Monday, May 16, 2011

Stephen King Month: The Dead Zone (1983)

The Dead Zone achieves something impressive by combining the talents of Stephen King and director David Cronenberg, resulting in one of Cronenberg's most accessible films (and certainly his most mainstream work up to that point) and one of the bleakest adaptations of King's prose. The plot of The Dead Zone is tragic already, with protagonist Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) tormented by the psychic powers he receives after waking from a five-year coma following a car accident. Johnny's path is one of anguish and frustration -- in his inability to help all the people who want his help; in the loss of his former girlfriend to another man during the years he was in a coma; in the certainty he has of future disasters about which no one will believe him. Cronenberg and Walken play up those elements, making Johnny into a haunted figure even in his moments of happiness, and all of the typical small-town quaintness of King's stories is confined to the pre-coma scenes (in which schoolteacher Johnny jokes with his class and rides a rollercoaster with his girlfriend).

The rest of the movie is almost unrelenting darkness. It's not so much horror as it is simple dread, the circumstances of Johnny's life beating him down until the only reasonable option is for him to go out in a blaze of self-sacrificing glory. The pacing of this movie is a little odd, as the most notable plot element (Johnny foreseeing a dark future if firebrand politician Greg Stillson gets elected) barely shows up until two-thirds of the way through the movie, and doesn't really get going until the final 15 minutes. King spends more time in the book building Stillson up, but Cronenberg is more focused on Johnny's desperation, which mostly works to the film's advantage. Some of the Stillson stuff seems like it comes out of nowhere, but when you realize that the movie is less about Johnny stopping a monster and more about his finding closure for what's happened to him, it all fits better.

Walken is as unnerving as he usually is, which works well when Johnny is on edge, but is kind of disconcerting when Johnny is happy and wholesome in the early parts of the movie, or when he has occasional moments of joy. Still, the movie rests so much on Walken's performance, and a big part of the bleakness and dark humor comes from the way he carries himself and delivers his lines. Brooke Adams is a little bland as Johnny's could've-been love interest, but Martin Sheen perfectly embodies Stillson's oiliness, playing a corrupt politician with the same charisma he brought to a scrupulous one years later on The West Wing. If some King movies have a tendency to wallow in sentiment and nostalgia, The Dead Zone is a perfect antidote for that, a cold blast of human misery with just a hint of warmth underneath.

How far to Castle Rock: The Dead Zone is one of King's primary Castle Rock novels, and the movie is set there, too. But Cronenberg moves the town from Maine to New Hampshire, and strips out the typical folksy depictions of the town in favor of a cold, dingy look that works very well for the story.

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