The Fire Next Time (1993): The Escape From Wrath

Dave recalls an old chat with helmer Tom McLoughlin, and discovers that his lengthy telepic about climate change is terrifying in its prophecy.

After the success of his first two movies, One Dark Night (1982) and Friday 13th VI: Jason Lives (1986), it only took a single misfire, Date with an Angel (1987), before Tom McLoughlin’s phone went quiet – well, until the world of TV came a-calling.

“I felt I knew nothing about television. After all, I was a film guy,” the horror icon told me in 2017. “But I thought to myself that I’m gonna take my horror background and put it into this human family drama, In a Child’s Name (1991); a true story based on a book that did fairly well. Much to my shock, it worked in a way that I never expected and it became the number one TV event of 1991, beating all the sitcoms that were on at the time like Roseanne. I remember thinking that I was at a crossroads: either I could continue to make low-budget horror, or I could carry on with these TV movies and miniseries’ that would allow me to do two, maybe three pictures a year. They’d always have big stars, they would always be about a big subject, and I thought, well, I’ve done Jason, I’ve done an episode of Freddy’s Nightmares, and I’ve done a Stephen King piece too [Sometimes They Come Back (1991)] – all the big horror icons of the ’80s, and now I’m doing domestic abuse, global warming, AIDS, alcoholism, mental illness… You know, the REAL monsters of life.”

And right now, there’s perhaps no greater monster than the horrors depicted in McLoughlin’s CBS miniseries, THE FIRE NEXT TIME.

“Had the global community taken action twenty-five years ago, the effects of global warming may well have been mitigated.”

Prophetic words echoing from newsreel footage used in the background of a scene. McLoughlin’s epic is not so much a disaster movie, more a caution of what soon could be.

Channelling John Steinbeck, veteran screenwriter James S. Henerson introduces us to the Joads of a ‘futuristic’ 2017, where, much like their Depression-era ancestors, they’re being forced from their land by uncontrollable forces. Merging the morality, pride and stubbornness of Tom and Pa is the always engaging Craig T. Nelson, who, as Drew Morgan, plays a fisherman on the bones of his backside. He’s broke, his house is gradually giving way to the raging elements, and despite his initial reluctance (he’s prone to denial), Drew knows that the only way forward is to gather his estranged wife Suzanne (Bonnie Bedelia), and kids Paul (Justin Whalin), Linnie (Ashley Jones) and Jake (Shawn Toovey), and head north, away from the sinking shoreline of Louisiana.

As the Morgans begin their journey, it’s clear that America and the world that surrounds it is fighting a losing battle against climate change. Sweat drips from the brow of every citizen and cinematographer Shelly Johnson turns the sun-bleached filter up to eleven, giving every sequence a choking humidity. There’s a sense of panic to proceedings too, with the public shuffled around in groups like migrants, gasping in grief at what they’ve left behind as the need to get to somewhere less stifling grows expeditiously. Weighty backhanders guarantee a hotel room with aircon, adverts for malaria drugs interrupt the airwaves, and basic rations like tortillas are tagged in supermarkets.

The melancholic desperation of this two-part mini-series is a little more stark in the first chapter, softening to periods of benign melodrama in the second. Some of it falls a little flat: namely, Linnie’s admittance into a creepy cult (under the spell of Paul Rudd no less) and Drew’s brother-in-law, Buddy (Charles Haid), who’s bunkered down in his opulent mansion and a bit Bond villain-lite to be given any sort of credence.

Other aspects carry stronger weight and credibility. The Morgans’ Eden is a gated community where Drew’s former business partner, Larry (Jurgen Prochnow), has established a new home. However, when they arrive Golden, New York is a kind of unnerving utopia, with every citizen dressed in Persil white and a strict ecological code applied to every facet (and faucet) of society. “This took a great deal of planning, co-operation, and folks being able to accept limits” lectures their friend, but it’s taken the concept of a considerate community and elevated it to a fascist state. It’s a terrifying yet uncomfortably familiar segment.

Cameos litter The Fire Next Time. The trippiest is the bleach-blonde cropped haired appearance of Louise Fletcher as a border-based people smuggler, and the most heart-wrenching attributable to the legendary Richard Farnsworth as Drew’s ailing father, Frank. There’s also the welcome sight of John Vernon as a kindly Canadian resident who’s final frame glance is among the most perturbing moments in a piece of television that’s as important historically as it is dramatically.

USA ● 1993 ● Drama, TVM (miniseries) ● 315mins

Craig T. Nelson, Bonnie Bedelia, Justin Whalin, Richard Farnsworth, Jurgen Prochnow, Paul Rudd ● Dir. Tom McLoughlin ● Wri. James S. Henerson

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