During the whirlwind of Stephen King adaptations that followed in the wake of Brian DePalma’s sublime Carrie, it seemed like everyone was wrestling to grab themselves a shot at one of the Maine Man’s books. Some would inevitably be made by well meaning hacks, resulting in some so-so additions to the author’s rapidly expanding movie catalogue, others sometimes attracted a who’s who of genre auteurs that included such names as John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, George Romero and even Stanley Kubrick (although King famously wish he hadn’t bothered). However, possibly the oddest director to tackle the King is that of Canadian horror maestro David Cronenberg, a director who temporarily ditched his usual cinematic obsessions with viral/body horror in order to bring one of the author’s more “gentle” works to the screen.
Johnny Smith (not one of King’s stronger character names, to be fair) is a teacher with a rich, but simple life ahead of him, but his future life with sweetheart Sarah is cut cruelly short after his little Volkswagen Beatle has a fateful meeting with an overturned milk tanker on a lonely, dark road.
Awaking from a five year coma, Johnny is distraught to find that the world – and Sarah – has moved on while he slept and all he has to sustain him is the long and painful road to recovery in order to regain the ability to walk again. However, after touching the hand of a random nurse, Johnny finds that his accident has given him the power to see the future and he gets right down to business by preventing the death of the nurse’s daughter in a raging house fire.
As Johnny eventually manages to walk again, a string of low-key adventures happen off the back of his strange new talent beginning with the teacher letting his doctor know that his mother is still alive despite the fact he believes she died during World War II, but when Sherriff George Bannerman comes over from the town of Castle Rock desperate for help in the capture of a serial killing rapist, things start to get progressively darker.
After the traumatic, closing events of the Castle Rock Killer leave Johnny wounded yet again and desperate for solace, he moves away to become a private tutor while simultaneously doing everything he can to avoid predicting yet more awful events.
However, when a chance encounter brings Sarah back into his life, he also finds himself inadvertently shaking the hand of Greg Stillson, a brash, third-party candidate for the Senate who has some dodgy methods for climbing his way to the the top.
Witnessing something terrible in his vision for Stillson, Johnny takes it upon himself to change the future by doing something drastic in the present even if it means it will cost him everything.
At this point in his career, Cronenberg had made his name with a trio of awesomely scrappy, 70’s horror classics, the high concept/low-fi of Scanners and the reality warping insanity of Videodrome, but with The Dead Zone, we saw a different side to a filmmaker famous for busting heads and orgasming televisions.
Firstly, his obsession for utilizing viruses and body horror as a metaphor for modern life had been drastically curbed in favour of quieter, subtler fare as the director relinquished script duties for the first time in his career. Secondly, this was a moderately warmer Cronenberg than we had seen before as King’s influence for characterization rubs off favourably on a man whose previous movies were renowned as being rather cruel and somewhat austere as themes of unrequited love form the backbone of this quietly ambitious adaption.
It still manages to remain inherently Cronenberg however; after all, who else would think to cast the lizard-like glare of Christopher Walken as a romantic lead and everyman Johnny Smith and the distrust and fear that the visions bring has the actor physically appearing more and more pale and withdrawn as his powers grow in strength.
Walken carries the movie amazingly, corralling his trademark weirdness just enough to make Smith feel a fully functioning human being before the accident make his demeanor (not to mention thec volume if his hair) strain the boundaries of normality.
However, possibly the most impressive thing about The Dead Zone is how much of King’s source novel is smoothly crammed into a movie that runs comfortably under two hours. While omitting the cringe inducing, yet oddly Cronenbergian, details that concern with exactly what happens to you as you lie in a coma – in the book, Smith is coated with gruesome scars as a result of operations to correct his shortened tendons – and the increased religious mania from his mother, virtually everything else makes it in. His friendship with Dr. Weizak, the hunt for the Castle Rock Killer, his heart breaking night with Sarah and the whole deal with Greg Stillson is smartly condensed to actually use the book’s episodic narrative to the movie’s advantage, splitting the movie up into three, neat sections.
The supporting cast is reliably strong with Martin Sheen’s motor-mouthed wannabe Senator being a gleefully hissable piece of work, but an understated Tom Skerritt, a thoughtful Herbert Lom and a beaming Brooke Adams breathe life into to the people left in Walken’s super intense wake.
While it doesn’t get much mention these days when people discuss the upper echelons of King adaptations, The Dead Zone is nonetheless far better than most despite its desire to be quietly unnerving rather than going for full blown scares like some of its more hokier peers – but that doesn’t mean that Cronenberg doesn’t leave his talent for unsettling imagery at the door. Walken’s bug-eyed convulsions whenever he is struck by a vision is creepy enough, but a truly haunting suicide by scissors is as freakish as it is illogical.
Loaded with weird, coincidences too that hint the movie itself may also can predict the future (Walken is constantly reading from The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow, sixteen year before being cast as the Headless Horseman himself, while the rise of Stillson could be argued that it mirrors that of Trump’s presidential conquest) The Dead Zone is a controlled, intriguing thriller that allows its director to explore more personal reactions from his audience than outright disgust and expands his horizons into opening a path to the films he eventually would go on to make.
I guess you could argue that Johnny also changed Cronenberg’s future, too.