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STRANGER KING'S

Firestarter (15)

Director: Keith Thomas
Screenplay: Scott Teems

Starring: Zac Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Sydney Lemmon

Review: David Stephens

Whilst we Brits might be recognising 70 years of service by our reigning monarch, across the pond, another regal figure is still providing fresh material for genre cinema for what feels like just as long. Stephen King sold his first short story in 1967, and (despite a near-fatal accident and sort-of retirement) he's still churning 'em out, with at least two more works expected to be published in 2022. So it makes it kind of strange that Blumhouse Studios' latest movie is based on his 1980 novel, which was already adapted into a Drew Barrymore movie in 1984. There was even a made-for-TV sequel ("Rekindled") in 2002. There are periodic "waves" of King adaptations, and this one was probably a delayed aftershock from the success of the recent "IT" films. Or something. We dunno. We just watch them. Anyway, it comes from Keith Thomas, who wrote and directed the excellent Hebrew horror "The Vigil" in 2019. Headlining Zac Efron, it's opened in UK and US theatres and streaming on Peacock in the US. But is it hot enough for May?

 

The film opens with loved-up couple Andy McGee (Zac Efron, frankly looking nothing like Zac Efron and phoning it in) and Vicky McGee (Sydney Lemmon) doting on their baby daughter Charlene or "Charlie" (Ryan Kiera Armstrong)… who can apparently set fire to her mobile hanging over the cot. The subjects of a covert government experiment with a dangerous chemical for … reasons, the parents developed telekinetic powers and sired an offspring with pyrokinetic tendencies when she loses emotional control. Now living off the grid with the pre-teen girl (but still sending her to a public school?!), the McGee's attract attention from the government spooks once Charlie manages to blow up a toilet without the aid of a cherry bomb. With her powers growing, it becomes a battle of wills between the pursuing agents and Charlie's flaming anger management.

 

The burning question (heh) that keeps bubbling to the surface when watching this unnecessary reimagining of the story is "why?" The 1984 film was serviceable, and its plot has dated somewhat, given the rise in popularity of superhero movies. Someone even says, "You're a real-life superhero!" for chrissake! Given the fact that someone bleeds from facial orifices when they use their telekinetic powers, and the narrative follows a young girl with supernatural abilities, you can't help thinking of "Stranger Things" either. Alright, so the source material was there first, and everyone acknowledges that the Netflix show was born from the desire to give homage to the 80s and King himself; the now-dated story and a chance encounter with three kids on a bike just hammers it home.

 

Perhaps this adverse feeling of familiarity and unoriginality could have been overridden if there was something new and exciting here. But there isn't. There are a few narrative changes (some of which just feel clunky and unsuccessful in their intent), and more emphasis is given to the telekinesis angle than was done so in the 80s movie. However, this just makes it feel like a muted version of "Scanners" or a sequel to the 2009 Chris Evans movie "Push" (which is the name that Andy gives to their powers). At least there are a lot of practical fire effects instead of CGI, but they're still sparingly used, with people being "ashened" offscreen a lot. Weirdly enough, most of the characters are intensely unlikable, with Andy and Vicky being in the front running for the Worst Parenting Award in a Horror Film 2022. They consistently lie, keep Charlie isolated at home, send her to school when she has obvious issues, tell her not to use her powers ever, then to use them, and so on. No wonder the kid is screwed up!

 

Performances are variable. None of the cast really goes for it, apart from Kurtwood Smith, who manages to steal the single scene that he's in, despite having to speak the line; "She could cause a nuclear explosion … just by using her mind!". Unfortunately, that's about the level of the screenplay, with "You mean I can't trust what they say on the TV?!" being another clunker. Armstrong is actually a good young actor, but the script mostly gives her nothing to do apart from glower, scream, or pretend to project fireballs. Despite some noticeable "upgrades" (the defensive contact lenses, the primary villain's development arc, etc.), there's very little to recommend here.

 

In its defence, the opening credits provide some ingenious exposition and tension. This also underlines John Carpenter's involvement in the soundtrack, which is quite possibly the best thing about the film. Working with his son and regular collaborator Daniel Davies, it proves that synth sounds are still cool in modern genre works. The final act is actually pretty gnarly and quite dark in tone, deserving some credit for that at least (despite an obvious mannequin being used for a character's death). However, even that is fucked up by the last scene as it just doesn't feel right or deserved by the events that have preceded it. Given that this has come from the same screenwriter as "Halloween Kills", you can draw your own conclusions. We're not fans of this, and we're baffled about its existence in the first place. See it if you must, but to be honest, for all its faults, a rewatch of the 1980s version might be a better option.

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A half-hearted and curiously empty adaptation of the King novel, it's hard to understand the driving force behind it. Thumbs up for the Carpenter score and the grim fiery finale. But thumbs down for the unimaginative screenplay, phoned-in performances, and slightly dull pacing. Hard to warm to and a literal hot mess.