Director: Keith Thomas (USA). Year of Release: 2022
A baby’s bedroom. A mobile is circling gently above the baby’s head. The parents silently withdraw and go to bed – one of them is Zac Efron in a hipster beard and haircut. The baby starts to get agitated. Gradually, the mobile bursts into flames. Zac rushes in to see the whole room starting to burn down. He doesn’t look very surprized. This is an old problem which is revisiting him.
Zac and his wife have different ideas about how baby Charlie should control her inherited “powers” of firestarting and telekinesis. She thinks that Charlie shouldn’t repress her creativity. Zac is now working as a Personal Life Coach and using his powers to help people stop smoking. It helps him earn a living, but each time he stares into their eyes, it makes his eyes bleed. Zac believes that Charlie’s powers should be repressed so that she is able to lead a normal life.
Not that her life is that normal at the moment. As Charlie grows up and goes to school, all her colleagues (she has no schoolfriends) call her “freak” and “weirdo”, in part because she has no mobile phone and the don’t have the Internet at home. She claims that this is because they are Amish, but in reality, her parents have gone off the grid to avoid government surveillance. Charlie’s school life is abruptly caught short after she gets agitated and burns down a toilet.
I think that Firestarter is a politically radical film, but I need to explain exactly what I mean by this. Artistically, it is conservative, using familiar tropes of the horror genre of someone first going on the run then returning to save a close family member. There are no great surprizes, and from the start we know more or less what is going to happen.
But look at the backstory, and suddenly things get much more interesting. Firestarter does not trust the government one bit. Like many radical films made during the Cold War, it has a pre-history of a government experiment gone wrong. A group of students are given chemicals – half of them get a mind control drug, the other half a placebo. When they are told the drugs are perfectly safe, one of the students (who will become Charlie’s mum) asks: why they are being tested then?
The film’s distrust of the government continues into the present, although now the government departments are led by women, many of them Black. These department bosses say they’re not like their authoritarian forebears, and try to co-opt some of their former patients (including the Native American John Rainbird) into working for them. Yet they’re not trying to replace the old system but to give it better PR. The aim is still to capture Charlie and at best subject her to live imprisonment.
The film is based on a 1980 book by Stephen King, still in the throes of the counter-cultural movement. In an interview, King said: “I was also in full don’t-trust-the-government mode when I wrote that book. We were still talking about Vietnam at that time. There was a hangover from that in the late ’70s. And there was all kinds of stuff going on where you just could not trust the government.” The film ends with Charlie’s father urging her to burn it all down to the ground.
It is maybe a sign of our times that although Firestarter is clearly radical, it is less clear whether this is a film of the Left or the Right. The CIA is murderous and the film’s Girl Bosses – representatives of Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton – are part of the problem. Indeed, their attempt to put a smiling female face on the front of government sinister Ops is maybe more sinister. The Left has been pointing this out for quite some time. But so have people around Donald Trump.
In the end, we can let this pass. Firestarter is not a political treatise, and should not be judged on how clearly it comes out for a radical socialist solution. But it is a product of its times, and it’s interesting how its refusal to accept that the government could help ordinary people is now such a mainstream opinion that most people will watch the film without even noticing this aspect.
Firestarter got a real critical kicking, in part because it looks cheap (as if I go to schlocky horror films for the special effects). I think this criticism both under- and overestimates the film. It’s an underestimation because there is a degree in which the film does embody current dissatisfaction and paranoia and should not be judged on its special effects. But its also an overestimation as this is not a film that takes itself too seriously, and we should just get out the popcorn and enjoy.
Yes Firestarter has limitations, no it isn’t Casablanca, but I do feel that the almost universal critical opprobrium really misses the point. It is as if the touchstone for whether a horror film is Any Good is no longer whether it has anything to say, but how good the special effects are. This to me is lazy journalism, and makes me like Firestarter more than before I started to read the critical responses.
By the way: the cinema advertised tonight’s showing by highlighting the bad reviews that the film had got on Rotten Tomatoes. More of this sort of advertising, please. It will help me know when I can watch a film and be among my people.