PLOT: Young Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) has a terrifying power – she can start fires with her mind. Often unable to control her ability, she ends up on the run with her telepathic father (Zac Efron) from a secret government agency called “The Shop,” which wants to use her as a weapon.
REVIEW: The Blumhouse formula has been wildly successful for Universal Pictures. Jason Blum and his team can produce big-screen-worthy horror flicks for a fraction of what a mainstream studio effort costs. The model is a perfect one in a lot of ways. If a movie is a hit, they rake in the profits. If it flops, they can still more-or-less breakeven. However, this formula works better on original projects, such as the upcoming The Black Phone, where scripts can be tailored to the budget without seeming cheap. With Firestarter, an adaptation of the Stephen King novel, the Blumhouse formula doesn’t work because it can’t do justice to what was on the page due to the minuscule budget. As such, Firestarter pales compared to most recent King adaptations and isn’t even as good as the comparatively lavish (and much-maligned) 1984 film with Drew Barrymore in the lead.
This 2022 version of Firestarter is a ninety-minute chase film without much room for nuance. Much of the book revolved around Charlie and her father, Andy, being imprisoned by The Shop, but that doesn’t figure into the plot here. So much has been changed, especially in regards to the main antagonist, John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes). He was evil incarnate in all other versions of the story, but here seems to be a telepathic version of John Wick once you get past some of the innocent people he kills. It feels like Blumhouse wants to spin him off into a franchise, which is understandable as Greyeyes seems like a movie star in the making but doesn’t really suit the premise here.
Firestarter will likely work better for folks who haven’t read the King book or seen the 1984 film. Taken as a simple chase-thriller horror film, it’s not terrible. Zac Efron is likable as Charlie’s psychic father, Andy, with him maturing well into a legit leading man. However, he’s sidelined for so much of the third act that you wonder why they bothered hiring someone of Efron’s calibre when pretty much anyone could have played the part. Greyeyes has the star role here. As Charlie, Ryan Kiera Armstrong does a good job conveying Charlie’s fear of her power while also presenting her as wildly unpredictable, in contrast to Barrymore’s “cute” performance in the 1984 film. She arguably works better in the role than Barrymore did. It’s also fun seeing Robocop/That 70’s Show vet Kurtwood Smith as the scientist whose experiments helped create Charlie’s power/curse.
Firestarter’s modest budget becomes most evident when The Shop finally enters the picture in the third act. When the fire-filled climax happens, it feels like the secret agency is curiously under-funded, with not enough baddies for Charlie to take out. Gloria Reuben camps it up as the cold-blooded head of The Shop, although Martin Sheen was a bit better in the ’84 version as he presented the character as more of a government stooge than a full-on psycho. Despite everything, the film has a solid look thanks to DP Karim Hussain, who always makes low-budget movies look great (Possessor, Hobo with a Shotgun, etc.), while none other than John and Cody Carpenter (with Daniel Davies) supply the score.
In the end, Firestarter is a decent enough watch if you’re streaming it on Peacock but is probably too modest and low-key to demand a trip to the movie theatre. It’s not one of Blumhouse’s better films, and it shows that if you’re going to do Stephen King, you can’t do it on the cheap.
Originally published at www.joblo.com