Firestarter

Someone’s taking their Elektra complex too far
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1983
Director: 
Mark L. Lester
Starring: 
David Keith, Drew Barrymore, Martin Sheen, George C. Scott, Heather Locklear
The Setup: 
Girl has the ability to start fires using her mind. Government wants her as, what else, a weapon.
Discussion: 

I can’t piece together why I suddenly was really hot to see this, but I was, and I’m glad I did, as this is a bewitching mixture of total cheesy crap and somewhat cool story, and that can make for quite an entertaining time! We open with this startilingly inappropriate music by Tangerine Dream [Tangerine Dream—Ha! Ha!] that seems to have been lost from some undercover cop drama about the seedy underbelly of Miami or whatever. The rest of the music is not so bad, but starting in this way leaves one with the impression that the entire score is fatally off. Then we have Drew Barrymore [I haven’t seen her this young in quite a while, and it was a bit of a shock] and her somewhat hot Daddy running from some agents or whatever. They get in a cab that is driven by Antonio Fargas of Foxy Brown, and Daddy starts having flashbacks.

It would seem that Dad was part of this experiment in which a bunch of people were given small amounts of a hallucinogen. Dad is on a bed right next to a hot, dewy, young Heather Locklear, and the drug makes them both Horrrrrr-neeeee. Some other folks, as we see from a short scene in which a guy is bleeding from the eyes, did not react quite so well. Anyway, soon Dad and Heather are married and give birth to Drew, who is named Charlie. They notice early on that Drew can heat things with her mind [but she supposedly can’t control it], and apparently one day Drew got mad at Mommy. Drew says “I made Mommy scream!” and it’s hard not to imagine the charred corpse of Heather Locklear laying on the kitchen floor. We don’t see that, but we do see a little mini-version in which Drew sets Heather’s baking mitts on fire. Dan screams at her “Don’t do that ! It’s a bad thing!” which is probably what gave Drew the deep psychological complex she seems to suffer under, in which she keeps saying “I did a really bad thing” and her Dad tries to tell her she didn’t. I found this whole guilt complex thing really interesting, though it kind of disappears after the first hour.

But… you know how, according to Freud, boys have the Oedipus complex, wherein they want to murder their father and gain the love of their mother? Well, the counterpart in girls is the Elektra complex, and that’s what has happened here: Drew killed her Mommy and now she has Daddy all to herself. Which one thinks about as it becomes more and more impossible to ignore the creepy molestation vibe that keeps creeping in when you’re seeing Drew be chloroformed unconscious, or when her Dad says “You’re all I’ve got in this world, and I’m happy about that, because I’m crazy about you,” and she responds “I’m crazy about you too, Daddy.”

Anyway, at one point Drew sees an Army guy who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant and now is dumping her. Now, you might not think that an eight-year-old girl could understand all of what was happening there, but apparently Drew is quite precocious, because she gets pissed and sets the guy on fire. This is the first time we see that her using her powers apparently has the side effect of blowing gentle winds on her, because her hair flies out in a somewhat ludicrous fashion every time she uses them.

But her Dad has powers, too. He can move things, but mostly he wields the power of suggestion. One of my favorite moments is when he blinds two people! He just says “You’re blind,” and next thing you know they’re crawling around on the ground going “Argh! I can’t see! I’m blind! Help! I can’t see! Help! I'm Blind! ” The entire script is actually amusingly declarative in that way, with some guy at the beginning saying things like “They got away! Quick, let’s get back to the car and chase them down!”

So Drew and Daddy get a ride from this trucker who, luckily, is already prone to believing in secret police, government experiments, conspiracies, and the like. He takes them home to his wife, Louise Fletcher of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Brainstorm, and Exorcist II: The Heretic. The government agents soon show up, and Daddy encourages Drew to use her powers, for the first time, to kill on purpose. It’s kind of awesome to see her just blow all these people away [though I don’t think we necessarily needed to see every single individual car explode]. After this she feels really, really bad and promises never to use her powers again. The old grandpa got injured during this fight, and Louise, in the language of the bluntly straightforward script, says “Take the Jeep and get away! Just get away!” So they go out riding to Maine or somewhere that looks like it.

