simultaneously engaging in nothing but explanatory dialogue. Scott Teems’ script is so leaden and inert that Thomas and his actors are powerless to inject momentum or vitality into the proceedings. The few jerking stabs are pitifully ineffective; the death scenes are bloodless and unimaginative; and the fire effects are chintzy and disappointing. Pictures fly off the walls, Efron bleeds from the eyes (a consequence of using his ‘push’ powers) and Charlie eventually hones and controls his gift, but Teems’ storyline is a slow affair that eschews the running propulsion of King’s novel, which was its main (only?) asset.
Worse, Fire starter boasts a familiar-sounding synth score from horror legend John Carpenter that, when married to late shots of Charlie cycling through the suburbs on a bike in a hoodie, swings things into the territory of the regurgitation of a regurgitation, as if the film was now deliberately echoing stranger things‘impersonation Fire starter and its 1980s supernatural/sci-fi ilk. A closing shot that ends with Carpenter’s submarineHalloween the theme playing over the end credits of the red font brazenly tries to stroke that nostalgic sweet spot, but at this point in this aimless retread, the only thing one feels is relief that it’s over.