The Dead Zone (1983)
Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, and directed by David Cronenberg, The Dead Zone is definitely one of the best films based on King’s work. It has always been heralded with acclaim for many excellent reasons. Not the least of which is an incredible lead performance from Christopher Walken.
Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a young and charming school teacher with a bright future ahead of him with a woman he loves and intends to marry. Yet, after leaving her home one night, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for five years. Upon awakening, Johnny discovers he has gained the power of psychic visions where he see the past, present, and future with just the touch of a hand. This frightens Johnny, and he feels only more isolated from the world when he learns that Sarah (Brooke Adams), the love of his life, has married another man and had a child with him. After Johnny physically recovers from his coma, he becomes more and more reclusive until Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) enlists his help to find the vicious Castle Rock Killer. However, when Johnny later shakes the hand of young and upcoming political candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he is confronted with a frightening vision that shakes Johnny down to his core.
To say the least, Cronenberg has been a very original director with a unique perspective and style which comes out in science fiction or horror fare. Although, what he gives us with this film is a much more subtly clever and psychologically powerful over overt strangeness. Instead of going for the throat like he did with Scanners or Videodrome, he really hones in on the heart of this story, and he does it magnificently well. Every element he brought together truly merged with the heavy, somber tone he was going for. That was an excellent direction to envelope the film in as it puts us right into Johnny’s headspace. I think it was a stroke of genius that he made Johnny’s visions fully enveloping. He put Johnny inside the vision as if he was right there as it happened, but unable to affect change within the vision. It created a far more strained experienced for the character than if it just appeared as a dream state. With the first vision, he could probably feel the heat and flames just as if he was there in the burning house. During the vision of the Castle Rock Killer, Johnny is adamant how he was right there watching the murder, but unable to stop it. This forges Johnny into a darker, more reclusive state.
This is the earliest film I’ve seen of Christopher Walken’s career, and it shows that, no matter the age, Walken delivers his all. Johnny starts out as a kind, lively man fully in love, but the accident forces a turbulent change in him. He feels like a man out of sync with the world, and is now haunted by his new abilities. He’s angry that five years of his have been taken away, and that the woman he loved moved on with her life while he has none to return to. Walken is able to convey the deep emotional turmoil of Johnny with so much humanity that you can’t help but feel his pain. The tragic sense of the character really comes through in such strong, brilliant ways. Walken subtly mixes in the charm of the pre-accident Johnny underneath that somber, unstable exterior. The well of emotion in his face and eyes honestly becomes heartbreaking many times over. When the visions occur, Walken goes into an intense trance which is immensely riveting. Walken actually had Cronenberg fire off a gun, loaded with blanks, to elicit his startling reaction in those moments, and that was greatly effective. Walken can be very intense, at times, as the fear of his knowledge of the future boils over, but he’s always able to return to that heartfelt side. I could really go on and on about all the nuances and profound qualities of Christopher Walken’s performance, as he is always so rich with, but suffice it to say, he is absolutely stunning in this role.
Another great talent on display is Tom Skerritt who brings his strong presence of authority and sense of compassion to Sheriff Bannerman. He feels very authentic as the lead police officer of a small New England town. He really invests you in Bannerman’s plight where he has exhausted all avenues of investigation, and is willing to put his faith in the extraordinary to protect the people of his town. Herbert Lom does a very interesting and relatable performance as Dr. Sam Weizak with the genuine care of a physician. I really like the candor and humanity he brings to the role as Johnny’s doctor. He’s about the only one Johnny can confide in about his abilities, and that creates some very strong scenes which show Johnny’s pain and struggles. It’s very strong and intriguing work. Brooke Adams is very lovely and beautiful in the role of Sarah. She is very sweet and smart showing a simple, very caring woman that would endear herself to the younger Johnny who was bright and full of life. Adams does the same to an audience showing warmth and tenderness, and really striking up a genuine, heartfelt chemistry with Walken. The great Anthony Zerbe has an admirable turn as Roger Stuart, who hires Johnny to tutor his son, and also, bridges Smith with Stillson. Zerbe has a screen presence of respect, intelligence, and sophistication which serves the character excellently.