SPOILERS > > >
Anyway, the forces of evil are gathering in the form of Martin Sheen, who sports a rather tall bouf as some government guy, and George C. Scott [GCS] as this kind of bounty hunter with a considerable beer belly, a leather jacket, and a ponytail. He sort of reminded me of Richard Marcinko. The two of them are warned that Drew in fact could constitute a nuclear weapon, once she grows up and her powers are really mature. GCS will capture her and her dad, so long as he gets to keep little Drew afterward, “for disposal.” What are you going to do with her? Martin sensibly asks. “She’s very beautiful,” GCS says. “She’s very young. Yet inside her is the power of the Gods. We’re going to be close, she and I. Oh yes, very close.” YOU SEE WHAT I MEAN ABOUT THE MOLESTATION VIBE?!?!?

Anyway, Drew and Daddy are shot with tranquilizers in a scene that is actually pretty scary and creepy, and they are taken to “The Shop,” where the experiments take place. There the Dad is taken to one chamber where he is kept hopped up on drugs, while Drew is placed in a nicely-furnished room with no windows and one heavily-locked door. Barrymore and Sheen share a good scene as he tries to befriend her [“I’ve begun to think of you as my own daughter”] and she ain’t havin’ it. Then GCS comes in, pretending to be a janitor, but really just to get closer to her and earn her trust. These scenes never quite gel, as we know that she could incinerate any of them any time she feels like it. And the only thing keeping her from it is a poorly-drawn guilt complex. But anyway, soon GCS PUTS HIS HAND ON HER KNEE, and Drew, in the uncomfortably worldly way she has in this movie, pushes it off, seemingly perfectly aware that he has made a sexual advance. Again, as with the scene where the soldier got his girlfriend pregnant, there’s the question of: “Why does an eight-year-old understand all this?” Later GCS [his character is named Rainbird, by the way] puts Drew to bed, and it’s clear he is trying to replace her Dad.

Anyway, Sheen and GCS make Drew perform a lot of experiments, leading Sheen to have a really long freak-out scene as he is amazed at her talents. Then she’s reunited with her Dad, and they’re both somehow lured into a barn, where GCS is going to kill Daddy for once and all. Now, does it seem like a good idea to lure a girl who can start fires with her mind into a wooden barn that’s full of all sorts of combustible hay? I’m just saying. There is one clever element where GCS has filled the barn with horses, knowing that the little girl would never kill all the horses. Anyway, her dad gets shot, and he DIES! That was a surprise. Then Drew gets really pissed and destroys everything in sight. At this point she has somehow magically become bulletproof, and can also shoot flaming bowling balls at things such as models of helicopters or houses. Anyway, she destroys this whole neighborhood in the kind of detail we’ve become accustomed to.

Then she goes and finds the grandpa who helped them earlier, and he takes her to the door of the New York Times, where she’s going to tell her story and blow the lid off this whole thing. The last thing she says is to look at the grandpa and say “I’m doing it, Daddy. I love you.” One has to piece together that she is probably spiritually talking to her father, though the impression it gives is that she’s wholly forgotten her father and is now calling the grandpa guy “Daddy.”
< < < SPOILERS END

This movie is loaded with flaws, to be sure, but I liked it anyway. This director, Mark L. Lester, is also the director of Roller Boogie, Commando, and the appealingly-titled Gold of the Amazon Women and Truck Stop Women. The story is just kind of cool; Drew is like a little X-Man, and the whole concept of people with powers and everything is always fun. I also like the concept of a girl’s uncontrollable rage causing this fire, and how she has trouble controlling it, and also doesn’t know the full range of her powers. In many ways, it’s like Carrie; her anger unleashes powers that she doesn’t know how to control and doesn’t know the extent of. And then her Dad being able to move things and blind people and stuff… it’s all just pretty cool.

Part of the problem [aside from the poor script and shoddy direction] is that there’s very little real drama. Like I said, we know that Drew could char any of these people in a second, so the only drama that could exist is that arising from her internal struggle with guilt, and whether or not she will allow herself to let her powers out. And, as I also said, that aspect of the story is bungled. One, Drew is a fine actress for a child, but she’s not good enough at that age to convey this deep internal struggle, and the script just doesn’t take the time in the second half to develop it. So the whole thing is inherently undramatic. You’re just waiting for her to get pissed and cut loose. All that said, this thing is ripe for a remake, so long as they took it seriously and were prepared to put all the requisite psychology in.

Should you watch it: 

Yeah, why not?