Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Dead Zone

"God's been a real sport to me." -Johnny Smith-

I've never been one to set out to view a Stephen King film per se. I've read a few of his books. He has developed some amazing stories from that imagination of his. There is certainly plenty for everyone and funny enough, when you step back, it's amazing how many good Stephen King adaptations have made it to film. In fact, I would suggest there are a good many gems. There are the solid films like Director Frank Darabont's The Mist [though I call it a classic] and The Green Mile [1999] and Lewis Teague's Cujo [1983]. Then there are the classics like Director Stanley Kubrick's The Shining [1980], Brian De Palma's Carrie [1976], Rob Reiner's Misery [1990] and Stand By Me [1986], Frank Darabont's Shawshank Redemption [1994] and I would add Director David Cronenberg's translation of The Dead Zone [1983]. Please, perish the thought of the TV Series starring Sixteen Candles' Anthony Michael Hall. Did anyone actually watch that series? The adaptation of the Stephen King material for for that series was loose at best. I certainly cannot comment fairly or with any command.

I'm not here to argue the merits of how faithful the adaptations of these aforementioned films are. There are Stephen King fans who walk this Earth with a far superior knowledge of the literary medium to make these contrasts. I won't pretend to know. I'm here simply to dissect what I consider to be a superior piece of filmmaking. This contribution was actually intended for a David Cronenberg Blogathon. Unfortunately, it didn't materialize quite as planned. Nevertheless, I bring it to you and I hope you enjoy it. I thought I would reel in The Dead Zone for a variety of reasons. First, in spirit, it's in keeping with a blogathon concentrating on the fantastic works of Director David Cronenberg.

Second, it met the requirements of my beloved genre here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic with its heady elements of science fiction. I had considered The Fly [1986], another classic by Cronenberg, given my endless, and perhaps unhealthy, fascination with body horror. The Fly is the perfect film tragedy for analyzing body horror plus it starred the endlessly enthralling work of Jeff Goldblum, but given its popularity I thought I'd try something a little left-of-center. I've always wanted to see Naked Lunch [1991], as well as Eastern Promises [2007], and considered taking on one of them, but then opted to go with something I've truly absorbed over the years rather than viewing something for the first time. There are so many classics from David Cronenberg. I also considered A History Of Violence [2005], the much lauded and controversial film starring Viggo Mortensen, and Spider [2002]. I wanted to see Cronenberg and Mortensen's return for Eastern Promises, but ultimately kept returning to The Dead Zone. The decision was a relatively quick one.

I'm not so sure where The Dead Zone figures in the pantheon of Stephen King or David Cronenberg films. Maybe it's heralded as a classic, maybe not, but I consider it to be perfect, at the very least a solid film. When I considered David Cronenberg's films The Dead Zone wasn't even on my radar initially. When I thought of Stephen King classics, The Dead Zone, once again, not at all in the picture. Is it not one of the more underrated works of both artists or at least forgotten? When I looked at Cronenberg's overall body of work The Dead Zone struck me like a bolt from the blue.

