The Cult Movie Club: The Dead Zone (1983)

What’s the ‘accepted’, untouchable shortlist of ‘successful’ Stephen King screen adaptations? ‘Misery’, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘It’, ‘Carrie’, ‘Stand By Me’, ‘Salem’s Lot’.

But David Cronenberg’s ‘The Dead Zone’ seldom appears in that top tier. Why? Possibly because it is seemingly part of the early-‘80s big-budget horror era, when the studios were trying to cash in on ‘slasher’ hits like ‘Halloween’ and ‘Friday 13th’ (see also ‘Omen III: The Final Conflict’, ‘Halloween III: Season Of The Witch’, ‘Psycho II’, ‘Christine’).

Cronenberg had just completed sci-fi/horror shocker ‘Videodrome’ when he was invited onto the project by Debra Hill, producer of ‘Halloween’/’The Fog’ and ex-wife of John Carpenter (‘The Dead Zone’ had apparently previously been earmarked for Stanley Donen, director of ‘Singin’ In The Rain’!).

King himself supplied the first draft of the script. According to Cronenberg, it was a ghastly, serial-killer-on-the-loose gore fest. Jeffrey Boam and Cronenberg worked on it and built the story around Johnny Smith, played by Christopher Walken, who develops second sight after five years in a coma following a devastating car crash.

So how does ‘The Dead Zone’ stand up today? Exceptionally well. It’s Cronenberg’s first film about ‘God-fearing’ people, and also his first warm-hearted picture. It takes place in King’s fictional town of Castle Rock, supposedly a combination of various real locations in Maine – all very Norman Rockwell.

These are the first Cronenberg characters we care for (he has described it as ‘a lost-love story’). Brooke Adams, Herbert Lom, Tom Skerritt and Walken are excellent, playing it completely straight, and there’s a terrific, terrifying performance by Martin Sheen as the Jim Jones-like Greg Stillson.

But finally it’s Walken’s film (Cronenberg described his face as the ‘subject of the movie’), another brilliant performance. We totally accept Johnny’s story and want him to succeed. He’s a good man in pain who has lost the love of his life.

The movie is relentlessly downbeat with no ironic escape route. It’s totally Cronenberg’s milieu – a snowy, crisp mise-en-scene (shot in and around Toronto), with a typically great car crash.

He casts his cold, clinical eye over some pretty preposterous material, but it’s stark and chilling, with the director’s customarily-abrasive cutting and editing style. It’s NOT a film for kids…

Importantly, Johnny’s visions are genuinely scary. But is he God or Lucifer? (There may be minor similarities of the film with John Landis’s opening segment of ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’, released three months before ‘The Dead Zone’). Walken plays with this dichotomy perfectly.

Like King’s ‘Misery’, ‘The Dead Zone’ takes a none too fond look at the ‘great unwashed’, with Johnny getting endless pleading/begging letters from people with ‘lost dogs, lost lives’.

And it’s also unfailingly negative about the US political process during the early 1980s (Boam reportedly delivered his first draft the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration).

There’s a lush, superb score by Michael Kamen. Its main five-note motif is almost as memorable as anything John Williams wrote for Spielberg, speaking to Johnny’s tragic dilemma.

Of course there are some bum notes: the poor performances of a few minor characters; a very gratuitous, unpleasant sexual assault/murder scene (apparently not in King’s book); and the constant dilemma of second-guessing his physical contact with others.

What is Johnny withholding from us/the other characters when he shakes their hand or embraces them? Also the film rather lurches from one section to another, with Johnny basically inert and ‘in hiding’ until he is called on to act by the townsfolk.

‘The Dead Zone’ did pretty good business at the box office, earning double its costs and ushering in Cronenberg’s brief flirtation with the mainstream (he was offered – but turned down – ‘Flashdance’, ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ and ‘Top Gun’ during this period): next up was ‘The Fly’, a huge hit.

You could make the case that he was one of the key directors of the 1980s. From the landmark sci-fi/horrors ‘Scanners’, ‘Videodrome’ and ‘The Fly’ to the ice-cold ‘Dead Ringers’, he consistently pushed the envelope.

Further reading: ‘Cronenberg On Cronenberg’ (ed. Chris Rodley)

12 Angry Men: The 1980s Midlife Crisis Collection (Part One)

Here they come, these days about as welcome as turds in a jacuzzi, a collection of white, male, middle-aged ‘rockers’.

Then again, by the time of Live Aid, anyone over 30 was deemed a ‘veteran’, one of the funnier legacies of punk and New Pop.

