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)

The Cult Movie Club: ‘Psycho’ Revisited

My dad was a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan.

He liked the ‘minor’ Hitch as much as the ‘major’ Hitch. As a war baby, maybe he relished the director’s trademark mixture of dread and humour. Dad certainly didn’t sneer at ‘Psycho’; in fact, he would have put it firmly in the ‘major’ category.

We probably first watched the film together sometime around 1989. Revisiting it again recently, it struck me as a curiously – and defiantly – ‘modern’ movie.

Even as the ghastliness of America’s modern serial killers was becoming public knowledge towards the end of the 1950s, the kind of seediness ‘Psycho’ portrayed had still not been shown on screen (though David Thomson’s superb book ‘The Moment Of Psycho’ notes that a few figures – James Dean, Jerry Lewis, Elvis, Brando and Jack Nicholson, by way of Roger Corman, were ushering in a new, youthful edginess. Thomson also asks us to imagine Elvis as Norman Bates…).

Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano really decided to let American audiences have it with their fairly loyal interpretation of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel.

Thomson describes the film as Hitch’s ‘revenge’ on Hollywood, a Hollywood that had never granted the director an Oscar and whose mixture of humour and dread had never been fully accepted.

These factors also particularly struck me when revisiting ‘Psycho’ recently:

7. Hitchcock/Stefano’s skewering of America’s sacred cows

The family unit, marriage, the home, sanity, the bathroom (never before in an American film had there been the shot of a toilet flushing), heterosexuality, the shower stall. And the way he gleefully starts the movie tracking into a fairly seedy motel room to eavesdrop on a post-coital tryst. It all seems run-of-the-mill now but all of this must have been an incredible shock for contemporary audiences. Hitch wanted to show how modern, urban people were living their lives.

6. Joseph Stefano’s dialogue

Speed-reading Robert Bloch’s novel again, it struck me that screenwriter Stefano deserves huge praise for reworking the dialogue. He puts some pep in its step, fashions some brilliant lines for Norman (the whole mental illness speech during dinner with Marion in his den) and turns the scenes between Norman/Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and Norman/Arbogast (Martin Balsam) into mini masterpieces. He also adds some good, hip stuff featuring the traffic cop (who doesn’t feature in the novel) and car salesman (who does).

5. The shower murder

Hitchcock’s ‘pride’ at the slickness of the first murder scene belies its brutality. If there’s a more shocking death in the movies, I haven’t seen it. A troubling thought: to what extent does Hitchcock/Norman/’Mother’/Bloch/the audience ‘punish’ Marion for stealing (even though at the time of her murder she has made the decision to return the money)? But of course modern audiences would be primed for Janet Leigh’s early exit, since the opening credits say ‘…And Janet Leigh as Marion Crane’. It’s clear now she’s not going to last the whole movie, but audiences in 1960 wouldn’t have twigged.

4. The sexual politics of the first 40 minutes

Marion strikes us as an incredibly ‘modern’ character, strong, determined, troubled, independent, defiantly single (though willing to give Sam a try… Or is she? Why doesn’t she ring him to tell him she’s on her way with the money?). She passes through the first half of the film encountering men in scenes that somehow ‘mirror’ each other – her lover, the creepy, predatory client at work, traffic cop, car salesman, and finally Norman.

3. The concept of ‘doubles’

Of course, Norman ‘is’ Norma Bates, mother and son combined. Then there are the – on first viewing – strange matching shots of characters leaving rooms; first Marion, then ‘Mother’. Then there’s the remarkable physical likeness between Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and Norman (who, of course, in many ways seems far more pleasantly disposed towards Marion than Sam ever is).

2. The brilliance of Anthony Perkins’ performance

Hitchcock apparently instructed Stefano to write for Perkins once the teen heart-throb had signed on very early in proceedings. The novel has Norman as an overweight, alcoholic, 40-year-old schlub, but Perkins’ leading-man looks, disarming smile and gentleness are the movie’s masterstrokes. He delivers a classic performance, possibly influenced by Dennis Weaver’s panic-stricken ‘night man’ in Orson Welles’s ‘Touch Of Evil’.

1. The flatness of the second half

Hitchcock barely seems interested in any characters other than Marion and Norman, fatally unhinging the second half of the movie. It’s pretty boring apart from the above terrific scene between Norman and Arbogast (which apparently earned lengthy applause from the crew), the Arbogast murder, the ‘Mother’ reveal in the basement and the closing Norman/Mother ‘monologue’, featuring more fantastic work from Perkins.

Halloween Special: 11 Memorable VHS Covers

Back in those early days of VHS fever at the beginning of the ’80s, my parents would occasionally invite friends round to watch a scary movie. 

I remember tip-toeing out of my bedroom very late at night, creeping along the corridor and trying to snatch a peek at ‘Halloween II’ or ‘Straw Dogs’.

I wasn’t allowed to watch those kind of movies, though later was granted a bit of license with regards to ‘The Fog’, ‘Creepshow’, ‘The Island’ and ‘American Werewolf In London’.

The Video Masheen shop on Sheen Lane was a treasure trove of interesting VHS covers, a weird showroom advertising movies I’d never get to see. What kind of deranged mind could conceive of these images? The mind boggled. Some surely qualify as genuinely surreal pieces of art, though the #MeToo movement would probably put pay to a few more these days.

Here are some VHS covers of the era that stuck in the mind. Straight from the shelf of Video Masheen. Happy Halloween…

11. ‘An American Werewolf In London’ (1981)

10. ‘Halloween II’ (1981)

9. ‘Creepshow’ (1982)

8. ‘The Island’ (1980)

7. ‘The Howling’ (1980)

6. ‘The Fog’ (1980)

5. ‘Southern Comfort’ (1981)

4. ‘The Exterminator’ (1980)

3. ‘Scanners’ (1980)

2. ‘Christine’ (1983)

1. ‘The Thing’ (1982)