|Dead Zone, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 19 September 2000|
It's not a horror story, but rather a thriller centering on a man with extra-sensory powers (ill-defined though they are). This narrow focus resulted in one of King's tighter novels, so the adaptation went smoother than many others. The late Jeffrey Boam wrote the script with a lot of input from Cronenberg; they followed King's novel closely, but altered the order of events to good effect. The novel was episodic, and so is the film, but now the sequences comment on and shape each other.
Often, even King's lesser novels are entertaining to read because of his sheer skills as a storyteller; what's best about a Stephen King novel frequently isn't the story, but the way the story is told -- the voice, if you will. That wasn't true of "The Dead Zone," and Cronenberg makes no attempt to find a filmic equivalent of King's "voice;" instead he tells this story with clarity and power.
Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) -- a name that's rather more "Everyman" than necessary -- is a shy, intelligent, warm schoolteacher who's about to marry the love of his life, Sarah (Brooke Adams). Leaving her home one night, he has a terrible automobile accident. When he awakens, he discovers he has spent five years in a coma which no one thought he ever leave; Sarah is married, even has an infant son.
Trying to take all this in is hard on Johnny, but not half as hard as discovering he has some kind of second (maybe even third) sight: he grasps the arm of a nurse, and sees -- in a well-staged vision involving fire -- her young daughter trapped in a burning home. When the baby is saved, Johnny becomes a media sensation.
But Cronenberg doesn't fall into the trap of making the sensation itself a sensation; we hear about Johnny's fame, but there's only one understated scene of him facing the press. At first, he deals mostly with thoughtful, kind Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom), and then moves in with hiw recently-widowed father (Herb Smith).
When Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) from nearby Castle Rock asks for Johnny's help in identifying a serial killer, the melancholy, disturbed Johnny turns him down. However, after Sarah visits, and at long last they make love (again, reticently off-screen), Johnny's outlook on life changes, and he agrees to help Bannerman.
This leads to a horrifying vision of the past -- of a murder already committed. But Johnny was in the past, at least in his mind, and he is drenched in feelings of guilt for having been unable to save the victim. The guilt underlies what Johnny does from then on.
Wealthy Roger Stuart (Anthony Zerbe) approaches Johnny not for his psychic powers, but for his abilities as a teacher -- he's become far too notorious to return to teaching -- since Stuart's early teenage son Chris (Simon Craig) has essentially withdrawn from life. And Johnny doesn't have occasion to use his powers, not right away.
Meanwhile, a charming but slippery politician, Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), is running for Senator, with future Presidential ambitions writ large in everything he does. He's a right-wing but populist demagogue, and pretty scary to Johnny, especially when he learns the decent Stuart fears he may have to cooperate if Stillson is elected, and that Sarah is a worker in Stillson's campaign. He asks Sam Weizak a key question....
Christopher Walken is so terrific at playing weirdies that it's refreshing to see him as a basically normal guy. Johnny Smith may have strange powers, but the man himself is an ordinary, decent guy, and Walken is completely believable, and thoroughly engaging, in the role.
The rest of the cast has a strongly hand-picked flavor: the casting is a little eccentric -- Herbert Lom rarely made movies on the American side of the Atlantic -- but everyone is outstanding. The characterizations in the script are very strong, and these flavorful actors add greatly to their roles. It's the best-cast Stephen King movie ever.
"The Dead Zone" has kind of slipped out of view in the years since its release. Oh yeah, they did make a movie of that one... This might be because it's low-key rather than sensationalistic; the tone is cool, dry and intelligent, respectful of the audience rather than assaulting them. But it's so well done in every regard that it's easy to be caught up in its graceful, almost gentle rhythms, to be drawn into Johnny's sad but heroic life.
The only story stumble is that Johnny's visions are erratic; in the first, he sees something happening right now; later, he sees the past, later still the possible future. His visions are all over the place. One odd element that never pays off: even before the automobile accident, Johnny suffers from a violent headache (on a roller-coaster); this pain recurs several times in the movie, but goes without any explanation at all. In the novel, it related directly to the title; in the movie, the title is explained in an awkward, off-hand manner that doesn't relate to anything we see. What happened?
But these are minor glitches in this quietly engrossing movie. The score by Michael Kamen is outstanding; like the film itself, it is low-key and powerful rather than bombastic and overwhelming. Mark Irwin's clean photography is never glossy, but also never Gothic; almost everything takes place in daylight, in commonplace settings. Those settings, designed by Carol Spier, are well-observed and authentic; you can even see the pressed tin ceilings in Johnny's home.
When Stephen King made the transition from full-time teacher to full-time writer, he couldn't possibly have imagined what the future held in store for him -- he's no Johnny Smith. His published fiction is a kind of mini-industry already, and then there are all these movies and miniseries and everything else. Fortunately, occasionally the right decisions are made, and you get a movie as good as "The Dead Zone." Too bad Paramount didn't see fit to add more extras to this well-engineered DVD beyond what's now the bare-minimum standard.
If you liked this movie you'll probably enjoy; Dead Ringers, The Stand, Stand By Me, The Eyes of Laura Mars