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: John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ 40 Years On

What with ‘The Lighthouse’ and ‘Bait’, you can’t move for nautically-themed movies at the moment.

But it’s arguable whether either are as effective as John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’, released 40 years ago today.

But then I’m biased: aside from Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ and ‘American Werewolf In London’, it was one of the first scary movies I was allowed to watch in my teenage years, and subsequently inspired a dodgy short horror novel of my own (‘The Ghost Of The Drowned Sailor’…).

Revisiting it this week for the first time in ages, it delivered all sorts of treats though these days is scarcely mentioned alongside ‘Halloween’, ‘Assault On Precinct 13’ and ‘The Thing’ in the list of bona fide Carpenter classics.

Shot mainly in coastal California around Point Reyes, Bodega Bay and Inverness, ‘The Fog’ was a brave move on Carpenter and producer/co-writer Debra Hill’s part, following up ‘Halloween’ by mostly eschewing the slasher format (it’s interesting to note that both ‘The Shining’ and ‘Friday The 13th’ were released two months later, in May 1980) in favour of a seemingly old-fashioned ghost story inspired by a trip to Stonehenge and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.

This attempt at a different kind of movie caused problems when Carpenter’s original cut was deemed too moody and not supplying the requisite scares for post-‘Halloween’ sensibilities.

Many scenes were re-shot and some new ones added just a few months before release, including the opening ghost story, ‘Close Encounters’-style scene-setting and top-of-the-lighthouse finale. The music and sound effects were also reworked.

Watching the 2002 DVD edition, the first thing I noticed is the gorgeous lighting and camerawork. Its sharp, crisp colours and composition are a great testament to the lab technicians (heralded by Carpenter on his DVD commentary) and director of photographer Dean Cundey, who has since gone on to be one of the premier DPs in Hollywood.

Also the impressive miniature/model work, widescreen lenses and evocative coastal locations give a lot of bang for relatively little buck (‘The Fog’ was eventually brought in at just over $1 million).

‘The Fog’ also benefits from an excellent central performance from Adrienne Barbeau as the Hawksian, Bacall-voiced DJ Stevie Wayne (and spinner of Steely Dan-approved big-band and light jazz/fusion tunes).

She and co-writer Debra Hill manage to root the hokum in a credible, sympathetic, rounded character. It’s also great fun to see Janet Leigh appearing in the same movie as her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, and Nancy Loomis delivers her usual amusingly insouciant line readings.

Effects man extraordinaire Rob Bottin features as head ghost Blake, heading up a very rock’n’roll-looking bunch of ghouls, though arguably the movie would have benefitted from a little less ‘show’ and a little more ‘tell’ in the last 20 minutes.

Seeing Blake in plain sight at the end is always a bit of a disappointment, despite the glowing red eyes. But editors Charles Bornstein and Tommy Lee Wallace deserve much credit for building tension in the last third with shrewd, snappy cutting (sometimes seamlessly between studio/location shots).

Carpenter’s excellent soundtrack cribs a little from Michel Legrand’s famous score for ‘The Go-Between’ but has some marvellous sections, particularly during Barbeau’s ‘look for the fog’ closing speech (obviously very influenced by a similar ending to Howard Hawks’ ‘The Thing’).

‘The Fog’ was a hit (despite Siskel and Ebert’s stinking review, see below), earning around $20 million against its $1 million budget.

It was a lot of fun to revisit it again, and looks like just the low-budget horror classic I always remembered it to be, with more imagination and storytelling elan than 99% of other genre offerings.

Happy birthday to a true cult classic. Now, what’s that tapping sound… Who’s that rapping on my door? At this hour…?