Monday, September 21, 2020

Reeling Backward: "The Dead Zone" (1983)

Stephen King writes a lot of books and during the 1980s to '90s there were so many film adaptations of them you can hardly keep them straight. They range from excellent to awful and various flavors of mediocre.

The poor box office performance of "Hearts in Atlantis" and "Dreamcatcher" in the early aughts -- both better flicks than they're given credit for -- sent the market for King movies south for a bit, but now there's been a resurgence with the "IT" duology and remake of "Pet Sematary."

We've also got another crack at a miniseries of his epic, "The Stand," one of my all-time favorite books, coming this December to the CBS premier access platform. (The less said about the 1994 TV miniseries, the better, though I still plan to say it in a little bit. Stay tuned.)

"The Dead Zone" came out in 1983 along with two other King adaptations that year: "Christine" and "Cujo." None of them were particular hits, though the other two at least have the benefit of a killer dog and a haunted car to cement their place in the cultural lexicon. "Dead," despite getting the best reviews of the lot, has been pretty well memory-holed.

It's the story of a school teacher who goes into a coma for five years after an accident, and when he awakes finds he has psychic powers to predict the future and see into the past. His visions occur when he touches another person (living or recently dead), and as things go on he discovers there's a "dead zone" in his premonitions wherein he can take action to prevent terrible events such as death or catastrophe.

I can only imagine being a casting director in the early 1980s and trying to figure out what to do with Christopher Walken. An Oscar winner for "The Deerhunter," his first major film role, he did song-and-dance in the bomb "Pennies from Heaven," then made two movies in 1983 about people with mind powers, this one and "Brainstorm," with which it is often confused.

Then he played Bond villain Max Zorin a couple years later in "A View to a Kill," and the "kooky Chris Walken" trope was firmly established. His disjointed speech patterns and mad sorcerer's stare have pretty much defined his career since, from "more cow bell" to a 1,001 impersonations.

Though he occasionally gets better material.

His character, Johnny Smith, isn't terribly well defined before the accident. He's a somewhat dweeby high school English teacher in an idyllic town, Castle Rock, one of King's fictional New England settings. He's engaged to be married -- or at least engaged to be engaged -- with another teacher, Sarah (the winsome Brooke Adams).

Curiously, Walken wears his hair combed forward in an exaggerated Roman style prior to the accident, then in his familiar swept-back pompadour after. He also goes from tweed coats to flipped-collar raincoats, giving him a vaguely Dracula thing.

Raised by religious parents (Jackie Burroughs and Sean Sullivan), Johnny's relationship with Sarah is chaste, despite her entreaties. "Some things are worth waiting for," he tells her, before driving off into the rain to meet his destiny in the form of a detached semi-tractor tanker lying in the road.

Interestingly, right before the accident Johnny had experienced a painful headache/hallucination while riding a roller coaster with Sarah -- perhaps an indication his psychic powers were already there, just lying dormant.

I enjoyed the scene where he wakes up in the long-term care clinic. His doctor, Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom), warns his parents not to reveal too much to Johnny about what has happened to him. Then his mom immediately blurts out that he's been conked out for five years, and Sarah abandoned him to marry another man. Nasty old rhymes-with-witch.

She soon dies of a heart attack, and we're glad to see her go.

Johnny's first vision results in one of his nurses rushing home to save her daughter from a burning house, which results in him becoming a local celebrity. He also uses his power to reveal to Sam, with whom he forms a bond that goes beyond doctor/patient, that the mother Sam thought he'd lost during the Holocaust is still alive.

Sam calls her to confirm the information, but hangs up on her and leaves it there. He tells Johnny that finding each other 40 years later "wasn't meant to be," suggesting that he considers his patient's abilities to be some kind of perversion of the natural order. Sam also hosts a rambunctious press conference for Johnny that results in a nasty encounter with an obnoxious reporter, and all in all Sam seems a better friend than physician.

