I’ve been on a real roll lately here on Cinematic Century, getting to talk about some of my absolute favorite films of all time, duking it out with a whole slew of other amazing movies. But, not 1983. As seems to happen ever few weeks on this project, I’ve stumbled upon a year that is full of movies that are just kind of okay, and lots of ones I’ve never seen before, giving me a real task of finding something to talk about. The obvious candidate is probably Return of the Jedi, thus letting me talk about every single one of the original trilogy Star Wars movies on this project. But, if I’m being honest, Return of the Jedi is primarily propped up by nostalgia. I really adore the first act, all the escape from Jabba’s Palace stuff, but the rest of the movie just drags it down for me, and it just felt insincere to talk about a movie that I don’t really love. Similarly, I was briefly tempted to go with A Christmas Story, a deeply flawed movie that I’ve basically developed a Stockholm Syndrome relationship with due to a staggering amount of views around the holidays since it basically plays nonstop in my family’s home. But, it’s not a film that I really feel passionate about, outside of familial nostalgia. There’s also a couple movies that just don’t do it for me, especially since they’re hugely popular with people. I’ve never understood the appeal for De Palma’s Scarface, a movie that has just landed with a thud for me every time I’ve tried to check it out. I’ve also never gotten the appeal of Videodrome, a movie I know people love, and I understand why they love it, but that just doesn’t do much for me. John Carpenter’s Christine is also a movie that I’ve just never been able to get on the same wavelength with, one of the few Carpenter movies to leave me cold. Honestly, the only other movie that I’ve seen from 1983 that I felt even the smallest amount of passion about was National Lampoon’s Vacation, but I have no idea what I’d even say about that movie. And, I wasn’t going to get into the real-world tragedy of Twilight Zone. So, not for the first time, I decided to check out a movie form 1983 I’d never seen before, trying to see if I could find something that would elicit some passion. And, thankfully, David Cronenberg was apparently working like a madman at this point in time, because not only did he release Videodrome, he also released an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, the Dead Zone. And you know what? This movie is great.
Hollywood has always found fertile creative foundations in the work of Stephen King, so basically from when he first published the Dead Zone work began attempting to adapt it to the big screen. But, it was a tumultuous journey, to say the least. It was briefly going to be written by screenwriter Jeffrey Boam for a fledgling film studio called Lorimar Film Entertainment, but before the project could find a director and get off the ground the company shuttered its film division, tossing the film rights into the eager hands of Dino De Laurentiis. This is the first time I’ve talked about De Laurentiis, the prolific Italian producer with very little scruples, but the idea of him producing a Stephen King adaptation is a really wonderful one. Sadly, De Laurentiis didn’t end up directly involved with the production of this film, especially because one of his ideas was to have King himself adapt the novel. But, instead, while still laying under De Laurentiis’ production company, the film was eventually passed to producer Debra Hill who began working with Jeffrey Boam’s script and hiring Canadian horror director David Cronenberg. This film was still early on in Cronenberg’s career, coming shortly after he started gaining real traction with the Brood and Scanners, just before his career really launched him to the state it would throughout the rest of the 1980’s 90’s, and he seemed happy to make a more streamlined, grounded film, especially after working on Videodrome. But, that did require him to work on the structure of the film, and along with Boam they rearranged and hacked King’s story apart, leaving it leaner and set up in a sort of anthology format, giving us three distinct chapter of one man’s life, in a move that actually impressed King. And, if you have any familiarity with King’s typical reaction to adaptations of his work, specifically his thoughts on Kubrick’s the Shining, that fact is amazing. And, it was the right call. Because the Dead Zone was actually a pretty big hit, enjoyed both critically and commercially, and ending up being hailed as one of the finest Stephen King adaptations up until that point. Even though this was till before King adaptations could be considered their own cottage industry within Hollywood.
The Dead Zone takes place, like so many King stories do, in Castle Rock, Maine, and follows a teacher named John Smith. Smith is living his best life, teaching English and carrying on a relationship with a colleague of his named Sarah. However, things quickly get tragic for John, starting with a date to an amusement park that has to be cut short thanks to some mysterious headaches he starts feeling. He takes Sarah home and begins driving away during a rainy storm when Johnny is involved in a massive car accident that’s so bad he’s left in a coma. And, after five years of recuperation, Johnny finally awakens to find the world has passed him by. Sarah is married and with a child, and his entire life has moved on without him. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Johnny quickly realizes that he has now developed some sort of psychic ability where he’s able to see people’s past, present, and future when touching them. Such as realizing that the daughter of one of the nurses is currently caught in a burning home, and that his doctor’s mother whom he though died in World War II is actually alive. He’s unsure of how to control this ability, and doesn’t want it at all, but it’s clear that he’s going to have to find out how to live with it.