Let’s survey the ages of some of the ‘rock legends’ who appeared at Wembley Stadium on 13 July 1985: Pete Townshend (40), Paul McCartney (43), Freddie Mercury (39), David Bowie (38), Bob Dylan (44), Keith Richards (41), Bryan Ferry (39), Mick Jagger (41), Elton John (37), Brian Wilson (43).

It’s interesting surveying the output of rock’s ageing alpha males during the ‘80s: angst, anger and lust were apparently their main drivers, alongside an interest in psychoanalysis and politics. Let’s take a look at some of their most coruscating work. For our purposes, we’ll define ‘mid life’ as 30 years old and above…

Peter Gabriel: ‘And Through The Wire’ (1980)

Upon hearing the early mixes of Peter Gabriel III, the US arm of his record company reportedly wondered if 30-year-old Pete had recently spent time in a mental asylum. But no, he was just letting off some steam, inviting Paul Weller along to supply raucous guitar, and unleashing a newfound, barely-concealed sexual energy: ‘Prowling the water hole/I wait for the kill/Pressure’s building/Overspill/I want you’. Ding-dong!

Richard Thompson: ‘Don’t Tempt Me’ (1988)

The folk/rock guitar/songwriting hero (38 at the time of recording) employed a killer US drums and bass team (Mickey Curry/Tony Levin) to carry off this pile-driving, piss-taking portrait of male jealousy and ‘little man’ syndrome. Note that he’s only ‘halfway’ out of his seat… Superb.

The Police: ‘Mother’ (1983)

Andy Summers (40 at the time of recording) takes some inspiration from Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ for this monstrosity, a hysterical, Oedipal blues in 7/4 time, very much inspired by his pal/guitar partner Robert Fripp. It’s quite funny to think that it was a contractually-obliged inclusion on the enormous-selling Synchronicity album, listened to by millions of unsuspecting teenagers before the emergence of the ‘skip’ button.

The Police: ‘Synchronicity II’ (1983)

Sting (31 at the time of recording) filters a Carl Jung concept through the story of family discord, a father’s paranoia and disquiet literally spawning a monster (in a Scottish loch!). Along the way, there’s also a barely concealed hatred for the common sprawl, ‘packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes’ during the morning commute, and the protagonist’s secretaries who ‘pout and preen like cheap tarts in a red-light street’, while Sting, Summers and Stewart Copeland lay down one of the most aggressive grooves in the band’s history. Scary, strange, midlife stuff.

David Bowie: ‘It’s No Game (Part One)’ (1980)

33-year-old Bowie is jolly well peed off about…everything. There was certainly a lot to be angry about in 1980, and accordingly his Scary Monsters album dealt with some of the fears he felt for his son, from the increasingly bold tabloid press to the ever-present right-wing bully boys. In surely the most histrionic vocal performance of his career, he sounds terrified of the ‘fascists’ and violent revolutions on his TV screen.

Robbie Robertson: ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ (1987)

From the classic self-titled album, Robertson (43) sounds seriously teed off about the legacy of the Vietnam War, and more specifically, The Battle For Cu Chi of 1965/1966 (‘Down on Hell’s half acre/Shakin’ with fever/Rumble in the jungle’). Tony Levin and Manu Katche make for an appropriately barnstorming rhythm section and Robbie’s guitar is almost Clash-like in its viciousness.

More 1980s musical midlife crises soon.

Linda Ronstadt: Canciones De Mi Padre

Great singing voices: you need ‘em, I need ‘em, the world needs ‘em.

Put me down for Mike Patton, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Chaka Khan, Lewis Taylor, Donny and Lalah Hathaway, Leon Thomas, Al Green, Phyllis Hyman, Johnny Gill, etc. etc.

And Linda Ronstadt too. I was a big teenage fan of her live cameo in cult movie ‘FM’ (though possibly for reasons other than musical), loved her guest spot with Randy Newman at this October 1984 TV special and her work with Neil Young on Freedom, but it was only when I heard her 1987 album Canciones de mi Padre that it all came together.

It’s a collection of traditional Spanish-language songs that she heard as a kid growing up in Tucson, Arizona, only 45 minutes from the Mexican border (her father was of German, English and Mexican ancestry).

Produced by long-time manager/producer Peter Asher and with arrangements by Ruben Fuentes, it’s a gorgeous selection, with Ronstadt’s majestic voice rising above trumpets, violins, acoustic guitar, string bass and mariarchi vocals.

The album was a deeply personal project, as she told MOJO magazine in December 2018:

‘I knew those songs all my life and I wanted to sing them. I didn’t know the lyrics to most of them but my dad did – he was a big part of my research – and although I knew roughly what they were about, I had to learn what the Spanish meant. I had to really, really work to get it up to speed.’

