The first half of the Eighties has certainly been a cinematic golden age for Stephen King. Two wonderful movies based on his writings were released in 1983 alone: Christine by John Carpenter and The Dead Zone by David Cronenberg (and no, I don’t include Cujo by Lewis Teague among the wonderful movies of 1983). And only three years before Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining came out, that’s really impressive! These are three of the best directors of the second half of the XX century! And since I saw The Dead Zone some days ago, here’s the related post (with spoilers: if you haven’t seen it, which is unforgivable, come back after doing so!).
Johnny Smith (that’s the name of Christopher Walken’s character, don’t ask me why) is a professor at a school in Castle Rock, Maine, and he’s madly in love with his colleague Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams). After driving her home one evening, he has a terrible car accident. When he wakes up in the hospital, he finds out that he has spent the last five years in a coma. His parents also tell him that Sarah has married someone else and has a son. In short, Johnny’s life is in shambles. Moreover…
He now has a gift: by touching some people he can see either their past or their future. Thanks to that he saves the daughter of one of the hospital nurses from a fire and reveals to Doctor Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom, here in a very serious role, even though it was difficult for me not to think about Inspector Dreyfus of The Pink Panther by Blake Edwards) that his mother is still alive, contrarily to what he thought. Johnny gets a lot of media attention that soon becomes unbearable and therefore he retires to private life with his father. But one day Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt, that is Dallas in Alien by Ridley Scott!) goes looking for him to ask him for help on a series of murders committed by a serial killer… And I won’t tell you anything else!
The rest of the film also introduces the character of Greg Stillson played by Martin Sheen who’s, without exaggerating, Donald Trump: he’s an unscrupulous politician who craves power above all else. And the key question of the film is: if you had the chance to go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler before he took power, would you do it? Knowing about the millions of deaths that he would cause, would you feel morally justified to murder him? In fact, that’s the dead zone of the title: the future is not written, there’s something that cannot be seen and that can be changed it. When Johnny Smith discovers Stillson’s possible terrible future, he doesn’t think twice about doing something.
This movie is absolutely incredible, and I don’t understand how Cronenberg managed to make another masterpiece like Videodrome in the same year. The Dead Zone is as cold as the locations where it was shot (in Canada) and has the strength of a Caterpillar in advancing a plot that, despite being basically fantasy, can sell itself as realistic. Christopher Walken plays a fundamental role in this, because he has the face and the gestures of a person who we could really believe to possess the gift of clairvoyance, a gift that’s more of a curse than anything else. His character arc is amazing in the film, the story is told extremely well, and Walken is so good in the interpretation that we take at face value everything that we see on screen. At the end of the movie it’s hard not to be touched by the fate of Johnny Smith.
Everything works: the soundtrack; Cronenberg’s static direction, and I’m not saying that in a negative sense (in fact I would say that it’s almost Carpenterian), as icy as the temperatures in Castle Rock; the plot which flows perfectly from beginning to end; the finale in crescendo where it’s hard to know whether Smith’s plan will succeed or not; and the superlative cast. Martin Sheen manages to perfectly imitate Trump thirty-five years before Trump took power (that’s ironic in a film centered on a character capable of seeing the future), Christopher Walken has an exceptional charisma in every scene, Brooke Adams is the perfect woman who moved on but is still in love with his unfortunate former boyfriend…
And if I had to associate The Dead Zone with other films, in addition to he aforementioned The Shining (1980) and Christine (1983), I would mention The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and A Simple Plan (1998). Not necessarily because of some common theme, but more due to them sharing a doomed, pessimistic, and cold atmosphere. If these are movies that you like, by all means watch The Dead Zone and I’m sure you won’t regret it! Ciao!