From the director of my favorite horror movie of 2021 comes Firestarter, an uninspiring remake/Stephen King adaptation that possesses no spark. Keith Thomas’ The Vigil is an extraordinary examination of Jewish demonology; his lifeless Firestarter extinguishes any flames of intrigue that 1984’s hammier version might inspire. Thomas recognizes opportunities to inject more horror in 2022’s reboot, but those efforts are wasted. Scott Teems’ one-dimensional screenplay becomes a chore as Andy and Charlie McGee flee from secret government agencies without the thrill of pursuit. How can a film hinged on bursts of illuminating heat be such a dimly lit, overly darkened representation of lesser choices whenever Teems dares deviate from the already dodgy source inspiration?
Zac Efron steps into the shoes of Andy McGee, a telepath gifted with powers during a U.S. government experimentation program. He, his wife Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) and daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong)—the role made famous by a wee Drew Barrymore—all possess supernatural abilities that must be hidden from “The Shop.” When Charlie experiences an outburst of pyrokinesis at school, Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben) hires superpowered assassin Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to capture the McGees. Andy won’t let his loved ones become test subjects, so they flee, hoping Charlie can contain her powers lest their escape goes up in flames.
It’s an over-the-top premise that original director Mark L. Lester acknowledges with ‘80s exaggerations, which Thomas refuses to indulge. Under Blumhouse’s tightened budget mentality, the louder spectacle pieces of Charlie’s fireball barrages and fiery outbursts swap practical explosions out for lackluster visual effects. Where conspiracies were once fanned and fed, Efron’s Andy delivers lifeless lines with cold sternness, pushing forward without acknowledging his own character’s past actions.
There’s a curious structure to the whole project that introduces characters like Kurtwood Smith’s remorseful research leader (acting like he’s still in the ‘80s), who eventually mean nothing to the grand scheme—a suggestion that there’s more to Andy and Charlie’s journey on a cutting room floor somewhere. At 90 minutes, Firestarter feels rushed and underbaked. There are fewer hordes of agents on Andy’s heels and less time spent on the loving relationship between father and daughter. Teems’ screenplay speaks in broad plot milestones without properly establishing connectivity.
The introduction of Greyeyes’ hired gun adds a bit more danger in life-or-death standoffs but also makes Firestarter less suspenseful overall. A department of many is now an army of one, and although Rainbird is a thoughtful commentary on minorities always selected first for experimental trials, his allegiance is a conflict itself. The killer who escaped, called back by the same organization that once used him. It sounds great on paper, but in practice lacks narrative consciousness. Firestarter sleepwalks through character motivations and underwhelming environments (despite some pastel neon lights and lavender thermal recognition) down to the sterilized industrial compound where The Shop operates. So many scenes play like lurching means to the inevitable end, because who doesn’t love a hopeful sequel tease sendoff?
You can see where Thomas attempts to steer Firestarter into more horrifying territory, but not often enough. Vicky’s sneaking through a supposedly empty house reminds of shadowy claustrophobia in The Vigil; Charlie’s siege opts for something more akin to 2013’s Carrie climax than Barrymore hurling great balls of fire like an action-horror Mario. It’s just not enough to make any tonal difference, as the airless sequences deprive these frightening leanings of the oxygen needed to grow into horrifying infernos. Viewers can’t feel the heat in Thomas’ version, maybe because the production treats its source novel’s fantastical material with a dull seriousness.
Firestarter is a soulless remake of an already iffy Stephen King adaptation that only makes changes for the worse. Lively country hospitality becomes another depressing pitstop, lessons are taught through animal torture and that entire ending—what an exceptionally rough screenplay. Efron and Armstrong are forced to forge a parent-child relationship with generic dialogue that’s made-for-TV, except the kind you’d switch off after 20 minutes because you’ve seen it 12 times already that week. Villainous entities and their commanders suffer even worse fates, made into antagonists merely because they wear suits and pull triggers. It’s a remake that lacks identity, urgency and enthusiasm—such a shame after Keith Thomas’ outstanding horror debut.
Director: Keith Thomas
Writer: Scott Teems
Starring: Zac Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Sydney Lemmon, Michael Greyeyes
Release Date: May 13, 2022 (Peacock)
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.