This leads me to Christopher Walken, the actor behind my third reason for selecting The Dead Zone. Walken stars in this Cronenberg masterpiece and has always offered the kind of screen presence that is infinitely fascinating. He offers nuances that allow one to watch a film on more than one occasion to discover something new each time. Perhaps it was the fusion of these two odd, quirky, left-of-center talents that made perfect sense to me. The picture is a godsend thanks to their combined talents supported by the remarkable Stephen King source material as a foundation. Walken was clearly becoming a star following his appearance in Annie Hall [1977] and The Deer Hunter [1978] [Walken's role one of the highlights of the picture, which won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor]. The Dead Zone was another career milestone. His turn put him on the map as bona fide lead actor [sometimes]. Walken never quite established himself in the way I thought he might. His career has been eclectic to say the least, not unlike Cronenberg's resume. Cronenberg has been largely successful artistically. Walken's world is filled with hits and misses. I consider some of his classics to include the aforementioned films as well as Biloxi Blues [1988], King Of New York [1990] and At Close Range [1986], among others, but apart from these films, on occasion, he has applied his talent in support roles in sometimes, what I consider to be, films less than worthy of the man's talent [Balls Of Fury anyone]. On the whole, his support has been classic in a whole host of pictures, True Romance [1993] and Pulp Fiction [1994] as just two examples. Nevertheless, whatever film he touches he normally brings something special to it. For his attempts at silly, you can't deny the man certainly has a sense of humor. Walken's appearance in the Saturday Night Live skit riffing Blue Oyster Colt manager Bruce Dickinson with "MORE COWBELL" ranks up there. Walken's equally noteworthy dance performance through mix master Fatboy Slim's Weapon Of Choice [2000] is also mesmerizing and was co-choreographed by Walken himself. I'm not sure I've seen a more brilliant music video. The video, directed by Spike Jonze, is oft-considered one of the best of all time. Subjective tastes aside, Walken has indeed enjoyed a prolific career.
Fourth and finally, perhaps I'm just a sucker for emotional films. The Dead Zone is heavy in its emotional reach. Aspects of tragic love even permeates the heart of this sad tale's thread.
In the end, The Dead Zone remains my favorite David Cronenberg film from his impressive oeuvre and it has resonated with me since my first viewing. Though, I have since seen the film several times, each scene, each moment is haunted with sadness through Christopher Walken's portrayal of Johnny Smith as captured by Director David Cronenberg.
Additionally, it's also worth noting the talent that backed Cronenberg, Walken and the Stephen King source material. The film was produced by none other than Debra Hill who co-wrote three films with Director John Carpenter on Halloween, Halloween II and The Fog as well as co-producing the films. She would also co-produce on Escape From New York and Escape From L.A. [as well as co-write on the latter]. While we're on the subject of production, Hill was so involved in cinema until her death in 2004 she also co-produced on Director Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King [1991] and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center [2006]. With these kinds of credentials, how could David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone miss on mood? Well, we've seen surprising scenarios occur, but it didn't happen here. Hill's hand on production lends another layer of quality to a film that hits its mark squarely.
If Cronenberg took the concept of transmogrification and change to grotesque boundaries with The Fly in all its cinematic and heartrending brilliance he does so with a subtler touch throughout The Dead Zone. This film, too, is about change and an emotionally painstaking journey about one man with gifts that would ultimately destroy him. Without the graphic depiction of the transformation in The Fly, Walken takes the portrait of a lively every man and delivers a sensitive, heartbreaking transformation of a man with newly acquired powers and how it changes him internally, physically and externally to those around him externally. It changes their perception of who he is. Johnny Smith had a normal life of promise and following the events of an unfortunate accident awakens from a coma different. Not unlike the wonderful performance by Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, Walken's transformation is equally disturbing in its immersion within the real world. ENTERING THE DEAD ZONE: SPOILERS AHEAD.
The film opens with the eerie orchestral arrangements of late composer Michael Kamen to set the stirring, downbeat tenor of the film. Kamen's score [Cronenberg's first and only with Kamen] is spare, atmospheric and accents the detached space with which Cronenberg works his magic. I don't say it lightly, but the soundtrack is a character unto itself here. It is the perfect complement to The Dead Zone's material. Johnny Smith is a teacher in love. He retreats to a local amusement park with his fiance, Sarah Bracknell, played sympathetically by the lovely Brooke Adams, where he experiences some mental fatigue and anguish. His face says it all. Something is happening to Johnny Smith. By evening, the rain falls, as Smith returns his fiance home. He turns down her offer to retire inside her home professing some things are worth the wait. En route home Johnny, with limited visibility, is unable to see an oncoming, overturned milk trailer and crashes head on. The chain of events would alter his life.
Soon after, Smith is unconscious in intensive care where he is visited by his distraught fiance. She weeps inconsolably over his critical, scarred condition pleading with him not to leave her and that they will marry.
Time passes, Smith awakens fully healed, "not a scratch." Dr. Sam Weizak informs Smith his parents have arrived to see him. Dr. Weizak tells him he's been comatose for five years. Naturally, Smith's first question, "what about Sarah?" Smith is told by his mother that Sarah has moved on, "turned her back" on him. Smith is overcome with grief following the news.
Later, Smith is visited by a nurse, grabs her hand and is transported to the nurse's home where her daughter Amy is enveloped by a house fire. Smith has the ability of second sight, the gift or curse to see the future. Amy is saved. Miraculously, the accident or coma has unlocked Smith's powers. The pivotal moment of his crash has acted as a catalyst to his transformation.
Dr. Weizak visits Smith to inform him his recovery will not be easy and require work and patience. In turn, Smith grabs the doctor's hand, convulses, and sees that Weizak's mother, who saved Weizak during World War II, is still very much alive and Dr. Weizak is stunned by the news. Smith is frightened by his newfound abilities and they will clearly take a toll on him emotionally and physically. This sequence really captures Walken's ability to walk the line of sympathetic and strange. He is an incredible actor and he projects our own fears and vulnerabilities with razor sharp precision.

