Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (1983) Part Two

9. The Dead Zone

In February of 1983, “Videodrome” was released. In time, it would gain a reputation as one of David Cronenberg’s best films. Upon release, it flopped. Yet the Canadian director would bounce back within the same year, following up one of his most challenging films with his most mainstream release up to this point. “The Dead Zone” was adapted from a novel by Stephen King, America’s most successful horror author. Though merely one of many King adaptations that filled theaters in the eighties, “The Dead Zone” was well reviewed and did decent business. The film is highly regarded in some circles while also sometimes dismissed as a blatant grab at mainstream success by a notoriously divisive director.

New England school teacher Johnny Smith seems like a nice enough guy, a down to Earth fellow liked by his students. His girlfriend Sarah is eager to move forward with their relationship but Johnny likes to take things slow. Riding home from a date, Smith crashes his car, colliding with a truck hulling strange chemicals. Johnny falls into a coma for five years. When he awakes, his world has changed. He’s also developed the ability to seemingly see someone’s future and their past after touching their hand. Though frightened by his abilities, Smith soon realizes he can help others.

Some David Cronenberg fans complain that “The Dead Zone” lacks the director’s trademarks. No, the film does not feature any pulsating body horror or exploding heads. It’s not even set in Canada. Another authorial voice directs much of “The Dead Zone.” This is a Stephen King story though and through. Like most everything King writes, the film is set in New England. (Though the location is shifted from King’s beloved Maine to New Hampshire for some reason.) Johnny Smith is a classical King everyman protagonist. The plot concerns every day life being interrupted by the macabre and fantastical. The story takes pot-shots at religion and corrupt politicians. It’s easy to imagine Cronenberg suppressing his more controversial tendencies in favor of King’s crowd pleasing ideas.

This is even after screenwriter Jeffrey Boam considerably pared down King’s original novel. Boam ditched the parallel story structure of King’s “Dead Zone,” which followed the protagonist’s and villain’s development side-by-side. Boam, instead, leans towards an episodic plot. “The Dead Zone” breaks down neatly into four incidents. The first concerns Johnny falling into his coma, his awakening, and how he first discovers his powers. The second has Smith reluctantly tracking a serial killer through Castle Rock. The third concerns Johnny being invited to tutor the reclusive child of a local rich man, who he saves from a fatal accident. The last sequence has Smith taking drastic measures to stop Greg Stillson’s rise of power. A structure such as this leaves “Dead Zone” with a slightly lurching pace. However, the film includes enough through-lines to keep the film from feeling scattered.

Yet saying that “The Dead Zone” is directed solely by King’s sensibilities isn’t fair though. A second look reveals that many of Cronenberg’s themes are still present. Like the parasites of “Shivers” or the explosive powers of the “Scanners,” Johnny’s visions come from within. The film plays Johnny’s predictions for as much horror as possible. His first premonition, where he appears in a child’s bedroom while it burns, features surreal elements like Johnny laying in a burning bed but remaining unharmed. The image of children hockey players falling through the ice have a bleak, cold, shocking aspect. The rape and murder of a young girl are shown from the back, granting a voyeuristic edge to the stark sequence. For “The Dead Zone,” Cronenberg takes his body horror inside out. Instead of the physical form growing sick and deranged, the drastic alternations point into the human mind.

Well, except for that serial killer sequence. Johnny teaming with the local police to hunt the Castle Rock Killer takes “The Dead Zone” down its most overtly horrific path. Once Smith uses his psychic powers to deduce that Deputy Dodd is the murderer, the cops enter his home. Inside the house, Cronenberg tells an entire story with some excellent production design and a few short lines of dialogue. The killer’s room is decorated with cowboy imagery and toys, suggesting a certain amount of arrested development. He also lives with his mom, who is fully aware of her son’s antics, which certainly suggests some things. Dodd commits ritualistic suicide, stripping nude, putting on a leather slicker, and slowly pushing his own head onto an upward pointed pair of scissors. It’s a moment of squirm inducing horror that wouldn’t have been out of place inside one of Cronenberg’s nastier, earlier pictures. Yet it’s not just shock value, as a lot is suggested with a little.

