The Dead Zone - King's Corner Review
Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the screen adaptations of Stephen King's work, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.
When you think about top tier Stephen King adaptations you tend to think of the likes of ‘Stand By Me’, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ or ‘Misery’. They're the kind of film that no matter what point you start watching it you're compelled to stick with it to the end no matter how many times you've seen it before. Although it is rarely mentioned in the same conversation as these films, David Cronenberg's ‘The Dead Zone’ is more than worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as them. You could even say that the film is the perfect icebreaker for both sceptics of his horror work and those seeking to indulge in the dark side of King.
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Martin Sheen, Nicholas Campbell
Written by: Jeffrey Boam
Produced by: Debra Hill
Cinematography by: Mark Irwin
Original Score by: Michael Kamen
A man awakens from a coma to discover he has a psychic ability.
According to the book, ‘Stephen King at the Movies’ author Ian Nathan outlines the origins of ‘The Dead Zone’ stretching back to King's childhood when a hockey puck struck his head rendering him unconscious for five minutes. Although it was a brief amount of time, it left its mark on King as he viewed the incident as "...more of an absence than sleep". In the mid to late 70's King went through a period of mild writer's block with an on/off project involving a child killer and a teacher with the gift of clairvoyance. This along with many other ideas formed the basis to his best selling novel ‘The Dead Zone’.
After the major success of the novel Dino De Laurentiis (a man synonymous with many a King adaptation) bought the rights to the book after a series of attempts to adapt it by others failed. He disliked Jeffrey Boam's original draft so asked King to take a stab at it but both De Laurentiis and eventual director David Cronenberg were not satisfied with King's efforts describing it as "convoluted" and "needlessly brutal". Andrzej Żuławski took a crack at the script too but it too didn't live up to De Laurentiis' expectations so he brought Jeffrey Boam back into the fold. Alongside Cronenberg and producer Debra Hill the three worked together to tighten the script which would focus more on the character of Johnny rather than his abilities which King believed "intensified the power of the narrative". It followed the model of a triptych which split the story into three major sections. Johnny's life before the accident and his recovery, the hunt for the Castle Rock Killer and the final confrontation with Stillson.
The casting of Christopher Walken in the leading role of Johnny Smith was an absolutely inspired choice. Originally King felt Bill Murray would be an ideal choice for the role and Cronenberg wanted Nicholas Campbell (who would be cast as Frank Dodd) but it is hard to picture anyone else but Walken in the role. His unique speech patterns and otherworldly aura add a certain distance to the character, a sense that he is out of place with the rest of the world and struggling trying to make sense of his new found abilities. He carries a great deal of emotional repression throughout which explodes in an intense frustration over his lack of control.
When we are introduced to his character he is a happy go lucky school teacher looking forward to a date with Sarah (played by Brooke Adams), the love of his life. After their date she invites him to stay the night with her but he declines believing "some things are worth waiting for". Tragically it all comes undone as he suffers a severe head injury in a car accident putting him in a coma for 5 years. In that time Sarah moves on with her life by getting married and having a child with another man leaving Johnny behind causing him to emotionally fold in on himself.
This aspect of Johnny is not limited to Walken's performance though. The bleak, predominantly winter based scenery of Castle Rock (in its first onscreen appearance) reflects Johnny's grim emotional state as his accident robs him of so much. It is further explored through Michael Kamen's exceptional score. It is the beating heart of the film that constantly reminds the audience that Johnny's abilities are more of a curse than a gift to him.
For a man known as the king of body horror, the film is one of the first occasions where Cronenberg moves from the body to the mind which is somewhat unusual considering how this was made between ‘Videodrome’ and ‘The Fly’. That's not to say he shies away from the elements synonymous with his style of horror as he treads those waters from time to time in the film. One thing he does so well in the film is the manner in which he portrays Johnny's ability. His first nightmarish vision comes from an interaction with a nurse in the hospital when he sees himself in her daughter's bedroom whilst a fire blazes. He perfectly captures the fear and panic of the moment with quick cuts from the screaming child, to her toys succumbing to the flames and to her fish tank boiling to the point of it bursting. It is terrifying and really drives home how real and visceral these visions feel to Johnny.