In the privacy of his office, Dr. Weizak acts upon Johnny's vision and phones his mother based on information he has researched. He hears her voice, but is simply unable to speak. The next day he informs Smith he couldn't speak with her and it simply "wasn't meant to be."
During physical therapy he is visited by Sarah. Smith sits with crutches and a neck brace, accentuating the alienness of the new Johnny Smith, and is visited by Sarah, with a new haircut. Sarah notes Johnny is thinner. He calls it a "coma diet, lose weight while you sleep." She is now married with children. Smith is pained, but wishes her well. Sarah tells him all the town is talking about him and his ability to see things others cannot. He tells Sarah he wants to be left alone and forgotten. The change has taken something from Johnny. Sarah drives away in tears.
Smith goes before the press in the hopes of putting his psychic events to rest. He goes toe to toe with a vile TV reporter.

These are eerie Cronenbergian moments. Smith bids goodbye to his mother who passes away. The Sheriff, played by Tom Skerrit [pre-Picket Fences], visits Smith's home in the hopes of obtaining Smith's help in determining an ongoing serial killer investigation. A slough of murders has resulted in an unsolved case at the hands of the Castle Rock Killer. One of the beautiful aspects of the film, like so many films by Cronenberg and fellow Director John Carpenter, is the three-dimensional nature of the characterizations in their films. Sheriff George Bannerman is delicately played by Skerritt. This is one of those powerful moments captured on film by Cronenberg featuring Walken opposite Skerritt. It's a classic!

This is notable as Johnny's parents' home is populated with faith-based idolatry. His father is equally uncomfortable in the scene. Smith is in a very different place. Smith expresses to his father that he feels like he's "dying inside" when the spells come to him.

Once again, he is visited by Sarah at his home. She brings her child. There is indeed chemistry between these two people that have been wronged by fate. While her boy sleeps Johnny and Sarah make love. The night Johnny slipped away they said it would be worth waiting for and she informs Johnny that he's waited long enough. They give of each other. Smith's father returns and there's a familial sense of what could have been between Sarah and Johnny as they share dinner. There is an underlying heartbreak throughout this film. It is palpable and has remained with me for years. Even Johnny's father recognizes the joy of a family meal before Sarah must leave him for good. Their goodbye is hard.

Smith, while watching television, decides he will help the sheriff to solve the case of ongoing murders that have transpired for over three years. This is clearly another turning point for Smith who realizes his life will never be the same with Sarah gone. At the scene of a murder, in a tunnel, Cronenberg's use of lighting, music and mood genuinely capture one of the visual strengths of Director Cronenberg's touch. The tunnel is also symbolic of Smith's mind, which is becoming sharper. Kamen's score really generates some tremendous, dark foreboding and that haunting mood is powerful.

Smith is brought to the site of another murder in the fictional, snow-covered town of Castle Rock. It is here, he removes the dead woman's gloved hand and touches her. Convulsions bring clear visions uncovering the truth. "She knows him." Smith is transported to the gazebo at the time of the crime. Cronenberg's close, tight camera shots bring us within the character's unsettling, intimate zone of knowledge. The Dead Zone runneth over with mood. Here's another of the many terrific sequences.

The most graphic and clearly Cronenbergian moment in The Dead Zone.