Martin Sheen is awesome as Greg Stillson. While he is perfectly stereotypical of a politician, and seemingly an exaggerated one, it entirely works for the role. Stillson is megalomaniacal, as is revealed to Johnny. He’s full-tilt insane, and Sheen revels in that madness. He has thinly veiled unhinged mentality which many voters would perceive as zeal, passion, and charisma, but Zerbe’s character perceives the danger he poses, which is a very nice touch to motivate Johnny’s and Stillson’s paths to cross.
While I have not read the novel, it seems like it had just a series of generally episodic events, which could have proven complicated to translate into a coherent screenplay, but I believe the filmmakers did an excellent job of weaving them together with Johnny’s plight being the through line. How he goes from feeling angry and cursed to slowly realizing the potential good he can do with his powers is a fascinating approach. Yet, he’s never really a man at peace. There’s always an emotional or psychological turmoil swirling inside him. Because of this, The Dead Zone is more a character-driven movie as there is no overarching main plot, aside from Johnny’s internal struggles. The film gives us a series of otherwise unrelated events that deeply affect and mold Johnny towards a powerful ending. While it could use a little more meat on the bone, in terms of a more rigorously involved plot in the Stillson centric segment, this really seems like the best approach to the material, and it is done exceptionally well.
The film’s score was done by the late, great Michael Kamen, who was a masterful composer and musician. Here, he produced a brilliant score that is powerful and haunting. It really has a strong presence which really digs deep into the emotions abound in the film, reflecting the sad, bittersweet feeling Cronenberg captured on screen. Even in the beautiful moment, he still manages to keep that heavy, foreboding tone present. It’s really a mesmerizing piece of music which is undeniably one of Kamen’s finest and distinct works.
The winter setting of The Dead Zone is marvelously brilliant. It reflects the cold, lonely, isolated sensibility that come to define Johnny Smith. It also perfectly Stephen King. Cinematographer Mark Irwin shot this film amazingly well. There are some sequences with wonderfully moody lighting such as the tunnel crime scene with the headlights reflecting off the ice, or the green tinge inside the Dodd residence. Johnny’s visions are all very visually strong, especially the ice break sequence. Overall, Irwin captures the power of this picture beautifully and compellingly.
The horror aspects in this film are very psychologically and visually based. Certainly the most graphic and startling is the Castle Rock Killer segment. We get violence and some disturbing imagery with this part which is very expertly executed. The rest of the film focuses on the fearful knowledge that haunts Johnny, and creates a troubling foreboding tone which leaves the audience unsettled. It’s a cerebral film built on a solid, somber atmosphere that can leave you saddened. I do think it’s a film that goes beyond the confines of horror, and pursues something much more fascinating and deeper. That was much of King’s intention. He wanted to write a story that didn’t delve into creatures or spirits or other things that come out to scare you in the dead of night. The Dead Zone was a sad, turbulent journey for a man that never asked for these extraordinary powers, but had to somehow cope with these experiencing jarring, haunting premonitions of death. They lead him down a chilling path that would be frightening for anyone.
As is obvious, I really like The Dead Zone. The only thing that pulls it away from a perfect rating is that I don’t think the build up to the climax is quite strong enough. A bit more time taken for Johnny to deep down struggle with his decision, or to really reflect upon himself would’ve given it a more dramatic swell. The ending is excellent, though. It really hits the right, powerful emotional beat. I wouldn’t change a frame of it. Christopher Walken puts in a rock solid performance that runs through a wide array of emotions that he brilliantly wraps into a single package. David Cronenberg had already proven he could go way far out with his concepts, and really deliver very bizarre, yet profound films. Here, he proves he get deep into the soul of a story and character, and deliver something equally profound on a much more intimate human level. I really, strongly recommend this film. It is expertly crafted by a great team of wonderfully talented film artists.