Without wanting to be “that” guy, it’s easy to tell the real Stephen King fans from the casual readers. Though the man has nearly turned horror into his raison d’etre, his most loyal readers know that many of his most accomplished works fall outside of the typical purview of supernatural horror fiction, and some even abandon horror entirely to be modern fantasy epics (The Dark Tower novels) or simple tales of hope and redemption (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption). Long-time readers of this blog know that I consider his political allegory Under the Dome to be one of the best modern novels I’ve read in recent years. And while The Dead Zone may not rest at the top of my list of King’s works, it was one of the first novels to really explore the man’s range as an author.
As much as I love the 1979 novel, Mr. King’s sprawling and occasionally unfocused tale doesn’t seem like the ideal candidate for a faithful film adaptation. The main villain isn’t really introduced until towards the end of the book, and much of the film’s conflict is internal and psychological. But, to David Cronenberg’s credit, he made one of the most faithful King adaptations I can think of (most Stephen King movies have sadly little to do with their source book). 1983’s The Dead Zone has its share of problems in coming to the big screen, but it helped introduce a whole generation to the possibilities of Mr. King outside of typical horror fare.
When affable high middle school English teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) drops off his girlfriend after at a night at the fair, his life as he knows is it is destroyed when his car is totaled by an 18-wheeler on a rainy night. Johnny wakes up fives years later from a deep coma, and his whole world has moved on without him. His girlfriend has gotten married and even has children, and his mother dies of a heart attack not long after he wakes up. However, Johnny has bigger problems than just acclimating to being out of the world for five years. When he wakes up, he now has the power to see into a person’s future and past simply by touching them.
Johnny’s powers awaken when he brushes arms with a nurse in the long-term care facility where he’s staying after he wakes up. He sees the nurse’s daughter burning in a fire-consumed house, and it is only by the stroke of Johnny’s premonition that he is able to save the girl. It isn’t long before word of Johnny’s powers reach the public, and he’s brought in to help solve a serial murder case in the classic King town of Castle Rock. After Johnny’s powers expose him directly to the horrors of man during that investigation, he wants to retire until a chance meeting with rising politician Greg Stillson (The Departed‘s Martin Sheen) brings him visions of the apocalypse.
While The Dead Zone isn’t really a horror book/film, David Cronenberg expertly taps into the dread and horrific violence at the center of the tale. And his direction fuels the unsettling, psychologically unstable world that Johnny must now navigate. In the scene where Johnny and Sheriff Walt Bannerman (Alien‘s Tom Skeritt) finally confront the Castle Rock Killer, Cronenberg (whose background was in sci-fi/horror squickfests) employs every tool at his disposal to heighten the tension and disgust for a man who’s murdered so many girls. And during the premonition sequences, Cronenberg lends the proceedings just the right amount of surrealism to sell the supernatural aspect of what Johnny is experiencing.
A quick search of Christopher Walken in my blog’s search bar shows that if this isn’t straight out the first Christopher Walken movie I’ve reviewed, it’s at least the first one where he’s had a substantive role. And that’s crazy to me since I’ve reviewed over 360 films. Walken gives one of my favorite film performances of all time in The Deer Hunter and while Johnny isn’t as demanding as the shell-shocked Vietnam veteran, it’s still a psychologically complex role and Walken has to show so much of the internal conflict present in King’s novel that had to be left unsaid in the film (for time’s sake). Walken’s Johnny is a frazzled and weary man, but he’s also one that is kind and tough and fiercely protective of the things he cares about. Martin Sheen also bursts off the screen as the sociopathic Greg Stillson.
Clearly, in a film that’s just over an hour and a half long, much of the characterization of King’s novel is lost, and the scenes involving the Castle Rock killer (as excellent as the denouement may be) seems rushed and almost distracting from the movie’s main themes, but more than most King films, Cronenberg manages to keep enough in to make the film function both as a movie in its own right but also a faithful King adaptation. Even as a novel, The Dead Zone lacks the epic ambition of The Stand or It, but for fans of supernatural thrillers and a movie with a genuinely shocking final act, The Dead Zone is an artifact of 1980s filmmaking that has aged well to this day.
Final Score: B+