“The Dead Zone” also provides a lead performance for one of America’s most beloved eccentric actor. Christopher Walken, at first, subdues his natural quirkiness. The early scenes focus on how charming and funny Walken can be, making Johnny Smith as likable as possible. Once he awakens from his coma, Walken is allowed to become more unconventional. He plays up the oddness of the premonitions, frequently sweating or starring. When trying to convince others of his abilities, he’ll sometimes shout or smash a table with his cane. A melancholic tone characterizes most of his later scenes. Yet for all the crazy places “The Dead Zone” takes Walken, he never looses sight of Johnny Smith’s humanity. It’s a wonderful performance.

Further grounding the film is the love story hidden inside it. When we first meets Johnny Smith, he’s involved with a woman named Sarah. When he awakens five years later, Sarah is married and has a son. Yet the old flame still burns, even after all this time. Despite some attempts to rekindle the romance, Johnny and Sarah know they can’t be together anymore. Their lives have changed too much. Brooke Adams plays Sarah, bringing an incredible girl next door charm to the part. By characterizing the love story as a tragedy, it adds extra weight to “The Dead Zone.” The final image, of a woman cradling her dying lover, is effecting. (Cronenberg would employ something similar in his next movie.)

“The Dead Zone” also features a degree of political satire. Entering the film midway through is Greg Stillson. An up-and-coming politician, he wins crowds through populist strategies. At rallies, he performs big gestures, like doing push-ups or giving away food. He claims that America is less great than it used to be but that he can restore the country to its former glory. He targets the working class, guaranteeing he can give them back their jobs. He’s also, as Johnny sees in one of his visions, totally insane. Once Stillson is in power, he intends on launching America’s nuclear arsenal at any enemy he sees fit. (No, the similarities to our current president's rise to power haven’t gone unnoticed.) Martin Sheen plays Stillson, with a venomous glee, making the dirty politician's every underhanded gesture especially greasy.

Several strong names emerge from “The Dead Zone’s” supporting cast. Tom Skerritt plays Sheriff Bannerman, bringing a sense of stately authority to the role. The way Bannerman gingerly asks for Smith’s help, unsure if his powers even exist, shows some nice restraint on Skerritt’s behalf. Herbert Lom plays Smith’s doctor, Dr. Weizak. Lom plays Weizak’s reaction to Smith giving him information about his childhood and mother nicely. Later, a conversation about Hitler shows Lom’s talent for humor. I also like Anthony Zerbe as Roger Stuart, the man Smith befriends when he starts to tutor his son.

Something else I picked up on while re-watching “The Dead Zone” was an odd religious subtext. Johnny’s mother is devoutly religious. Fanatical Christians are usually villains in King’s work, while Cronenberg’s atheistic approach rarely addresses religion at all. Smith’s mother is odd but not bad. Not long after her son reawakens with strange powers, she collapses and dies. During his premonitions, Johnny can watch but never interact with the memory. The film directly compares this situation to how God observes humanity. “The Dead Zone’s” story obviously raises issues of fate and destiny, if the future can be changed once it’s observed. None of these themes connect with each other and form a coherent whole. But they certainly make “The Dead Zone” even more interesting.

Visually, “The Dead Zone” continues Cronenberg’s developing visual sense. The film has its share of memorable sights. The police take Johnny to the tunnel where the killer waits for his prey. Cronenberg’s camera stalks through the tight corridors, immediately establishing a feeling of foreboding. The director shoots multiple scenes from unexpected angles, mimicking Johnny’s status as an unwilling voyeur on memories and future events. There’s also a clever use of color. The Castle Rock Killer’s lair is painted in neon greens and purples, furthering the scene’s surreal atmosphere. Later, when showing young hockey players falling through the ice, Cronenberg frames the moment in mournful dark blues.

When it comes to the best Stephen King adaptations, “The Dead Zone” usually ranks somewhere near the top. While not in the same category as Kubrick’s “The Shining” or DePalma’s “Carrie,” the film is classy, suspenseful, well acted and beautifully directed. The story’s episodic nature would later become a natural fit for television. Walken would also, eventually, parody the film in a mildly amusing “Saturday Night Live” sketch. It would push Cronenberg into the mainstream, allowing his next film to be made, his true breakthrough. Thirty years later, it still holds up as a satisfying film and adaptation. [Grade: B+]

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