The Sheriff and Smith head to the deputy's home where they find he is protected by his mother. "You knew," incenses Smith. The deputy's mother knew of her son's atrocities and protected him. The Sheriff and Smith begin searching the home. They find him murdered and impaled by his own killing tool, a pair of barber scissors, his body twitching in the bathroom. The sequence of his planned suicide is not brutally graphic by today's desensitized standards, but it is pure, bizarre, perverse David Cronenberg in style. Once again, the use of Kamen's score combined with the lighting and low camera angles makes for a disturbed sense of atmosphere throughout The Dead Zone. The mother, seemingly a symbol of the devil himself, takes her son's gun and fires upon Smith before being shot dead by the Sheriff.

As it turns out, Smith is unharmed. Dr. Weizak visits Smith who is experiencing the episodes with greater clarity and greater physical impact. Weizak wants to prescribe him more medicine, but Smith declares "I'm not getting better, I'm getting worse." Weizak admits he has been researching psychic phenomenon. The spells and visions grow stronger, sharper, more vivid, as illustrated by Smith's pronounced physical reaction, and the physical body weakens. The transformation is slow, but as only Cronenberg would have it, this one ultimately resulting in death.

Dr. Weizak wants to help him. Smith wants no help. Smith shows the doctor his fan mail. People are in need of "help, love." Smith wants to remain in his own "controlled environment." Smith is becoming a unique variable.

He's "safe" being alone or so he believes. What Cronenberg teaches us is that we cannot escape our fates. We cannot escape death or deny change. We cannot run. We cannot hide. Change is coming and it will happen as inevitable as the embrace of death itself.

In the hopes of escaping that fate, Smith has taken up tutoring. A wealthy man visits Johnny hoping he will tutor his son. He asks Smith to come to his home. Smith makes it clear that's not how he does things, but eventually concedes that he will visit the man's son Chris. The next day, a car is sent to Smith's home to pick up Johnny. Around town, US Senate candidate Greg Stillson campaign posters are being posted.

Smith arrives at Roger's home, a contributor to Greg Stillson's campaign. Stillson, played by Martin Sheen in over the top splendor [Cronenberg argues the portrait is justified, credible and not at all absurd allegedly modelled on Nixon], exits and instead of shaking Smith's hand quickly slaps a piece of campaign literature into his palm. He's a savvy politician with more than a few skeletons he'd rather not share with Smith. Ironic liberal activist Martin Sheen would enjoy the labors of the Stillson character.

Smith tutors Chris and finds the boy to be a sturdy young man and not the isolated introvert described by his father Roger. Roger offers Smith a beer. The two men discuss politician Greg Stillson. Roger tells Johnny to vote against Stillson. "Get registered pal and vote against this turkey. He's dangerous." Roger is unimpressed by Stillson's political act. Smith thought Roger liked him based upon appearances. Roger explains that's the political line necessary to walk as a fundraiser. For his interests to be protected he plays both sides as contributors often do in politics.

Late at night, Stillson and his thug assistant break into a newspaper's office where the editor of the paper is roughed up a touch. Stillson plays hardball politics to protect his reputation and his ambitions to become President of the United States. A little blackmail is put in play to quash an upcoming editorial. The scene offers a little more insight into the kind of man behind those smiling images plastered across town.

The next day, Smith continues his tutorial of Chris. He is visited by a campaign volunteer for Stillson. It's the husband of Sarah, Walt, putting a face on that aspect of his missing life. Walt indicates he has heard much of Johnny. The awkward moment reminds us of his past. It is a powerful, emotionally-charged segment that leads to even deeper realizations for Johnny.

The images flash quickly, but you'll note Walken is placed at the moment of the vision giving the scene immediacy and placing the viewer in the action.
Smith proceeds to Chris' home to speak with his father. He is there to warn Roger of the impending fatal accident of his vision. The performance by Walken is delivered with desperate power with the potent line, "The ice is gonna break!"

Following Smith's exit, Chris is told to get into his hockey gear by his father despite the warning. Chris refuses to go, which explains why Smith's vision was clear. Smith picks up the next day's paper to find two kids have drowned in a hockey incident. Smith phones Roger's home and Chris answers. Relieved to find Chris is okay, he gently hangs up as Chris quietly whispers Johnny's name.

