The Dead Zone (1983)

In case it wasn't clear from the fact that recently I reviewed two *other* Stephen King-based movies, I bought a Stephen King adaptation box set recently. This was widely considered the best film in the set, and I'm not surprised considering the talent involved.

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a schoolteacher in love with a fellow teacher, Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams), who is in an accident one night coming home and wakes up five years later from a coma induced by the accident. When he touches a nurse, he suddenly finds himself seeing a small girl screaming in a burning home and repeats to the nurse that "Amy" is screaming, and she needs to save her daughter because it is not too late. She runs, eventually, and finds the fire department at her house, her daughter being carried out. We, and Johnny, now know that he has visions of the future. As he has other visions, we learn they are all visions associated with death. He keeps trying to find his old life or to build a new one, being constantly interrupted by requests, demands and pleas for the use of his new gift.

David Cronenberg is adapting here, and it's another of his more "normal" pictures, which he says is because he had just finished Videodrome, and didn't feel he had another original script in him at the time. It has that strange, clinical distance of Cronenberg films. It's not sterility like Kubrick (sorry, he IS the best example) but there's a lot of space around people in their environments, and a lot of space between characters. It feels like distance, even as we feel some relative sympathy, closeness and association with the characters who seem as if they are so far off. The tone is the extreme seriousness of Cronenberg's films as usual, with a very oppressive atmosphere, bleak and empty and dark. The film itself is not dark, in fact much of it takes in well-lit homes during the day and outside in the snow, but the tone is certainly dark despite that.

There's a lovely supporting cast Cronenberg has assembeled–Tom Skerritt (forever Captain Dallas for me, I think) as a sheriff lost in a difficult serial killer case, Martin Sheen as a presidential candidate for "the working man," who is a politician as most politicians are (a far cry from his role on The West Wing). The rest of them I don't know offhand (Herbert Lom as Dr. Sam Weizak, who I apparently will know before too long as Inspector Clouseau's superior, Nicholas Campbell as deputy Frank Dodd…) but all were very good in their roles, with Lom standing out perhaps most as the doctor who cared for Johnny through his coma and supports him through the journey he takes with his gift.

This is the first film that Cronenberg did with production designer Carol Spier (who later also worked with him on The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash, eXistenZ, the short film Camera, A History of Violence, and Eastern Promises–so basically everything from here on) and I was pleased to see her name, having associated it with all of those films. I was surprised that Howard Shore did not score this film, as Cronenberg has used him certainly more than any other composer, but I was all right with Michael Kamen (who also scored the likes of Brazil, the Die Hard trilogy–yes, trilogy, the Lethal Weapon movies…and the Amazing Stories episode that stuck in my head for years–Martin Scorsese's own "Mirror, Mirror") who gave this film a fantastic score that perfectly complimented the stark, bleak landscapes that fit so perfectly with Johnny's character. And further behind the scenes we have Jeffrey Boam scripting, who later went on to heavy involvement in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.–as well as scripts for Innerspace, The Lost Boys, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Lethal Weapon 2 (&3). I'm a big enough fan of those, and the dialogue especially in many cases, that I knew I had seen the name Jeffrey Boam before, and he doesn't disappoint here either–it doesn't feel like King's awkward and unrealistic dialogue, though we still have his silly affection for "-y" names (Johnny, Danny, Tommy…) that I guess are supposed to make the characters more "everyman." Lastly, we have producer Debra Hill, constant partner of the great John Carpenter.

I realized watching this that Cronenberg has a tendency to work with some of my "cult" favourite actors–actors for whom I will almost pick up a movie just to see them. Peter Weller in Naked Lunch, James Woods in Videodrome, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Ralph Fiennes in Spider, and heck, even Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. Not all people I necessarily think are outstanding actors (ok, I cannot deny Fiennes and Irons) but I just like watching. None is lacking in talent of course, Cronenberg is too smart a man for that, but they aren't the kind everyone raves about or gives Oscars to. But here we do have an Oscar winner, Christopher Walken, who is now admittedly more famous and appreciated in a bizarre way, but who is an excellent actor all the same–and one of said favourites. He is brilliant in conveying the isolation of a man who has lost all threads of his own life and who suffers under the weight of an unpleasant gift, trying desperately to make some sense of the life he has been left with and to do the right thing as best he can without completely sacrificing himself.

I would have to say I think those claims were right–I can't imagine this is anything BUT the best film in this set, but then none of the others had a cast or crew like this, so it's no real surprise. And no, this is not one of the King books I have read, but I hear it's factually inaccurate, but hearing some of the changes and Cronenberg state lucidly and explicitly why he made some of them, my admittedly biased mind finds the reasoning wholly acceptable, and even preferrable. But I love Cronenberg and I think King is hideously overrated, so take that with a grain of salt. Or a pinch. Or a pound…


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