The Dead Zone (1983)

*. When commenting on doing this adaptation of The Dead Zone, David Cronenberg made the remark that the only way to be stay faithful to the source, Stephen King’s novel, was to betray it. It’s an interesting observation, and it raises the question of how much of this movie is King’s Dead Zone and how much of it is Cronenberg’s.
*. The screenplay went through a lot of drafts and the novel was considerably pared down. What was left seems almost like a kind of fairy tale. Even post-Donald Trump the rise of a hard-hatted huckster like Stillson doesn’t seem probable, or the ease with which Johnny takes him out. Castle Rock is in New Hampshire (not Maine, as it is in King’s universe), which is a big primary state, but it still looks more like Cronenberg country, which is Southwestern Ontario.
*. The Dead Zone went on to become a short-lived television series, and I’ve mentioned before how small-screen King often seems. Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the few times he’s been done on a grand scale. Perhaps it’s because his longer books adapt more easily as miniseries. Or perhaps it’s because King himself was more a product of television than he was of film. In any event, the smallness of Castle Rock fits the same template. Stillson rarely seems to be talking to groups larger than twenty or thirty people. And how weird is it that when Johnny takes Sarah to the amusement park they are the only two people on the rollercoaster? Indeed, aside from the rollercoaster operator they seem to be the only two people in the entire park (filmed at Canada’s Wonderland, just outside of Toronto). All of this just adds to the film’s fairy tale feel.

*. Of course the Weizak clinic is a classic Cronenberg location, and the idea of the hero’s body turning against him is another familiar touchstone, this time taking the form of a vampiric form of psychic precognition and visions that drain his life force. The religious fanaticism, however, is all King.
*. What a nice bit of countercasting. The dorky high school teacher played by Christopher Walken, a man perennially on the verge of a nervous breakdown. How many other actors could give that line about how “the ice is gonna break!” and get away with it? Not many. Certainly not Bill Murray, who was originally sought for the part.
*. Can we talk about the wallpaper? It may be the scariest thing in the movie. During one of the featurettes included with the DVD Cronenberg talks about the cowboy wallpaper in the room of the killer Dodd and says how this was a deliberate choice, to make him out to be not fully mature (I was reminded of Norman Bates’s bedroom in Psycho). But he also says that it was part of a design concept to make the sets look like something out of a fantasy American past: a 1950s, Norman Rockwell America.
*. Whatever the rationale for it, I think we can agree on just how horrifying the results are. Not just in Dodd’s bedroom but in the Stuart mansion (both the entrance hall and Chris’s room) and in the kitchen of Johnny’s house. I wonder if young people today can even imagine what it was like to grow up in homes that looked like this. I can because I did. Behold.

*. Perhaps Cronenberg just loves all that busy-ness on the walls. Because he also likes to look up the elaborate ceiling in Johnny’s old home. I don’t think he uses low-angle camera shots in any other set but this, but whenever he gets in this one he drops down to capture it. The effect is of ceiling wallpaper.

*. Nice to see Herbert Lom. I was wondering what had happened to him. Before this he was mainly keeping busy playing Chief Inspector Dreyfus in a whole slew of Pink Panther movies. I’d forgotten how many of those there were. Now I want to forget again.
*. Cronenberg gets credit for being a low-key kind of director, but I really thought the psychic vision sequences in this one needed more of a spark. I like Johnny in the burning bed, but the World War 2 material was dull (Cronenberg originally wanted a tank to burst through the wall of Dr. Weizak’s office) and the gazebo sequence just doesn’t have enough punch despite looking more than eerie enough.

*. The tripartite structure was very deliberate. It’s an interesting choice, but the problem with such a narrative is that it frustrates the building of any continuous interest. As, for example, with the relationship between Johnny and the casually adulterous Sarah. I got the sense that the movie really wanted me to care about these two, but at the end I just couldn’t.
*. The Dead Zone is often considered to be one of the better Stephen King adaptations, and I guess I agree, with the following two caveats: (1) there have been a hell of a lot of Stephen King adaptations; and (2) most of them have been mediocre at best. Judged on its own, I find it a movie of interesting moments but one that doesn’t add up to be more than the sum of its parts. With King, Cronenberg, and this cast, I was expecting something a little more special.

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