Cronenberg’s first adaptation: The Dead Zone
This is a most un-Cronenberg-of-the-80’s-film. It’s his first adaptation (and he really hasn’t done many) based on Stephen King’s successful novel. It really, for most of it, doesn’t qualify as a horror film and it doesn’t really seem to fit the whole body horror motif that he was working in. Nevertheless, The Dead Zone is a simply excellent film and probably the most underrated King adaptation out there. I am going to spoil here, so consider yourselves warned, but I believe that the spoilers in this film don’t negate enjoyment of it.
Christopher Walken plays a deeply unlikely Maine teacher called Johnny. Johnny’s life is pretty humdrum until he’s in an unfortunate car accident that leaves him into a coma. Upon awakening (several years later) Johnny has unlocked some hidden potential within his brain and he now has psychic powers. As well as being disabled, no girlfriend, no job and no prospects, that is. The Dead Zone charts Johnny’s psychic adventures.
This is a strange film. In all honesty, I think it’s actually two films. Remember those books that were around in the 80’s where the story gave you an option and you could either turn to page 86 or page 99 (or whatever)depending on which route you took? When Cronenberg was adapting The Dead Zone, I feel that he had one of those choices and just thought “fuck it, I’ll throw in both options” as both story strands would work excellently as films within their own right. It’s a bit disconcerting actually, because the first one is the pure Horror section of the film and once over Cronenberg discards it, without it having ramifications or relevance for the other major story. Actually, the other major story about Martin Sheen’s psychotic politician on the rise is probably narratively stronger- it’s certainly more interesting than Psychic catches serial killer.
Nevertheless, The Dead Zone is an excellent film. It’s well written (quibble above notwithstanding) and the characters are well drawn. Sheen’s sleazy demagogue in particular is an exquisitely slimy politician. Walken gets some outstanding rants (the “What has god done for me” one in particular) and all the other supporting characters are convincingly and realistically drawn. The Jewish doctor with the strong moral compass, for example, gives the answer to the key moral question of the film, and he’s right in every respect (aside from Space-Time Continuum paradox arguments).
The acting is also first-rate. Walken may be a completely unconvincing teacher, but he’s an excellent paranoid psychic. Sheen is superb, even if it is kind of funny that he went on to star as the President for ages in the West Wing given what happens here. I’m not joking about that- I couldn’t watch the West Wing because every time I saw him I saw an odious turd using a baby as a bullet shield.
The Dead Zone is replete with strong imagery. The psychic events are superbly handled, with the crash through the ice in particular being stunningly shot. Furthermore, the Horror movie section of the film principally takes place in the snow, and the cinematography for this section of the film is assured. This section, incidentally, is also gripping- the psychic flash of the murder is horror at its finest and the eventual suicide of the perpetrator is a classic Cronenberg image (one that makes me wince even thinking about it, actually). The second section isn’t as spectacular looking as the first (it’s entirely different and much less sensational subject matter), but nevertheless still is effective and still looks good.
I’m making this sound like the Martin Sheen bits of the film are a waste of time and let The Dead Zone down, and I’m not meaning to. If anything, of the two sections this is the more important one. I certainly prefer Sheen as villain to the more routine serial killer story, and I think the standout image of the film is of him holding the baby (more on this in a second). It’s also the more heavyweight section of the film in terms of ideas, with identity problems being a big theme of the section- Sheen is hiding who he is, Johnny’s pupil has problems establishing and affirming his identity (Johnny has been hired for the sole purpose of drawing him out of his shell). Johnny himself has regressed and shut out society. Secondly, this part of the film is the one that deals with the moral quandary. Johnny is compelled to act on a vision he sees (after consultation with his doctor) of the apocalypse, and although the path laid out for him is extreme, it’s undeniably the right course to save the world.
Overall, this is a film I rate extremely highly. While it isn’t as good as either Videodrome or Scanners, it’s still an excellent film. It’s gripping and thoughtful, assured and slick and features some outstanding writing, acting and imagery. It’s not as flashy as The Shining, or as malevolent as Misery, but it is certainly one of the finest King adaptations out there. The Dead Zone is an excellent, albeit minor Cronenberg film, and one that is deserving of rehabilitation. I give it 3 Changs.
Next up, it’s another 4 Chang masterpiece and arguably the greatest remake ever made: The Fly.
The order so far ranked by preference: