The Dead Zone (1983)

23 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I will admit that David Cronenberg is a gifted filmmaker and is capable of good work, but to be honest, some of his films kind of rub me the wrong way. Sure, I was shocked by the special effects in “Scanners,” but was bored by everything else. And I got into some interesting elements of “Videodrome” such as the “TV-seduction” scene, but was put off by its seemingly complicated invasion story. Really, Cronenberg’s best thriller, in my opinion, is “The Fly.” That film had fascinating, realistic-looking (albeit disgusting) makeup/effects, like most of Cronenberg’s “creature features” (if you will), and it also had characters to care about with empathize with so it made itself into a pretty strong drama—quite unusual for a horror film. I call “The Fly” one of the best films of 1986 (I have a list).

But what comes close second in Cronenberg’s thrillers for me is the film that led up to “The Fly”—it’s “The Dead Zone,” based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. But before I review it, let me state that I have not read the original novel and that this is a review of the film adaptation itself. However, if it’s faithful to the source material, I’ll be impressed. (I’ll explain why later.)

“The Dead Zone” stars Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith, a schoolteacher who is involved in a serious car accident that puts him in a coma. Five years later, he awakens and finds that everything has changed. For example, his girlfriend Sarah (Brooke Adams) is now married and has a child. But in particular, Johnny now possesses a strange ability that is either a blessing or a curse. It’s a psychic ability that allows him to learn of a person’s secrets in time, whether it’s past, present, or future, just by touching them. More people discover Johnny’s “gift” and soon, the local sheriff (Tom Skerrit) asks him to help investigate a series of murders occurring in town.

If the whole movie had been like that, with Johnny constantly using his gift to notice clues, see the future, and then change it for a new future, it’d be exciting. And there are some nicely-done eerie moments. But what makes “The Dead Zone” so good is the characterization. Once the premise has been established for a supernatural thriller, we have a good amount of serious drama and interesting, three-dimensional characters to follow. Johnny is trying to live with this new ability, but also trying to live with his new life. His job is gone, his girl has found someone else, and his life is turned upside-down. As we watch this guy go through the madness that this power and new life brings him, we keep forgetting that this is a supernatural thriller. As a result, you can buy the premise and accept “The Dead Zone” as his story.

Christopher Walken does an excellent job of portraying Johnny. He’s a confused, scared, angry individual doing what he can with his new life—whether with his companions or with his gift. Walken gets lost in the role and it’s a powerful performance. Also good are Brooke Adams as the woman that has married another man, but still loves Johnny (as a result, there’s a touch of fascinating complexity in their scenes together); Herbert Lom as a sympathetic doctor who wants to help Johnny with his gift; Tom Skerrit as the sheriff; and (possibly the best in the supporting cast) Martin Sheen, a populist politician who becomes an important role in the film’s (admittedly) very clever climax.

The story does get back on track with its story of using Johnny’s gift to change the future when it’s predicted with disaster. But then, we’ve accepted the story because we care for the characters, and what follows is very strong because of so. And if this film is faithful to the original Stephen King novel, I guess I underestimated King as a supernatural-horror writer. What I mean is, some of his stories having to do with monsters and psychic abilities have never made a whole lot of sense (sometimes, they’re intriguing; otherwise, they’re laughable). But with “The Dead Zone,” Stephen King got it right. As does director David Cronenberg, who adapted it into a fine thriller. Congratulations to both talented individuals.

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