Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Dead Zone

(1983) Directed by David Cronenberg; Written by Jeffrey Boam; Based on the novel by Stephen King; Starring: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Herbert Lom, Martin Sheen and Tom Skerritt; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“It was in making The Dead Zone that I came up with my mantra, which is, in order to be faithful to the book you have to betray the book.” – David Cronenbeg

“You know what God did for me? He threw an 18-wheel truck at me. Boxed me into nowhere for five years. When I woke up, my girl was gone, my job was gone, my legs are just about useless. Bless me? God’s been a real sport to me.” – Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken)

Thanks to Darren at Movie Reviews 101 for hosting this month’s Kingathon, a celebration of all things Stephen King.

The’80s represented a golden age for Stephen King adaptations, attracting an impressive line-up of talented directors, including Stanley Kubrick, John Carpenter, Rob Reiner and George Romero. Whether or not the movies made back anything seemed irrelevant, as long as King’s name was attached. Although the subject matter was lower key than some of the author’s other works, The Dead Zone was another example of King’s predilection for depicting normal people who fall into abnormal situations. And who better to capture the abnormal than director David Cronenberg?

Cronenberg’s clinical, detached style is a perfect match for the film’s somber tones and setting. Set in the mythical New England town of Castle Rock (a common location for King’s stories), The Dead Zone was shot in Cronenberg’s native Toronto, and various Ontario locales. Mark Irwin’s cinematography evokes a visceral response, capturing the stark beauty and harshness of winter in the region. It’s the perfect backdrop for the mindset of the film’s protagonist, who’s lost everything, but gained something wondrous and terrible in return.

Christopher Walken stars as the generically named Johnny Smith. The fact that Smith is one of the most normal characters that Christopher Walken has played in no way denigrates his performance. On the contrary, he has to be average in order to be believable, as an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary predicament. When we’re introduced to Smith, he appears content with his life as a schoolteacher,* and involved in a romantic relationship with fellow teacher Sarah (Brooke Adams). All of that changes in an instant, when his car collides with a tanker truck, and he ends up in a coma. When Smith finally emerges from his deathlike state, he discovers his former life has been completely eradicated, and he has transformed into something else. He discovers his new gift of foresight after he touches a nurse’s hand, and experiences a vision that her daughter is in imminent peril. His newly acquired ability to see the future has marked him as a prophet or a charlatan. As the visions** increase and the physical and mental drain take their toll, Smith isolates himself to protect his sanity. 

* Useless trivia: In an early scene, Smith discusses “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” with his class. I don’t know if Tim Burton got the idea to cast Walken in his adaptation of Washington Irving’s story, based on that scene, but it’s fun to speculate.

** Bonus fact: In order to prompt the appropriate reaction, Walken requested that Cronenberg fire off a 45-caliber pistol during the scenes when his character experienced a jarring psychic vision.

Martin Sheen plays ambitious senatorial candidate Greg Stillson with great intensity. He runs his campaign like a mafia kingpin, and exemplifies the power of magnetism and charisma over substance. It’s easy to draw parallels with Stillson and current politicians, who profess to be everything for everyone, but ultimately serve their own selfish ends. Smith sees right through Stillson’s neo-populist stance, and foresees global disaster if he’s elected into office, and eventually becomes president.

The Dead Zone features some other fine performances, as well. Adams is good as Smith’s ex-girlfriend, torn between her allegiance to her new husband, and love for Johnny. Herbert Lom plays Dr. Sam Weizak, who cares for Smith, and becomes one of his greatest advocates. His initial skepticism about Johnny’s abilities gives way to respect, after his patient uncovers a dark secret about his past. He describes a blind spot in Johnny’s talent as a “dead zone,” where uncertainty prevails. Nicholas Campbell also stands out as sheriff’s deputy Frank Dodd, who may not be what he seems. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, displaying Cronenberg’s penchant for the grotesque, he meets a particularly nasty end.

The film’s title could also be applied to its myriad elements, which cross genres. Is it a dark fantasy, suspense, drama, or horror? All, and none, of these labels could apply. I can’t comment on how accurately Cronenberg’s movie follows the book (it’s been many years since I’ve read it), but many of Stephen King’s common themes are present: isolation, despair, being outcast from society, death and loss. The Dead Zone is a somber film, with a pervasive fatalistic streak; as with many of the author’s stories, you know a happy ending isn’t in store for its tortured protagonist. This isn’t a flashy film, but few other King adaptations are as engrossing. The Dead Zone exudes a subtle, intrusive horror that burrows into your psyche and stays with you long after the end credits roll. 

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