“Liar, liar, pants on fire” sums up the 2022 Firestarter remake nicely.
As a young man growing up with ADHD, outsider characters in books, especially those with a secret power, appealed to me. I’d always thought of my condition as a superpower. It aided me, but it also hindered me. But in characters, especially the young kids created by Stephen King like Mark Petri and Danny Glick, I found kindred souls. After reading King’s Firestarter in 1980, I naturally bonded with its protagonist, Charlie McGee who flushed the toilet before – and after – she used it.
I didn’t care much for the film adaptation. It dumbed down King’s brilliant book, and took out much of the psychological fears Charlie had. The focus shifted to the Shop and the superficial plot points from the book. The end product couldn’t be saved. Not even with a stellar cast, including Drew Barrymore, David Keith, George C. Scott, Heather Locklear, Art Carney, and Martin Sheen. To this day, it remains a pariah in the eyes of King. And I hate to say it, when compared to the 2022 remake, it’s a masterpiece. We’ll talk more about that soon.
A little over a decade later I found myself bonding with another character in Leon, The Professional. Luc Besson’s simple person who excelled at being a hit man movie allured me. The tale of an enigmatic man with secrets helping a young, orphaned girl touched my heart. Featuring the debut of Natalie Portman as the orphaned girl, the movie highlights brilliant performances from Gary Oldman, Danny Aiello, and French action star, Jean Reno. For a time it was one of my favorite movies. I regret it isn’t anymore.
You see, my daughter became the victim of sexual abuse, and as a result, my wife and I entered counseling with her, to help us understand what had been done, and the psychological harm the grooming had done to her. This was my introduction to how abuse changes people, and knowledge of how abuse is carried out opens your eyes to horrors you’d never think you’d see.
Abusers have a methodical manner in which they brainwash their victims. Here’s a list I found on a google search, from safe child dot org:
Identifying and targeting the victim.
Gaining trust and access.
Playing a role in the child’s life.
Isolating the child.
Creating secrecy around the relationship.
Initiating sexual contact.
Controlling the relationship.
All of this made me look at many of the things I found to be entertaining, and two of those properties were Firestarter and The Professional.
I realized The Professional was filled with classic grooming manipulation, and it disgusted me. The entire film can be looked at as a metaphor for pedophilia, with firearms replacing sexual organs. Leon was groomed, by not only his mob boss, but by Mathilda, the girl he was trying to save.
You see, Mathilda, Portman’s character, came from an abusive home. Children in these situations learn grooming techniques, and excel at manipulation as a result. She manipulates Leon into teaching her how to be an assassin. She uses her sexuality to entice Leon, and eventually he succumbs to hubris. He may not physically act upon the desire, but it does send him to an early grave when he decides to quit the mob.
This also made me take another look at Stephen King’s source material for Firestarter. The book, which I now realized is, itself, a metaphor for child abuse, came back to life for me. Charlie is manipulated by everyone in her life, which includes her parents on the run and, of course, the nefarious black ops government agency, the Shop.
But it’s the insidious grooming by assassin Rainbird that really twists this narrative. Unlike Besson, who replaces sex with metaphoric gun fights, King utilizes murder as Rainbird’s ultimate goal. It’s no different than Besson’s film, except Charlie gets away and goes to The Rolling Stone in an attempt to stop the cycle. And Mathilda? Well, she carries on her abuser’s legacy.
Young star Ryan Kiera Armstrong is making quite a name for herself in the horror community. After playing a creepy kid in American Horror Story Double Feature, she has taken Drew Barrymore’s reigns with great gusto. She does her best Drew, and succeeds. It’s too bad the movie isn’t good.
The pacing is off, there’s absolutely no sense of urgency. The changes made to Rainbird and Cap are done with good intent, but fail. Why? Because, like the 1984 adaptation, the filmmakers ultimately forgot what the story was about.
Firestarter is not about a proto-super hero. It’s not about a girl that can start fires with her mind. As we’ve already discussed, Firestarter is about abuse and grooming – it’s horror isn’t in a girl who can set things on fire – the horror is in the things done to her. Our 2022 remake instead tries to be a superhero film, and even says so in the trailers. And it fails miserably.
And the changes made to the narrative? They leave me scratching my head. Outside of changing Cap into a black woman, we didn’t see much of the plot in those previews. I wish Gloria Reuben had more screen time in the final product.
And Rainbird? At least they didn’t cast an old white man as him, this time. Michael Greyeyes is fantastic as the assassin. But, by eliminating Rainbird’s time with her as the janitor, wherein he manipulates Charlie and brainwashes her with all the classic grooming techniques (see above), you lose what this story is a metaphor of. The 1984 film kept this portion of the narrative intact, but it over simplifies it. The changes made around his character in this 2022 edition, while at first seeming novel and even possible, end up becoming contrived by the film’s end.
Unlike the recent Pet Sematary disaster, which spoiled the film’s narrative change in trailers and ruined its impact on screen, Keith Thomas’s Firestarter kept its hand mostly hidden. His direction of the film is great, and I can’t fault him for the end product being so inane and banal. I can blame Scott Teem’s script. Like Stanley Mann’s 1984 adaptation, it falls flat and misses the point. But at least there was some chemistry between Drew and the rest of the cast in that film. A nuclear explosion couldn’t ignite any chemistry between Ryan Kiera Armstrong and either Sydney Lemmon’s Vicky or Zac Efron’s Andy McGee.
If I needed to pick the film’s strongest point, it would be the soundtrack. John Carpenter and his band (featuring Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies) knock it out of the park. Yeah, the music is better than what you see on screen, by far. But what would you expect from an icon like Carpenter than the very best?
Horror fans who already have Peacock’s premium plan, you’ll probably find Firestarter to be a satisfying, if not dull, movie to spend a night on, while chatting with friends on your phone. If you go to the theater expecting a bonfire, you’re going to be disappointed and pissed at the money you spent. I’m still angry I used Regal credits for our tickets. The “Liar, liar, pants on fire” line that should have been left on the cutting room floor, sums up the film’s marketing campaign nicely. They gave us hope but in the end that hope burned away. But hey, at least my wife liked her Dorito’s Nachos, so it wasn’t a total loss.