The plot meanders thereafter, the middle section playing as a crime procedural, followed by a family/romance drama, and the last act as an incongruent political thriller.

In the former, nearby Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) comes calling to enlist Johnny's aid in solving a series of stabbing murders of young women. It's a pretty tired dance of refusal, then enlistment, then doubting of his abilities, and then denouement as the killer is confronted. I'll skip right to the chase and reveal that it's the sheriff's smirky deputy, played by Nicholas Campbell.

(Sorry, no spoiler warnings after 37 years.)

Johnny uses these events as an excuse to move away, setting up shop as a personal tutor in a nearby town. He lives in a pretty grand three-story house all by himself, as once again Hollywood movies seem entirely incapable of grasping the basic economics of regular folks. These are hardly the sort of accommodations a semi-employed teacher could obtain.

He also retains a pronounced limp and uses a cane to get around, though the movie doesn't delve too much into how Johnny's psyche is affected by his disability. Dr. Sam seems to think that Johnny's body will only get weaker as his mental powers grow stronger.

During this time he becomes personal tutor to Chris (Simon Craig), the ostracized son of a very wealthy man (Anthony Zerbe), and they form a brotherly camaraderie. Johnny uses his powers to prevent Chris' death in an ice hockey accident he foresees, and he begins to embrace his abilities as a blessing rather than a curse.

Chris has a bunch of cool nerdy stuff in his bedroom, including a then-rare personal computer, figurines and comic books, and I think he and I would've gotten along famously.

Around this time Sarah also reappears with her toddler son in tow. She claims to be happy with her life but regrets the one with Johnny she left behind, so she throws him a bone by having sex with him. Only this one time, she warns, and presumably his only time, since Johnny is implied to still be a virgin.

Sarah seems to think she's doing him a favor rather than letting Johnny's feelings slowly burn out naturally. This is just throwing a log on the fire, and borderline emotional terrorism.

The film's last bit is hokey and contrived, as Johnny encounters an ambitious young candidate for the U.S. Senate, Greg Stillson, played with dyed-black hair and cartoonish aggression by Martin Sheen. Stillson rides around in a Cadillac limo but dons a construction hard hat for his campaign appearances, doing push-ups and delivering rambling monologues about what's gone wrong with this country.

Johnny inadvertently shakes Stillson's hand during one of these, and sees a vision in which the man becomes President and launches a preemptive nuclear strike, seeing it as his personal destiny bequeathed by God. He consults with Sam, obliquely, about whether it would be right to commit murder to prevent massive tragedy, using the obvious Hitler proposition.

I adored Sam's non-prevaricating response: "All right. I'll give you an answer. I'm a man of medicine. I'm expected to save lives and ease suffering. I love people. Therefore, I would have no choice but to kill the son of a bitch."

Thus Johnny sets off on an assassination mission with his father's old World War II carbine, which is successful though not in exactly the way he intended. Of course, his own life is forfeited in the exchange.

"The Dead Zone" is like a meal in which the chef was given a lot or promising ingredients and never figured out the right way to put it together. Jeffrey Boam wrote the screenplay adaptation, in a short but busy career that also included "The Lost Boys," "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and the second and third "Lethal Weapon" films.

It was one of director David Cronenberg's rare non-horror films during the early part of his career, busy with mind-bending tales like "Videodrome," "Naked Lunch" and "Scanners." I get the feeling Cronenberg didn't quite know what to do with such a relatively straight story, and ended up churning out the sort of bland studio fare any one of a hundred other filmmakers could've delivered.

It's not especially scary, or exciting, or emotionally engrossing... or especially anything, really. I can grasp why it's been mostly forgot.

Apparently King did write his own version of the screenplay, though Cronenberg reportedly rejected it for being too brutal -- a rather hilarious statement, given the grisly nature of his own oeuvre. Even funnier: the person originally imagined to play Johnny, and King's own choice, was Bill Murray.

Just trying to imagine that version of the movie gives me visions of my own -- most unpleasant ones.

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