Canciones de mi Padre was a huge success, winning a Grammy for Best Mexican/American Performance, and sold approximately two million copies in the USA (and ten million copies worldwide), making it the biggest-selling non-English-language album in Billboard history.

That’s pretty good for a beautiful album that Linda considers herself lucky to have been allowed to make at all, claiming she was only given a green light by Warners after her Nelson Riddle-composed/arranged For Sentimental Reasons was unexpectedly a big hit. She subsequently toured Canciones across the States in theatres, revue-style, and also recorded two further Spanish-language albums.

Ronstadt sadly retired from public performance in 2009 after a Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis. The recent, moving documentary ‘Sound Of My Voice’ explores her ’70 and ‘80s music, including the great collaborations with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and focuses on the Spanish-language albums too.

Three Cheers For ‘Cheers’

If quality TV was your thing, you were quids-in on Friday nights back in the late 1980s. Channel 4 was supplying the goods: first there was ‘The Tube’, then, later on, it was ‘Cheers’. Happy days.

The Boston-set sitcom, created by director James Burrows and writer/producers Glen and Les Charles, ran between September 1982 and May 1993.

The evocative credit sequence, featuring Gary Portnoy’s theme song (check out some scrapped early versions here) and Russell Lee’s 1937 ‘Saturday Night In A Saloon’ photo, promised a lot, and ‘Cheers’ certainly didn’t disappoint.

Ted Danson’s ex-Red Sox pitcher Sam Malone was a superb performance against type (he won a Golden Globe in 1990). Apparently he had never tended a bar nor been to a baseball match in his life when he got the role. He brilliantly dialled down the IQ (in Jack Nicholson style) and dialled up the womanising and alcoholism. He was a great physical comedian too.

Shelley Long – playing Diane Chambers – was a marvellous comedienne, reminding many of Lucille Ball. Diane was the polar opposite of Sam, a feminist, fan of psychoanalysis, poetry and literature. There was great chemistry between Danson and Long, and their union reminded the show’s creators of Spencer Tracy’s work with Katherine Hepburn. Shelley won a 1983 Emmy for her terrific performance.

Rhea Perlman turned in a great performance as Carla (winning an Emmy in 1984) – she was also apparently pretty much the opposite of her character. Nicholas Colasanto beautifully portrayed the dim-witted Coach – he was a journeyman actor who had played a particularly memorable turn in ‘The Streets Of San Francisco’.

Later, Woody Harrelson who came in as Woody, kind of a Coach surrogate. It was a clever writing device too – in explaining things to Coach/Woody, you were also explaining things to the audience (apparently ‘Grizzly Man’ environmentalist Timothy Treadwell came very close to snagging the role of Woody).

‘Cheers’ also originated some much-imitated sitcom ‘rules’: any touchy-feely or dark stuff is fine but must be followed by a zinger or one-liner. Another edict of the first few seasons was that each episode had to end with Sam and Diane. Also the ‘cold start’, usually featuring Norm, became a sitcom trope.

True, after season five, ‘Cheers’ was increasingly hit-and-miss (though only then really began getting large TV audiences, the last season garnering an astonishing 80 million viewers), arguably with far too much attention paid to the minor characters (The Guardian newspaper had a good pop at Frasier here) but Kirstie Alley proved to be a gifted comedienne who won an Emmy award in 1991 (and she’s also one of the best screen drunks ever).

Other treats? Craig Safan’s cool, Katy Lied-era Steely Dan-style incidental music, with clarinet or alto sax, piano, drums, bass (some of the later excerpts were composed by an uncredited John Beasley, keyboardist for the jazz/rock stars and leader of the acclaimed MONK’estra).

Then there were the classic cameos: Emma Thompson, John Cleese, PJ Soles, John Kerry, and a host of ‘Hey it’s that guy/lady!’ actors of the early 1980s, many also often seen American movies of the time.

Favourite episodes? All of the five season-closers featuring Sam and Diane, plus ‘The Executive’s Executioner’, when Norm is reluctantly transformed into a hatchet man by his accountancy firm; ‘Look Before You Sleep’, when Sam gets locked out of the bar and his apartment and has to visit each of his friends’ houses in an attempt to get a night’s sleep; ‘Fear Is My Co-Pilot’, where Diane’s madcap friend takes her and Sam up in his airplane.

Not sure about you, but the daily early-morning reruns of ‘Cheers’ (in the UK) have been a real boon to this writer over the last year. Cheers to ‘Cheers’…