‘Firestarter’ review: Dark tone, solid acting ignite Stephen King thriller

“Tough luck, Charlie! This is who you are!” – Zac Efron’s Andy parenting his telekinetically gifted daughter Charlie in “Firestarter.”

If there’s nostalgia for the 1984 edition of “Firestarter,” my guess it’s held by those who haven’t seen the movie in a long time. Because it’s awful, from the clumsily staged action sequences to the medley of scenes in which David Keith’s character exercises mind control by pressing his hands against his temples to the close-ups of little Drew Barrymore clenching her fists as she sets people on fire to an unfortunately miscast George C. Scott as a Native American named John Rainbird who is an assassin for a mysterious government agency known as The Shop. “The most astonishing thing about the movie … is how boring it is,” wrote Roger Ebert.

Many, many great Stephen King novels have been turned into classic films. Others go the way of the old “Firestarter.”

‘Firestarter’

Because it’s Hollywood Law that every movie from the 1980s will be rebooted or reshaped or re-something’d, now we have a new adaptation of “Firestarter” that doesn’t scale any great heights but is a marked upgrade on the original. Directed with a more fittingly dark, austere, horror-movie vibe by Keith Thomas and featuring grounded performances from an excellent cast headed by Zac Efron, Sydney Lemmon and newcomer Ryan Kiera Armstrong, this “Firestarter” is a combustible supernatural thriller that embraces its borderline campy qualities and works well enough as 21st century drive-in escapist fare.

As we learn in a suitably eerie opening-credits sequence, college students Andy McGree (Zac Efron) and Vicky Tomlinson (Sydney Lemmon) participated in something called the “Lot Six Trial” administered by the Department of Scientific Intelligence in 2008. Subjects were injected with some kind of experimental drug and things went horribly wrong, as evidenced by the closeup of an eyeball on the floor.

In the present day, Andy and Vicky are now married. Andy can control others’ thoughts through sheer willpower, and Vicky has some telekinetic powers as well–though there are side effects, e.g., the blood that starts dripping from Andy’s eye sockets when he exerts too much force. Hey, every family is unique!

Andy and Vicky have an 11-year-old daughter, Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), who can literally set things on fire when she becomes upset or scared or angry, and while Charlie’s parents have done their best to protect her, keeping the family off the grid and working with Charlie to control her emotions, things begin to spiral out of control after Charlie has an episode at school that results in an explosion. The school incident sets off alarm bells within the aforementioned Department of Scientific Intelligence, with Gloria Reuben’s Capt. Hollister sending John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes), an agent assassin with mind-control powers of his own, to track down Charlie and bring her in so they can … well, they’re a secret and nefarious government agency, so they’re probably not going to call a press conference to announce the discovery of an adorable adolescent Firestarter kid.

Andy and Charlie are able to escape after Charlie lets fly with the pyrotechnics. (As you’d expect, the special effects are more ferociously impressive this time around.) As they go on the run, director Thomas and screenwriter Scott Teems fully embrace the gruesome side effects of Charlie’s condition, as when a stray cat scratches Charlie and Charlie has an instant reaction, and let’s just say that’s the last scratch that cat will ever exact on anyone. Yikes.

The invaluable character actor Kurtwood Smith (“Robocop,” “Rambo III”) lends an eccentric gravitas to the proceedings as the nearly mad Dr. Joseph Wanless, who deeply regrets conducting the experiments and warns Capt. Hollister that Charlie one day “may be able to create a nuclear explosion with the force of her mind.” Dr. Wanless’ advice: Once the DSI finds Charlie, they should extinguish her.

With present-day sequences filmed in sepia tones and flashbacks in more of a green and blue filter, “Firestarter” remains visually arresting throughout, as Andy fills in Charlie on some violent history in his past and continually stresses to her that she has to harness her powers and use them only when absolutely necessary. (The brilliant score has distinct echoes of “Halloween”–little surprise since it was created by Cody Carpenter, John Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies.)

After Andy is apprehended, Charlie must rescue him from the DSI with only her love for her father and her telepathic powers to guide the way. The DSI is fortified with concrete walls and infrared technology and armed henchmen, which means they’re the decided underdog against Charlie. Once she arrives at the facility … well, that’s as far as we’re going to go, other than to say “Firestarter” goes out with a suitably fiery bang and some pretty dark and satisfying twists.

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