Stillson's campaign is in full swing in the local park across the street from Johnny's home. Smith grabs his coat, complete with a pronounced dark collar, as if a winged harbinger of future portents, and goes to the site. Stillson arrives shaking hands and kissing babies. Smith gets in line and makes his way to Stillson. He is drawn to his malignant aura. As Stillson extends his hand, Smith takes hold and a sharp vision is revealed. The vision foretells the coming of the end of the world, a destiny in which Stillson launches America's nuclear arsenal beginning armageddon. "The missiles are flying." Where they fly is unimportant, but the mood of the country in 1983 was indeed one of ice cold intensity thanks to the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was President and people's take on history appears to differ depending on the historian or the indiviual filtering the data. Ronald Reagan ultimately broke the back of the Soviet Union economically outspending them and bringing the Cold War to its knees along with the aid of Mikhail Gorbachev's embrace of the free market through Glasnost. Politics aside, the threat of nuclear annhilation hung in the air like a hazy, hot, humid day and images of such a reality certainly affected us psychologically in powerful ways that we recall today. This moment in the film alone was truly scarring to me as a child and I remember it vividly. I remember the mood of the day too. One day while delivering newspapers on a paper route, I remember one woman swore to me the end of the world was near and that it would be at the hands of Ronald Reagan. People were scared as two nations met in a stand off for years. As a kid I was less than enthused to hear of such predictions as I really wanted to watch films, open baseball cards and chew bubblegum to my heart's content. Fortunately, Ronald Reagan didn't do the nation to oblivion.

The next day, Smith visits Dr. Weizak and asks him what we all ask. There is real power in these moments and these are questions I recall asking when I was younger amongst friends. Questions ranged from whether or not we would do the right thing should an ATM spit more money out of a machine than we requested to questions like the one posed in The Dead Zone. These questions still resonate today. "What would you do" if you could go back in time and change history. In particular, Smith asks Weizak if he would kill Hitler if given the chance knowing what he knows now. Smith tells him he would never get away alive. Weizak undeterred is adamant he would kill "the son of a bitch."

A final image emphasizes all Johnny Smith ever wanted before meeting his fate.
Smith is clearly growing weaker physically and is simply unable to evade or avoid the influence of his new power, which, unfortunately, draws him closer to his fate. He writes a letter to Sarah affirming she was always the one and that it just wasn't in the cards for them. If that doesn't break your heart I don't know what will. There is a singular moment I initially brushed off that is filled with so much. Johnny picks up an old black and white image of his mother and father- happy. That single moment speaks volumes. It is here Johnny Smith says goodbye to a life he had hoped and wished for. It's all he ever wanted. He simply wanted love and to be with Sarah. It makes you realize there are often circumstances in our own lives, beyond our control, that were never meant to be. Those lost moments, those lost possibilities forever haunt us in our own lives and speak to us in quiet moments. They do for me.

With a rifle loaded, Smith takes up residence at a local church where Stillson will be speaking. No matter how hard he tried or hid from those that would force him to face his reality, Smith was always brought out of the shadows. In the end, he realizes his curse is a gift and he must do something entirely unselfish to change the course of history. Would you do it if you knew absolutely? If you knew Barack Obama or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be the cause of a cataclysmic event could you do it? The question is positively preposterous in that we base the question on the knowledge of what will come to pass as if we know the outcome [like The Holocaust and Hitler], when in reality we don't have the gift of Johnny Smith. It's a fascinating concept and like the question of what came first, the chicken or the egg, we simply cannot answer. Should events of this nature happen, the shooter is instantly considered a nut. In this rare instance, Smith is sympathetic and a hero, not mentally unstable like most would naturally be branded.

As the people gather, Smith prepares his weapon. With his head pounding in pain, Smith makes his move summoning every ounce of courage and strength within him to take out Stillson. Distracted by Sarah's outcry, Smith misses his mark and is shot twice and falls from the balcony to the event floor. Images are snapped by surrounding cameras as Stillson holds up Sarah's baby out of selfish, self-preservation. Stillson grabs Johnny by the shirt who grabs his hand and is relieved to discover Stillson's road to the White House is over when images reveal national trade publications have captured his vile move on camera.