His first meeting with Sarah post accident is a wonderful scene too. Johnny hides his heartbreak behind awkward laughter and forced smiles but Sarah sees right through it. Brooke Adams is terrific as she there is a constant rueful look in her eyes knowing that she can never be with Johnny even though there is still love there. It is a love that never leaves and can never be and it ties the triptych nature of the film together as they can never truly let go of each other.
The film shifts focus (and genre) from drama to a thriller as Johnny assists local law enforcement in catching the Castle Rock killer. Initially hesitant to accept Sherriff Bannerman's request to help in their investigation, believing his ability to be a curse, he eventually decides to help after seeing a news report of a 15 year old who had been murdered.
Again Cronenberg's portrayal of Johnny's ability during this part of the film is superb as Johnny is placed right at the heart of the murder with each individual jerk from his vision (caused by blanks being fired off camera) feeling like a separate stab to his brain. He goes as far as saying that it "...feels like I'm dying inside" every time they happen. One particular vision leads him to the conclusion that Deputy Frank Dodd is the killer leading to a bloody conflict that is more at home with Cronenberg's horrific sensibilities.
With the walls closing in on Dodd he resorts to suicide but not in the fashion of a hanging or self inflicted gun shot, oh no it is much more ritualistic in nature. He dons his leather overcoat and places his murder weapon (a pair of Giallo inspired scissors) on a stand next to the bath before placing both his hands behind his head. He opens his mouth and pushes himself forward impaling them into the back of his head leaving a bloody twitching corpse.
We then move to the final act and the crux of the entire film as it explores the moral question, If you could go back in time and kill Hitler before he rose to power, would you do it? It is this idea that was one of King's main inspirations for writing the book. At this stage of the story Johnny has completely isolated himself from the world, working as an English tutor from his small apartment. The hunt for the Castle Rock killer and several public requests for help have taken their toll on him. Even his ability has worsened his health as his headaches have increased, making it feel like it is sucking the life out of him. What draws him out of his cell is the opportunity to tutor the son of a wealthy man who, like Johnny, has withdrawn himself from the world. This leads to the introduction of politician Greg Stillson which moves the film into the territory of a political thriller.
As the third party candidate trying to get elected to the US Senate Martin Sheen is terrific as the sycophantic demagogue. He exudes a superficial charm and charisma as he preys on the vulnerable people of Castle Rock through hollow words and cheap slogans. There is no real substance to anything he is saying but his populist approach is all in the name of him fulfilling his "destiny" of ascending to the highest office in American politics. Although he comes across like a product of the Reagan era, he also draws many comparisons to recent president Donald Trump by trying to "shake up" the political establishment by any means necessary but it is all in service of his ego.
When Johnny shakes hands with Stillson at one of his rallies he has a vision of him as US president launching a nuclear missile in a needless pre-emptive strike. With that weight upon his shoulder he ponders the "Hitler'' moral question, even seeking advice from his doctor. Knowing that it may cost him his life he puts a plan in motion to assassinate him at a rally. When the moment comes he manages to fire off a shot at Stillson but it misses. In the panic Stillson grabs Sarah's baby to shield himself but Johnny is shot by one of Stillson's bodyguards. In one final vision Johnny sees a broken Stillson whose political career is in tatters as articles featuring his cowardly act of hiding behind a baby drives him to suicide. In his dying moments Sarah embraces Johnny telling him one last time that she loves him as he says goodbye.
Whilst it may not be everyone's first choice as their favourite King adaptation or even their favourite Cronenberg film, to me it is one of the director's finest films and a great adaptation of the hit novel. An episodic thriller that dips its toes into many genres, what makes the film tick after nearly 40 years is not the moral questions it poses or the exploration of Johnny's ability. It is the heart-breaking love story at its core that allows it to endure to this day.
- Joseph McElroy