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)