Throughout the tight, focused narrative of its tale, Smith's power is subtly questioned as either a gift of the devil or God, a gift or a curse. This dichotomy is in play throughout the film. Earlier in the film, the mother of the deputy Sheriff murderer is shot dead, but not before she calls Smith "a devil sent from hell." In the end, when Stillson grabs Smith in his fury asking him "WHO SENT YOU!?," we think the question as nothing more than the selfish reaction of a political climber, greedy and hungry for power and the wealth and prestige of that insular world, and a man intoxicated with a delusional destiny. But when you step back, the question remains for us to consider. Ultimately, The One To Be Pitied wanted an answer, but we ponder. She wanted Smith to say "God," but was it the fact, that like the God-fearing images that adorned his family's walls, "The Lord" was his "light" and "salvation." Perhaps Smith was a messenger. The symbolism is certainly an aspect of the film that is juxtaposed with Smith's loss of faith, something he clearly finds along the way. Like Director John Carpenter, Cronenberg offers a real distrust of government entities and officials, even law enforcement here. In the extras found on the disc, Cronenberg even called the film "subversive" acting as an "apology for political assassination." Politically, Cronenberg suggests through his film, "under certain circumstances assassination is justified." He adds, "that a man alone, based on his visions, could be justified in assassinating a successful politician." As Cronenberg points out, "we have to believe what Johnny sees is true." For most of us, the answer is no, who could possibly know such a thing to be absolute. Cronenberg wanted the audience "to be complicit" in the attempt on Stillson's life and we are wholeheartedly. We support the nut, the nutty everyman as hero.

In the end, the transformation of Johnny Smith was one of great sadness to me as kid. While, he was given this supercool gift of second sight and used his ability to great affect it cost him his life and no one, outside of Johnny Smith, knew what he died for. He died alone. His former fiance Sarah holds him desperately asking "why, why?" No one knows [and no one would know] why Johnny Smith acted as he did and that is the tragedy of this man's selfless fate. The Dead Zone was a place and space in his mind and it was there that Johnny Smith died alone, heroically, but tragically. As a nice sequeway to the upcoming John Carpenter Week over at Radiator Heaven, I'm reminded of the character of Roddy Piper from John Carpenter's They Live. He's heroic and is an unlikely everyman as he sees things no one else can with those glasses.

Emotionally, the film is grounded in a love story through Sarah and Johnny. In the final moment, Sarah takes Johnny in her arms and he says "goodbye." With Sarah's final words, "I love you," Smith lets go capturing, but for one brief moment, all he ever wanted as an ordinary man. The film will always be a memorable, haunting favorite.

The crushing power of the film's final images of Sarah holding Johnny in her arms worked beautifully as a result of all that built to that moment. Cronenberg had originally prepared an additional scene whereby Sarah essentially uplifts the audience by moving on and thereby moving viewers along with her. Cronenberg wisely decided against the additional footage as diminishing the power of those final seconds and the film's overall impact. It was the right call. The one thing the man who could see the future couldn't have was a future of his own making and we needed to be left with that moment.