Word of his ability quickly spreads though, and Johnny finds himself becoming a bit of a media sensation, all while he’s still recuperating in the hospital and trying to get a hold of his new life. He even ends up meeting Sarah again, who begins visiting him with her infant son, while the two slowly start to rekindle a now adulterous relationship. But, that does get put on the backburner for a bit when a local policeman comes to ask Johnny if he’d be willing to help him solve a case. A recent string of grisly murders has been occurring around Castle Rock, and the police have no leads or ideas of who might be doing them. Johnny is reluctant to help at first, but ends up deciding that it’s his duty to use his newfound powers for good, and agrees to help. And, sure enough, he ends up seeing that the killer is actually the police’s deputy, Frank Dodd. He accompanies the sheriff to arrest Dodd, and they end up getting in a fire-fight with Dodd’s mother that ends with Johnny getting shot in the leg while Dodd commits suicide. And, all of this combines to make Johnny very uninterested in using his powers to solve any more crimes. Plus, he’s realized he can’t break up Sarah’s marriage, so Johnny decides to move on with his life, moving to a new town and trying to start over.
Johnny ends up getting a job as a tutor working for a rich man named Roger Stuart to home-school his son Chris. And, slowly bur surely, Johnny and Chris forge a friendship, building up Chris’ confidence while giving himself some human contact. But, Johnny ends up getting a vision of Chris and his friends drowning in a lake during hockey game, and starts convincing Stuart to not let Chris play hockey. Stuart is initially against it, but Chris does end up not going to the lake on that fateful day, while his friends do indeed drown, showing Johnny that his visions aren’t set in stone, and that he’s able to change the future. Which, comes in handy when Johnny meets a firebrand populist politician named Greg Stillson who is running for Senate. Because, when shaking Stillson’s hand he sees a vision of Stillson, as president, launching a nuclear strike against Russia while in a religious mania, ending all life on Earth. So, Johnny decides it’s up to him to stop Stillson from becoming President and ending the world. Which is made a little awkward when he learns that Sarah and her husband are big believers in Stillson, and are some of his most fervent campaigners. He puts all of that aside though, and arrives at a Stillson rally with a rifle, intent on killing the man. But, Johnny isn’t a good shot, and his bullet goes wide. But, it does cause Stillson to panic and grab Sarah’s baby as a human shield, which instantly tanks his reputation, and as Johnny dies he’s able to touch Stillson and see that Stillson will now never become President, and that Johnny has effectively saved the world.
At times it can be a little surprising to realize that this is a film from David Cronenberg. This was still early in his filmography, but Cronenberg really quickly established the kind of filmmaker he was, and the bizarre, grimy worlds he wanted to create. And, by comparison, this is a shockingly tame film. It’s very lowkey compared to his other works, which may seem a little strange since it tells such an odd plot. But, weirdly enough, I think that that subdued feeling actually works to the films benefit, drawing us into its strange world by making us feel comfortable with what’s going on. Because, in the grand scheme of things, this is one of Stephen King’s less odd plots, just telling a story about an accidental psychic, and it’s brought to life in a really fantastic way. It’s a far more intimate film that you might be expecting, which makes the ways that Johnny’s powers affect people that much more powerful. His journey gets more and more crazy as the film goes on, leading to a political assassination, but it’s all handled in a way that makes sense, carrying you along while you get to see Johnny’s desperation and attempts to make sense of the world around him. Which is really carried by Christopher Walken’s amazing performance. I’ve always been a fan of Walken’s, and while he’s often made the butt of jokes, I really do think he’s a great actor, and the way that he plays Johnny in this film is terrific, constantly teetering on the edge of full-fledged insanity, dealing with the horrible burden of his powers.
The film posits a man who is able to see the future, but who is also aware that the events he’s prophesying aren’t set in stone and can be changed. Which, is an incredible gift and burden. Eventually the film lands on an age-old hypothetical question. If you could travel back in time and kill Hitler, would you? It’s a question of hindsight, using what we know will happen and attempting to make it not happen. But, Johnny is put in the strange position where he could make such a massive decision, one that could change the course of human history, without hindsight. He knows, as surely as he can, that his actions could directly avoid the apocalypse. And, it then ends up becoming a bit of a Spider-Man dilemma. He has a great power, and a great knowledge, so doesn’t he also have the responsibility to do something about it, even if that something involves the murder of person he barely knows? It’s the ethical question that this whole film hinges on, and while this particular case does seem a little cut and dry (Stillson is going to straight up cause a nuclear apocalypse), it still shows you what a difficult decision it would be to alter history like that. Johnny is placed in a position, superpowers to not, to personally change history. Which, political assassins have obviously been able to do for centuries. Johnny is burdened with a terrible knowledge, a certainty that what he’s doing is the right thing for humanity, that he’s avoiding some terrible calamity. But, I’m sure if you would ask other assassins, they feel similarly. They may not have psychic powers like Johnny, but they share that knowledge and that willingness to personally interfere in history. Which isn’t something the average person would ever be comfortable with.
The Dead Zone was written by Jeffrey Boam, directed by David Cronenberg, and released by Paramount Pictures, 1983.
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