Awaking from a 5 year coma after a terrible car accident, schoolteacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) discovers he has psychic abilities and can see into a person’s past or future just by touching their hand. Soon Johnny finds himself inundated with interest from the media and even the police (who want his help solving a series of murders) making it hard for Johnny to rebuild his life. Then, when he meets local senator and future President Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), the real reason for his abilities and his destiny become clear.
As promised last time, we’re ending this year’s posts and our series on underrated 80s movies with the second of two 80s film adaptations of books by Stephen King.
Somehow The Dead Zone is often forgotten in amongst discussions about visionary director David Cronenberg’s early work and yet, it’s a superb adaptation of one of King’s novels that the author himself was full of praise for.
Sandwiched in Cronenberg’s filmography between two of his most brilliant early films: Scanners and Videodrome, The Dead Zone probably seemed to fans of Cronenberg’s work as if his vision had been diluted by Hollywood. It was the first film in his career that wasn’t based on an original screenplay, and in a way is superior for it — for all their brilliance, I’ve often felt that many of Cronenberg’s early films are essentially built around a series of disturbing or shocking set pieces that the script is merely there to navigate the viewer between — The Dead Zone has more plot that any of Cronenberg’s previous films. Too much plot at times (due to screenwriter Jeffrey Boam having to whittle down King’s often rambling narrative) and at first Johnny’s experiences trying to help people using his ‘gift’ have an episodic feel, but that’s actually part of the story’s brilliance: Throwing the viewer a number of potential storylines before Johnny’s realization of what his power might be for and the true meaning of the film’s title which comes three quarters of the way through the film, in a way that almost takes the viewer unawares.
It’s an unusual structure for a film, but then Cronenberg has gone on to show us many times since with Crash, Maps To The Stars, The Naked Lunch and Existenz that he loves unusual narrative structures. Unknowingly it also pointed towards Cronenberg’s future films, in showing that he could adapt other people’s stories and yet still maintain his own distinctive style but also that he was a mature filmmaker who could make movies that didn’t just involve body horror. It’s much easier to see the connection between this and later films such as A History Of Violence and Dead Ringers than between those films and Shivers or Rabid for example.
Beginning with picturesque images of New England as the late, great Michael Kamen’s beautiful score swells and the film’s title gradually fades in, blacking out parts of the image as it does, the film gets a lot of things right from the start. As with many of King’s books, this film takes place in a fictional part of New England, King’s much used Castle Rock is mentioned in passing as the place where a series of murders of young women has taken place, but the whole film doesn’t place there. As with the books, the film could really take place in any small town — which is one of King’s great gifts as a writer: showing that small towns have their share of evil and dark secrets.
Kamen’s score is a major reason why the film works so well, combining a beautiful main theme that is both romantic and disturbing at the same time. It’s been a favorite score of mine since I first saw the film when I was about 14. I even used the opening music for a short theatre piece I wrote and directed for my A-level Drama Exam. A few years later I was able to find a CD copy of the soundtrack in Tower Records in London’s Piccadilly Square. As well, as the spookily beautiful main theme, Kamen’s amazingly assured score from very early in his film composing career features a number of brilliant moments: the low woodwinds and backwards voices during Johnny’s psychic visions or the lovely harp led variation on the main theme that accompanies the scene of Johnny talking to the young boy he comes to tutor. It would be the only time, after The Brood, that Cronenberg would use someone else other than Howard Shore to compose the score to his films, but Kamen was an inspired choice and I don’t think Shore could have delivered a more effective score than the one here. Kamen would, of course, go on to score both the Lethal Weapon films and the first 3 Die Hard movies brilliantly, as well as big budget summer movies such as Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, but chances to showcase how well he could combine both romantic lyricism and ominous dread would come only sporadically in his later career. For me this score ranks among his finest — up there with his work on Edge Of Darkness, Brazil and the first Die Hard.
After the opening titles the story moves at a fast pace, establishing the characters of Johnny and Sarah, through Johnny’s accident, recovery and discovery of his psychic abilities. This was a necessary condensing of King’s novel, which follows the parallel stories of Johnny and Greg Stillson and which also had Johnny having psychic episodes before his accident and later on made much more explicit the idea that Johnny’s psychic abilities are causing him to develop a brain tumor. Boam has done an excellent job of keeping the major points of King’s novel, whilst reducing it down to a more linear form and keeping the focus on the character of Johnny.
The casting of Christopher Walken as Johnny might seem an odd choice but, despite the fact that no-one could ever describe him as a naturalistic actor, Walken turns in one of his most understated performances and one that is often overlooked when talking about his best roles. Only his Oscar-nominated work in The Deer Hunter has as much range as his performance here, with his trademark strangeness adding a quirky and often moving element to his work, rather than taking over completely.
As with Walken, casting Martin Sheen, who often plays working class Dad’s, avuncular Uncles or other men with a strong moral compass as the slimy, psychotic, bible-thumping Greg Stillson, seems wrong, when it’s actually inspired. Not since Apocalypse Now has Sheen played such a disturbing character, and whilst he apparently had reservations about playing the role originally, he clearly relished the chance to play such an unrepentantly evil character. Perhaps it’s just the times we’re living in, but it’s difficult not to watch this character now and think of President Trump.
Despite these two stand out performances, the film really does feel like an ensemble piece and there’s great work throughout from the other actors including a wonderful performance from Herbert Lom as Johnny’s doctor, and great work from Brooke Adams as Sarah (making a role that was probably quite two dimensional on the page, seem warm and naturalistic), Tom Skerrit as Sheriff Bannerman and Anthony Zerbe as the wealthy father of one of Johnny’s students. Two of Cronenberg’s regular actors, Peter Dvorsky and Les Carlson, who would both have prominent roles in Videodrome, make an appearance as well and Cronenberg’s regular Production Designer, Carol Spier and his then regular cinematographer, Mark Irwin both work on the film, subtly blending naturalistic -looking. locations and a muted color scheme with the often startling visuals of Johnny’s visions.
All in all, a superb early film from a visionary director that deserves to more recognized than it is.
That’s it for our posts this year and our series on underrated 80s movies, but don’t worry we’ll be back in the new year with more underrated films for you. In the meantime, happy holidays and a happy new year.