David Cronenberg takes on some challenging material and challenges himself through his subjects to even greater lengths. While The Dead Zone was not original material, Cronenberg brings his all to the story. Cronenberg's unsettling and endlessly fascinating vision is what brings such a rich, imaginative reservoir of ideas to cinemagoers. This is a seemingly small, isolated movie with big ideas and big questions. Scenes of death, sex or the macabre might have pushed passed the boundaries presented in this film had it been shot today. Times have certainly changed. Heck, Brooke Adams' character even places her baby in the front seat for the drive home from Smith's home. Who does that? The film while rated R is easily a PG-13 picture by today's standards. Envelopes might have been pushed to more graphic extremes today, but the way the film was shot and edited is one of the things I love most about its purity. The film is left for the imagination to explore. Pictures are not painted with gory or busy details and yet Cronenberg's narrative is strong. Even the scenery and cinematography of the film is pure, open, sparse essentially denoting isolation, purity and clarity of vision as experienced in the mind of Johnny Smith. Cronenberg is a rare breed in Hollywood today. Let's hope his intimate work continues to push the boundaries of conventional cinema. We need more of it.
While The Dead Zone may not be his most challenging or complex film, it maintains a focus with seeming simplicity to allow for the complex nature of its characters to thrive and the actors, especially Christopher Walken, to breathe and work their magic. The film delivers one of Walken's career best. This is certainly one of Cronenberg's strengths. He reaches in to find these tortured characters who are forced to face transformation beyond their control [Spider, The Fly- funny those titles]. It remains a notable work of cinematic grace from early era Cronenberg and Walken. The marriage of Cronenberg, Walken, John Carpenter partner and producing talent, the late Debra Hill, late composer Michael Kamen, late scriptwriter Jeffrey Boam and the subject matter based on the writing of Stephen King made for one of the most appealingly dramatic films I can remember to this day. It was easily one of the strongest the year of its release. Cronenberg recalls the film with a tone of sadness having lost many of the wonderful creative partnerships he teamed with to make this classic picture. The stars were aligned as Cronenberg had completed Videodrome [1983] and an intense original screenplay. The idea of working with Debra Hill and working on someone else's material appealed to him immediately and working quickly generated something special. This personal favorite may speak to my own quirky sensibilities that connect with the creative talents involved. Stomaching the grotesqueries of The Fly wasn't in the cards.

Historically, the book itself, The Dead Zone, was the first novel by Stephen King to go to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List. There were five scripts for the film and Cronenberg was moved by Jeffrey Boam's "lonely, wintery, isolated New England tone that Stephen King is famous for." Cronenberg is always drawn to film by his love for characters at the "margins of society even grotesque... who are eccentric and strange and difficult." By the very nature of his name, Johnny Smith represented a kind of "everyman" for Cronenberg. It was the reverse of what normally attracted him to characters, but ultimately Cronenberg does transform the character into a kind of "outsider" as the source material called for. Cronenberg sees Smith becoming "a kind of monster, a creature who feels that he can no longer function in society, and really isolates himself and pushes himself to the margins, but there's an incredible sadness to him because he wanted very much to be a normal person. He didn't want to be this creature that he'd become." This is an eloquent expression of the character and Cronenberg nails this feeling and tone that permeates the picture from beginning to end. To capture the character, Cronenberg was thrilled to cast Christopher Walken, who was perfect as Johnny Smith, especially when considering his performance in Director Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter [1978]. With Walken, Cronenberg was able to cast an actor who could be at once an ordinary guy, a "freak" and even a "romantic." Cronenberg achieved perfection in the casting for the film. Can you imagine anyone other than the quirky Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith?

The film tales place in a fictional town of Castle Rock. Mark Irwin captured the photography of the film beautifully. Cronenberg filmed much of The Dead Zone in his native Canada specifically Toronto and Niagara-On-The-Lake [Ontario]. Regional architecture was close in proximity to the look and feel of New England. The temperatures and truly freezing conditions gave The Dead Zone an authentic appearance. Cronenberg's fantastical presentation of America is classic in design and the director pointed to Norman Rockwell for his inspiration. The sequence in the Screaming Tunnel was allegedly haunted and actually captures the somber and spooky vibe of the entire film.

Interestingly, referring back to my post on Science Fiction Images In Techni-COLOR, Cronenberg discusses his use of color in The Dead Zone. One scene employs green lighting in killer Frank Dodd's mother's home. Cronenberg said this about its use. "We don't know why there's green light there, but it's an emotional thing, because we know there's something sickly and perverse and not healthy."

Speaking of appearances, Cronenberg specifically drew attention to Walken's character by intentionally propping up his jacket's collar to give the appearance of an almost messianic character. Cronenberg wanted to give the illusion of someone beyond ordinary.

Cronenberg heightens the affect of this extraordinary person by transporting him and us into the action. The sequences that transported the Smith character into his visions are stunning. Without the use of CGI, the success of these horrific images are a testament to how wonderful the creative mind is without the aid of computer technology to create an effect.

Adding additional insight on the film proved fairly elusive. There was not a great deal of information about the film out there. I had considered some of the books written about Cronenberg's work, but my research turned up little on The Dead Zone itself. Acquiring the film itself was not easy. It is no longer in print. I purchased a new copy of the film second hand and most of the information I learned about the film's making was directly from those involved through special features found on the excellent The Dead Zone Special Edition. I suppose in some ways this is as much a tribute to the formative years of my youth as it is a tribute to Cronenberg and Walken.

