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.
After the horrendous Freddy’s Dead, New Line Cinema was willing to entertain ideas from series creator Wes Craven on a new entry to the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. This film is partly a return to form for the series, but also ventures into a completely and radically new direction. The entire film is set outside the realm of the franchise in our reality. Many of the main characters and cameos are people playing themselves, to a degree. Heather Langenkamp, the heroine from the first and third films in the series, plays herself. We also have appearances by Wes Craven, John Saxon, and Robert Shaye – all playing themselves with some creative licenses. Robert Englund is of course here, playing both a more eccentric version of himself and the demonic incarnation of Freddy Krueger.
Heather Langenkamp lives a content life with her husband Chase Porter (David Newsom) and son Dylan (Miko Hughes). However, her sense of safety is compromised by a series of unsettling phone calls which Heather believes are from an anonymous stalker. Coupled with this is some increasingly strange behavior from Dylan. Heather gains little comfort from her former co-stars Robert Englund or John Saxon about either her paranoia or concern for her son. While she does not allow her son to watch any of the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, with her promoting the ten year anniversary of the original, she cannot escape its looming shadow. She soon finds out that Wes Craven is planning on making the definitive Nightmare movie, and that he has been plagued by nightmares of his own. It has practically become an epidemic as the same disturbing dreams have come to Heather as well as Robert Englund himself. Craven eventually tells Heather that what is haunting them is an ancient demon that has been roaming from story-to-story since the beginning of time, but has come accustomed to Freddy. Now, it wants into our world, and Heather is the perceived gatekeeper betweens the realms of fantasy and reality since she was the first to defeat Freddy. Dylan is a key focal point of this demon’s plan to lure in Heather. As all the elements begin to converge, the world around Heather starts to transform into the twisted existence of this guised Freddy Krueger.
New Nightmare is a creatively successful film that was not a financial success in 1994. I don’t think New Line Cinema knew quite how to market this concept in a way that was concise to an audience. It’s a far more cerebral concept than had been introduced into the series prior, but even then, it still requires a good amount of exposition to get a handle on. It’s very strange that at the time of release I had never even watched any of these films, and hadn’t spawned my horror movie fandom, yet. Still, I was entirely aware of this film while no one else seemed to be. Thankfully, time has given it the respect and admiration it deserved.
Wes Craven absolutely wrote an ambitious and smart screenplay. I think this shows a maturing of his artistic sensibilities. This is very high concept employing ideas that could not be competently handled by just anyone. There have been plenty of poorly conceived and/or executed reality-bending films, but only a special few that have done it with inspiring results. While that’s mostly true of any genre, this is one that doesn’t have as high of an output, and is usually only tried when a filmmaker feels ambitious. Most fail because they don’t have the right intellect behind them to pull it off without becoming pretentious, contrived, or fall into a style over substance trap. The films that do succeed have visionary filmmakers behind them who know how to convey the concept smartly and effectively. In New Nightmare’s case, it connects you directly with the characters, and invests you in their plights while methodically building up its premise with fine dashes of foreboding tension and suspense. It treats its horror and gruesome deaths with real human emotion and grief. These are real people experiencing real terror and pain. Thus, it increases the dread and danger of their situation with a heavy weight that an audience can truly feel.
This film is exceptionally solid while it’s not so much slasher horror as supernatural, psychological horror. Craven relies more on subtle atmosphere and a series of creepy, unexplained events, much like a haunted house story, to scare an audience. There is some gore, but it is only in a few scenes. So, on a slasher film level, New Nightmare does feel very starved for gruesome bloodletting, and that does detract from the film for me. There’s not enough visceral pay-off for the building up of suspense and atmosphere. Heather is truly terrorized by what this demon does to her life, tormenting her at every turn, and claiming the lives of a few people closest to her as well as traumatically manipulating her son. Those elements are executed outstandingly well. You can feel her fear and frayed psychological state increase throughout the movie. Freddy has very restrained screentime, which is a pleasant change from his overexposure in previous sequels. Wes Craven instead uses the screentime to intelligently and clearly setup the reality transcending premise before unveiling the revamped Freddy Krueger.
