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 Crap Movie Club: Homeboy (1988)

One of the pleasures of reading Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’ is following his trains of thought wherever they go, however obtuse. Possibly the most random is a mention of Mickey Rourke’s performance in the actor’s self-penned, almost totally forgotten 1988 film ‘Homeboy’, seen by Bob during the difficult Oh Mercy sessions:

‘He could break your heart with a look. The movie traveled to the moon every time he came onto the screen. Nobody could hold a candle to him. He was just there, didn’t have to say hello or goodbye.’

I’m a huge Mickey apologist, but I think Bob was way off the beam here. ‘Homeboy’ is irredeemable. It also signalled the beginning of Rourke’s 20-year slump. Clearly a ‘vanity project’ for our star (he started writing it during the ‘Heaven’s Gate’ shoot in 1980), it’s the film where Mickey started to believe his own hype and play the sort of parts which echoed how badly he obviously felt about the movie business.

‘Homeboy’ is a weirdly masochistic (at times reminiscent of Brando’s similar explorations in that area), relentlessly downbeat, funereally-paced, vaguely camp melodrama. The ‘plot’, such as it is, is almost identical to that of ‘The Wrestler’, the 2008 comeback that won Mickey his first Oscar.

He plays Johnny Walker, a punch-drunk, third-division-south pugilist reduced to hawking his wares around Asbury Park for a few bucks with his portly coach in tow. Possibly Mickey’s character is supposed to have endured some kind of stroke, because he spends the whole film squeaking out of the side of his mouth, rendering his sparse dialogue almost inaudible.

Christopher Walken appears intermittently as the dodgy agent who wants Johnny’s assistance with a jewellery heist. Modelling a succession of deafening suits, he chews up the scenery a couple of times, dances a bit, sings a bit, clearly knowing this film is a heap of sh*t. At times amusing but not enough to rescue the movie, it’s a dry run for his superior turns in ‘King Of New York’ and ‘Wild Side’.

Poor Debra Feuer – Mickey’s wife at the time – underwhelms in the almost non-existent role of Johnny’s love interest. Eric Clapton phones in an always-too-loud soundtrack, obviously tossed off during yet another Albert Hall run, adding a few tired licks but mainly employing bassist Nathan East to improvise some fairly half-baked solo cues.

Director Michael Seresin, previously the cinematographer on ‘Angel Heart’ (and recently one of the Harry Potter films), can’t seem to rustle up any convincing or memorable scenes. The final effect is sub-Golan-Globus.

Rourke has one great moment towards the end of the film though, possibly the one Dylan picked up on, where he peers up at his coach and tearfully asks (with shades of Brando again), ‘You think I coulda been good?’ But it’s too little too late. ‘Homeboy’ should probably have stayed in Development Hell.

The Crap Movie Club: Heaven’s Gate (1980)

It’s difficult to view a film like ‘Heaven’s Gate’ these days shorn of all the hoo-ha that accompanied its troubled production and disastrous cinematic release (outlined in the definitive book and documentary ‘Final Cut‘).

But let’s give it a try. It was of course the notorious movie that destroyed United Artists and pretty much ended the New Hollywood ideal of director-as-auteur; the $44 million turkey which grossed just $1.2 million at the box office.

Writer/director Michael Cimino went looking for ‘the poetry of America’ in his film about the Johnson County War of 1896, when the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association decided that new settlers – mainly poor, immigrant homesteaders – were stealing cattle, decreeing that 125 of these so-called thieves be hunted down and either hung or shot.

Though Cimino’s film ends with a battlefield bloodbath (including many horses in apparent physical peril which led him into a further unwanted lawsuit), history records that ‘only’ two people lost their lives in the Johnson County War.

But, defending his screenplay and movie to the end, Cimino clung steadfastly to one of his directing/writing credos: ‘I use history freely’.

But, historical license aside, how much of a turkey is ‘Heaven’s Gate’ really? Can any movie starring Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken, Brad Dourif, Mickey Rourke, Sam Waterston, John Hurt and Isabelle Huppert really be such a dog?

Yes. ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is that special kind of crap movie, the indulgent folly that spews elongated scenes out all over the place in the hope that something will stick.

Vilmos Zgismond’s camerawork is of course gorgeous; grainy and sepia-tinged, frequently reminiscent of the era’s stills photography. The movie frequently delivers the awesome image, including one famous panning shot across immense smokestack chimneys and hoards of wandering, displaced immigrants.

The Oxford-filmed opening graduation ceremony is also plush, striking and gloriously evocative.

Jeff Bridges. Isabelle Huppert and Kris Kristofferson

But then there’s the inaudible dialogue and strange, schizoid reaction shots. As the film progresses, Kristofferson becomes more and more inactive and dramatically impotent, while Bridges, Dourif, Hurt and Rourke are chronically underused.

Huppert is virtually incomprehensible in a fairly thankless role (turned down by every major female star of the era including Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton).

Cimino’s war metaphor in ‘The Deer Hunter’ was Russian roulette, but this time it’s endless cock-fighting, waltzing and rollerskating.

He clearly feels that the film says something important about America’s treatment of its poor and disenfranchised (and it’s certainly interesting viewing that aspect through modern eyes), but unfortunately the scenes of political wrangling/bargaining are interminable.

Pauline Kael memorably said that it was easy to think about what to leave out of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ but hard to think what to leave in. That’s the impression left with this writer too.

Quite frankly, apart from the stunning photography, one of the few pleasures watching the film again was spotting the gorgeous Rosie (‘Roseanne’ in the credits) Vela’s small but important cameo (see below). ‘Magic Smile’ indeed.