Friday, September 2, 2011

The Dead Zone

The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983)  Stephen King's "The Dead Zone" was written as a defense of assassination as a preventive measure for disaster (No, really...what if you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a child?*).  What if you had the power of foreknowledge and did nothing to prevent something catastrophic?  It may be a sin to kill, but the Catholic Curch also warns of sins of omission.  The extraordinary circumstances of a psychic being able to see the future and acting to prevent it is the stuff of philosophy, morality and science-fiction.**  But King, who took horror tropes and turned them on their pointed ears wasn't writing science-fiction.  His brand of personal horror turned this cautionary tale into one of tragedy.

Up to that time, David Cronenberg was known for viscerally-filmed Grade-Z horror films with an emphasis on the squishy, but his film of The Dead Zone (one of the early King adaptations after DePalma's Carrie, Kubrick's version of The Shining, and the Tobe Hooper-directed TV version of 'Salem's Lot) was one of the strongest of the bunch.  Cronenberg (and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam) took the larky good-nature out of the initial character of Johnny Smith (played in the film by Christopher Walken, but King thought it better suited for Bill Murray) and boiled the story down to essentials.  Smith (as anonymous a name as you'd want) goes on a date with Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams) and things are going alright—he's fallen in love, in fact—when Fate raises its Huge Hand in the form of a near-fatal traffic accident that puts Johnny into a coma for five years (Cronenberg, perversely, has the collision occur with a milk tanker—as in "no use crying over..."***).  Waking up, he finds that life is completely different—Mom's become unhinged, Sarah's up-and-married, he's semi-crippled, even after severe rehabilitation, and he can't find a job as a teacher of English Lit anywhere.

Oh, yes.  Then there's "the power."  By merely touching another human being, Johnny can see into that person's future, seeing their possible destiny and maybe death.  He wants to live a "normal" life, a life of obscurity and happiness, but this "gift" is more of a curse, throwing him into the limelight, giving him responsibilities that he can't want or need.  But, a man of conscience, Johnny can't keep his visions to himself—he has to warn people.  He can't merely witness, an innocent by-channeller, he has to act to prevent the tragedies he sees and insert himself between those he touches and their Fates.

A social man, his gift makes him increasingly isolated, trying to hide his abilities, and avoiding people and touching them to keep from seeing those visions.  But, as much as he tries to quash his ability to see the future, he is always confronted by it and must come out of his obscurity to prevent them from occurring.

Sounds like classic tragedy to me.  With biblical, even apocalyptic echoes.

Cronenberg keeps the tone of the film oppressively heavy (Michael Kamen's score is particularly down-beat) and the Canadian locations have a dull, overcast, obliquely lit feel to them, like every moment is a late afternoon threatening to snow.  Smith is a particularly sepulchral figure, Walken's tall frame shrouded by a long black overcoat, hobbling stiff-leggedly with a cane, like a harbinger of doom, his eyes haunted, but Walken's hooded eyes grow wide, when he touches someone or an object they possess, as if grabbing a live electrical wire as he goes into his vision.  Before long, he is perpetually wearing black gloves.

But, on one of his rare excursions out he manages to take the hand of one Gregg Stillson (Martin Sheen), a Senator with eyes towards the presidency, and what he sees is Stillson launching a nuclear attack, ensuring Mutually Assured Destruction, and he becomes obsessed with stopping it

Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam does some compression and simplification of the novel that emphasizes coincidence for the sake of a romantically resonant ending, but all in all, it is one of the best of the King screen adaptations (you've got to be careful with King—if you boil down his stories too much and take out too many of his incidents, you can sometimes see that the skeleton of his writing is calcium-deficient).  The cast is amazing—Walken, Adams, Lom, but also Tom Skerritt, Anthony Zerbe (playing a strong character for once), Colleen Dewhurst, and the wonderful Jackie Burroughs—and keep things playing out naturally, with only Sheen veering into a kind of caricature. 

It's one of Cronenberg's tamer, more straightforward early films (relatively, although there's some gut-churning violence), but it's one of his great ones.

Cronenberg gives Smith's visions a perverse power.

* It's been years since I've read the book or seen the movie, and I'd forgotten that very question is asked by Smith in both: in the novel to a WWI veteran, and in the movie to his neurologist Dr. Weizack (Herbert Lom).

** King's next book "11-22-63" is about a man who travels back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination.  I'm going to write one called "The Well" about an author who goes back to one too many times.  (Note: There was a "The Twilight Zone" episode called "Back There"—great score by Jerry Goldsmith, btw—about a man who goes back in time and—unsuccessfully—tries to prevent Lincoln's assassination.  It starred Russell Johnson, who, whenever he came into the studio I worked at, I'd make sure that his reading copy had nice bold type on it.  He appreciated it, and I had a standard exit line for his thanks: "Well, after all, you went back in time to save Lincoln...")

*** In the novel, the accident Johnny is in is caused by drag-racers.


Niall Andrews said...

You can tell that this is a collaboration between Dino Delaurentiis and David Cronenberg. It's very similar to all of Dino's other films, made in the early 80's. It's depressing in places, full of despair and unrelenting. I love this film.

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