Usually when a movie is shielded from being screened for critics, it is a very bad omen of imminently awful quality. As far as Blumhouse/Universal collaboration Firestarter is concerned, I never had a worry as to its pedigree. Namely, I knew it could not possibly be any worse than Firestarter: Rekindled, which remains a low point for this series. I read Stephen King’s novel all the way back in high school, and recently rewatched both the original 1984 film starring Drew Barrymore and the 2002 TV-movie sequel to properly prep for this return visit into the twisted world of King. 2022’s Firestarter is easily the best of these three film productions, showcasing gnarly burn trauma, seamless visual effects, and a crackling synthy score from composer John Carpenter. Toss in a hunky Zac Efron in prime daddy mode, American Horror Story: Double Feature breakout Ryan Keira Armstrong, and a breezy runtime, and one has quite an entertaining horror/thriller, even if it remains one of King’s lesser stories in my eyes.
Charlie (Armstrong, It Chapter Two, The Art of Racing in the Rain) has a special, hidden power that she has been struggling to sustain for her entire life. Firestarter wastes no time showing rather than telling, starting out with Charlie’s crib catching aflame. She lives with her dad, Andy (Efron, High School Musical, Hairspray), and her mom, Vicky (Sydney Lemmon), who both underwent a mysterious trial called Lot 6 that left them with superpowers. Since escaping, the trio have been on the run and can never stay in one place for too long. For nearly three years, they have built a quiet life—Andy makes money through counseling nicotine cravings, charging $100 a session to use his gift of “the push” on unsuspecting hosts, all while Charlie and Vicky attempt to live out normal lives. The “bad men” are still after them, meaning that wi-fi or social presence of any kind is completely out of the question. Their current situation appears to be overstaying its welcome, as Charlie gets bullied at school to the point of literal toilet-stall explosion. Shielded from true knowledge of her powers, Charlie is a volatile loose cannon unable to control their sheer strength.
Just as the family closes in on their plans to flee town, the organization known only as “The Shop” sends in trained assassin Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes (Wild Indian, Fear the Walking Dead) to do their evil bidding. Vicky’s insistence that Charlie be trained to use her powers may prove to be a better idea than Andy’s assertion she keep them concealed. Those who have read the book or seen the original film will find a lot of familiarity here, but the modern updates and tweaks to the scripting work in Firestarter’s favor. When on the run together, the movie evokes Logan, while Carrie remains an obvious influence in the final act.
Speaking of Carrie, the parallels in the story and a coming-of-age tale featuring charged superpowers were not lost on this viewer. However, it is for this reason that Firestarter has never really been one of my favorite King tales. With a rich bibliography spanning over hundreds of novels, Firestarter is neither the most original nor the most exciting of the lot. I am not sure this remake would place in the top ten film adaptations of his work either, and yet, I had a great time with it. For those that will complain it feels too familiar and does not break any new ground, Firestarter forges ahead anyway. One has to admire a film that so shamelessly goes for the jugular in depicting animal cruelty and indelible mercy within minutes of one another.
Zac Efron is known for his impressive physique, so I wanted to take a moment to applaud director Keith Thomas (last year’s eerie The Vigil) for knowing what he was working with here. Seconds after awakening from a nightmare in the opening scene, Efron is already shirtless with chiseled abs on display. One asked for hot daddy, and this is exactly what one shall receive. From the second I saw him in the first High School Musical, I longed to experience Efron in a horror film—finally my wish has been granted! He does a great job playing against Ryan Kiera Armstrong, with their father/daughter connection serving as the film’s beating heart.
Franchise potential is splattered all over this thing. One could easily picture this work continuing in many different renditions thanks to the endless potential of humans with powers. Both Armstrong and Efron display a level of connection that bleeds through to tug on one’s heartstrings. Practical efforts work is impressive, and Carpenter’s score bores into one’s very soul. Some of the deaths here are super nasty, and not for the faint of heart. The horror element is light, but the disturbing quotient high. Even if nothing comes close to matching the sheer insanity and borderline ridiculousness of the original film’s climax, this new Firestarter is not afraid to blaze a brand-new trail of death all its own.
Firestarter lights up for audiences everywhere, now streaming on Peacock and playing in theaters everywhere.