Director – Glenn Gordon Caron, Screenplay – Vince Gilligan, Producers – Stuart Cornfeld & Mark Johnson, Photography – Jerry Hartelben, Music – Michael Kamen, Optical Effects – Buena Vista Optical (Supervisors – Steven Brooks & Harrison Ellenshaw), Special Effects Supervisor – Allen Hall, Dr Napalm Suit – Kevin Yagher Productions Inc, Production Design – John Muto. Production Company – Baltimore Pictures.
Arliss Howard (Wilder), Debra Winger (Vida), Dennis Quaid (Wallace/Dr Napalm), Jim Varney (Rex)
Wilder leads a dull life, working in a photomat booth in the parking lot of a shopping mall that nobody ever comes to. His wife Vida has been placed under two months house arrest after being convicted of arson. Wilder’s tranquillity is interrupted by the arrival of the circus of Dr Napalm, who is Wilder’s brother Wallace. The two have not seen each other for five years due to Wallace’s bitterness over Wilder’s marriage to Vida. Both of them are powerful pyrokinetics but Wilder has vowed never to use his powers again after they accidentally torched a person when they were children. Wallace now announces that he going to go public with his powers on ‘The David Letterman Show’. Vida, just freed from house arrest and tired of Wilder’s anal retentive ways, then embarks on an affair with Wallace. This pits the two brothers and their powers against one another with explosive results.
Since the Stephen King adaptation Firestarter (1984) introduced the concept of pyrokinesis to screen, the idea has been played out in a number of other films – the awful Spontaneous Combustion (1990) and the Japanese Cross Fire/Pyrokinesis (2000), the best treatment of the subject. There has also been a number of tv teratments with The X Files episode Fire (1993), the Smallville episode Plastique (2008) and the Fringe episode The Road Not Taken (2009). More popular have been the number of films that have played pyrokinesis themes out as comedy, which have included the delightfully surreal Nice Girls Don’t Explode (1987), Pyrates (1991), the Hong Kong entry She Starts the Fire (1992) and Wilder Napalm.
Wilder Napalm was the second directorial effort from Glenn Gordon Caron, the creator/producer of tv’s Moonlighting (1985-9). Caron had debuted as a film director with Clean and Sober (1988), an impressively hard-hitting look at the AA process and a film that stands at a clear 180 degree remove from the light, frothy comic tone of either Moonlighting or Wilder Napalm.
Caron conducts Wilder Napalm with the same nonchalantly deadpan anything-could-happen tone that made Moonlighting such a hit. (The tone is similar in Nice Girls Don’t Explode). The inconsequential and the out-of-control blend both at once – like the scene where Arliss Howard’s cooler unit succeeds in blowing an entire set of circus lights and the fight over the single power point. Everything comes with an appealingly laidback charm – from Dennis Quaid who sits torching moths by popping his finger at them in the opening scene, to Debra Winger’s story about how she accidentally incinerated a doctor’s surgery. The pyrotechnics are fun, although everything gets a little overblown at the climactic showdown. Everyone performs well – best of these is the great Debra Winger who succeeds in lighting up the film with her infectiously unbridled spirit.
Wilder Napalm was not a success. Nor were Glenn Gordon Caron’s two subsequent directorial outings, Love Affair (1994) and Picture Perfect (1997). More recently, Caron made a comeback as a writer and producer on the popular genre tv series Medium (2005-11). Of course the name on the credits that was not recognised back then was that of screenwriter Vince Gilligan, later a writer/producer on tv’s The X Files (1993-2002, 2016-8) and creator of the cult hit of Breaking Bad (2008-13) and its spinoff Better Call Saul (2015– ).