Mark L. Lester ended up as director of Firestarter due to the fact that John Carpenter, who had originally been hired to direct and was also considering playing the part of John Rainbird, a government assassin, was removed from the project due to the box office failure of The Thing. That movie would go on to gain a reputation as one of the best science fiction and horror mashups of the 1980s. Firestarter, on the other hand, is treated as just another Stephen King adaptation from the time, overshadowed by The Shining and, ironically, Carpenter's own adaptation of Christine. I have also seen derisive comments about this being given to the director of Roller Boogie.
It would be more accurate to say this was directed by the guy who did Class of 1984, one of the best Canuxploitation films of the 1980s. Firestarter, as written, is a pure pulp novel. Much of King's early work, in retrospect, has literary worth that English professors can expound upon at length, but Firestarter and Pet Sematary were pure fun. Dino De Laurentiis purchased the rights to the novel and screenwriter Stanley Mann pretty much adapted the novel faithfully. Unfortunately, that didn't keep both King and critics from dumping water on the production before it could set theaters ablaze.
Andy McGee (David Keith) and his daughter Charlie (Drew Barrymore) are on the run from agents of the Department of Scientific Intelligence, also known by their nickname, the Shop. Andy and his wife Vicky (Heather Locklear) were the only survivors of an experimental drug called Lot 6, and Charlie was the product of their union, having both psychic and pyrokinetic abilities. Andy, meanwhile, has the ability to "push" people mentally into doing what he wants. The two are forced to go on the run after Vicky is killed in an attempt to kidnap Charlie.
The Shop is run by Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen), who plans to see if Charlie's gifts can be weaponized and properly controlled. Meanwhile, John Rainbird (George C. Scott) wants Charlie for his own uses once Hollister is done with her. After the father and daughter are captured it soon becomes clear that the Shop is dealing with something well beyond their comprehension.
Despite being on the set and even making suggestions - including Charlie's hair raising in a wind effect whenever her powers manifest - he hated the rough cut he saw. King at the time was known for criticizing how his movies were adapted, and this led Dino De Laurentiis to finally tell him to put up or shut up. This resulted in Maximum Overdrive a couple years later. Critics were also harsh, saying that Charlie was used as no more than a plot device and that the movie itself centered on special effects.
I think that much of that is wrong. There are only two major conflagrations in the movie - one at a farm owned by Irv (Art Carney) and Norma Manders (Louise Fletcher), the other the finale. The first half of the film deals with them trying to avoid the Shop, while the second, which does slow down quite a bit but not to the point where it is unbearable, takes place at the Shop itself. It features a great monologue by George C. Scott as Rainbird explains to Hollister why he wants Charlie once they're done with her and great acting throughout by Drew Barrymore.
David Keith is a weak link, but Andy is more of a plot contrivance than Charlie is accused of being, as it is her love for him that drives her to survive despite the fact she hates her abilities. While on the subject of plot contrivances it is confusing that Charlie suddenly is not able to tell that Rainbird has bad intentions when, early on, she can sense whenever other members of the Shop are coming for them.
This may not be the most nuanced movie, nor does it spend time developing characters past what they need to be, but I don't remember the book doing that either. It was a pulp novel that needed a b-movie director, as Firestarter is a b-movie at heart and doesn't try to be more than an entertaining film.
As for those special effects Lester's crew came up with a way of making convincing fireballs and making the destruction as realistic as possible. Barrymore was sometimes substituted by adult stand-ins, but all the effects were practical and in-camera as can be expected. Even more amazing is that this was achieved without any major injuries, even when they decided to light one of the actors on fire as well. De Laurentiis wisely made sure a good portion of the money went into securing a good cast as well as a great effects crew and the result is a successful movie that, if it had not been a Stephen King story to begin with, would probably be more fondly remembered.
Time: 114 minutes
Starring: Drew Barrymore, David Keith, George C. Scott, Martin Sheen
Director: Mark L. Lester