This ancient demon has decked Freddy out in a generous use of leather, and a frightening new glove of razors. It’s no longer rusted, but very shiny and skeleton like showing off Krueger’s burned hand. The new make-up design is certainly fresh, but still looks like prosthetics instead of an organic piece of burned flesh. It’s certainly better than the very rubbery appearance we got in the last few films, but I’ve still seen better burned flesh effects elsewhere. Generally, the redesign does give the character a darker edge which supports the premise of the film, and that this is not actually Freddy but a demon taking on his appearance and persona.
All the actors are as great as could be imagined. Langenkamp is even more beautiful here than ever before, and her performance is very true to the situation, despite its fantastical nature. I refer mostly in regards to the parent-child relationship, and how she does whatever is necessary to protect her child. Now, while this film blurs the line between reality and fantasy, this applies to the presentation of the people. Much of the stalking elements in the story were taken from the real Heather Langenkamp’s own experiences with a stalker, and so, there’s a personal element to this story for her. Overall, she brings a great weight of maturity and strong emotion to a role that was likely challenging for her to grasp. It was bold and brave of her to put as much of her personal life on screen like this as she did, and if it wasn’t Wes Craven asking her to do so, I don’t think she would have done it. On a related note, Miko Hughes shows a wealth of talent, and is really endearing. Most kids in horror films tend to be annoying or worse, but he managed to be very likable and endearing.
Robert Englund, as always, clocks in with all he has. This time, his Freddy performance is intimidating and fearsome. There’s not a wisecrack to be had, and he still remains engaging as a dark villain. His screentime is quite limited until the final act of the film, but enough is done throughout the picture to increase his menace and power. I know for a fact that Englund did prefer portraying Freddy as darker, but most directors preferred the comical approach. Thankfully, Craven brought the character back to where he works best, and Englund did a great job there.
John Saxon also returns in a supporting role, and I’ve always had a fondness for him. He’s just such a captivating and marvelous actor with a very fatherly or commanding aura about him. He always inspires confidence, and consistently does solid work. I thoroughly enjoy every bit of work I have seen of him. Tracy Middendorf stars as Julie, Dylan’s babysitter, and really comes off as sweet and caring. She’s definitely the ideal babysitter. I could easily go on and on about the cameos and solid acting, but to sum it up, the acting in this movie is wholly satisfying and exceedingly far above slasher genre standards, as is everything with New Nightmare.
This is definitely one of Wes Craven’s best and most modern looking films. Director of Photography Mark Irwin gave the film a lot of visual integrity, firmly grounding it in a dramatic reality. There’s a nice use of blue tones that add to the atmosphere that Craven nicely crafted. This looks like a serious, intelligent film for a more mature audience, contrasting the more juvenile sensibilities of previous Elm Street sequels. Mark Irwin really showed a great ability to artistically shoot a suspenseful film, and it’s great that Wes Craven used him again on Scream. It’s only a shame that most of Irwin’s filmography after this were comedies, many of them rather stupid comedies.
The story behind the inception of New Nightmare is also interesting. The concept was spawned from a meeting between Wes Craven and New Line executive Robert Shaye. He wanted to know, from Wes, what he thought was done wrong with the series, and if the company had offended Wes in anyway. Craven made a number of valid points about Freddy becoming a comical buffoon, and Bob offered Wes the chance to rectify these errors. I’ve always liked that cordial mentality from Mr. Shaye who never cared for burning bridges, only building a better company built on professional integrity and respect. With that, New Nightmare came into being.
Even without comparison to the wreckage that was Freddy’s Dead, this film shines and soars high as one of the best of the series right behind the original film. The only major drawback of the film, I feel, is that this demon-as-Freddy is not dispatched in a very clever way. There’s really no fantastical element to it, as one would expect from such a fantastical concept. It is more of a physical method of defeating him instead of a supernatural, metaphysical, or psychological one. And even though I’ve never taken much note of J. Peter Robinson’s score, it is widely recognized as one of the best horror film scores around. Ultimately, this is still one to highly recommend alongside the 1984 original and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Those are the definitive classics of the franchise, and those reputations are rightly earned.