The Dead Zone: A
Director: David Cronenberg
Producer: Debra Hill

The Cast: Christopher Walken [Johnny Smith]/ Brooke Adams [Sarah Bracknell]/ Tom Skerritt [Sheriff George Bannerman]/ Martin Sheen [Greg Stillson]/ Herbert Lom [Dr. Sam Weizak] Anthony Zerbe [Roger Stuart]

For those of you looking for "a little more cowbell," here is a snippet of Christopher Walken's appearance on Saturday Night Live parodying his character from The Dead Zone as Ed Glosser.


John Kenneth Muir said...

Sci-Fi Fanatic:

This is an AMAZING, incredibly detailed review/retrospective of The Dead Zone, and you get to the heart of the movie with your careful words and typically-gorgeous selection of images.

This is why I love to visit your blog. This is a long, meticulous post, and every word of it is perfect.

For me, this movie is all about a lonely man longing for human connection and purpose, and ultimately finding it, though perhaps not in the way he imagined.

Johnny sought a personal connection to Sarah but through his sacrifice and heroic action found a connection to our common humanity.

(And it is weird, isn't it, how positively Clinton-esque Stillson is in the movie? Thankfully Clinton didn't bomb us into oblivion either...).

I understand why this movie resonates with you...the tragic personal elements of Johnny Smith's story.

Me too!

As you write, "each moment is haunted with sadness through Christopher Walken's portrayal of Johnny Smith."

That's really feel for what he's been through; the feeling that life has passed him by, and yet he happens to still be around, questing for purpose and meaning.

Thank you for this great post of a great Cronenberg movie!

John Kenneth Muir

SFF said...

John. Thank you. You know, the emotional weight and pain Walken brings to the role is so palpable it puts you in his shoes. This combined with Cronenberg's use of location and set design really puts you in a place of genuine sadness. There's a lot of power in this picture.

Your words meant alot to me. Thank you John for taking time to comment.

Unknown said...

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le0pard13 said...

I'm very much in agreement with JKM concerning this film review, SFF! I read all of King's early novels when they came out (way back when in the 70's) and equally began the trek with the film adaptations that eventually made their way onto the screen. This one, Cronenberg's great THE DEAD ZONE, I always thought it was the first to really capture the true spirit of a SK novel, and was the best translation to film till some of those later films you mentioned.

[note, I'm not dissing De Palma's CARRIE when I say this because I thought Brian actually improved on King's first novel]

Everything about this film (direction, cast, heart-rending soundtrack theme, and some fantastic cinematography) was so good and so dead on (so do speak). Its story of tragedy, lost love, and sacrifice really pulls at my heart every time I watch it. When I saw this first run at the movie theatre in '83, I really wondered if Cronenberg had the wherewithal to pull it off. And, it was this film that won me over to the greatness of this director.

What a thorough and magnificent look at this film, Gordon. It deserves all (and more) of the acclaim from Cronenberg's considerable filmography. TDZ has one of my all-time favorite Christopher Walken performances (and if you haven't seen it, watch CW's supporting role in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN--which I would have given an Oscar for, as well). Thank you very much for this, my friend.

p.s., out of curiosity, what other King novels stuck with you? Any thoughts pertaining to other adaptations?

SFF said...

Prernatutors- thank you.

Leopard13- Thanks as always for your encouraging support Michael. I sincerely appreciate your reaffirming words. It means alot coming from someone as versed as yourself in the reading of literature with a vast reservoir of knowledge.

Boy, I have to say that I really enjoyed the correlating book and film for Cujo. While certainly not in the ranks of King's finest film adaptations, it is a solid picture. I look forward to covering that one here soon to determine if it has aged as well as I recall.

Perhaps Cujo holds a special place for me too. I have fond recollections of reading the book complete with the rabid jaws while on a hammock in FLorida. When the film arrived I was thoroughly won over by Dee Wallace. I look forward to looking at that picture here. Thanks again!