Search this blog and The Mike's favorite blogs!

May 3, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #122 - The Dead Zone

If you were to ever walk on up to central Iowa and find The Mike's Lair and be like "Hey, The Mike, I was wonderin' who you think the scariest on screen villains ever are", you'd probably hear me mention Greg Stillson.  It's a name that gets little publicity in the horror scene - though there are some smartsy, politically knowledged types who throw the example out whenever important elections come up - but it's one that has chilled me for a long, long time.
 Greg Stillson, who we'll get to in a minute, is just one of the things to love about The Dead Zone.  Whether you prefer books (it's definitely one of my very favorites from Stephen King), TV shows (some give it a bad name, and sometimes it deserved it, but I dig the Anthony Michael Hall led USA Series), or movies (the 1983 adaptation by David Cronenberg that I hope to focus on here) - there's a dose of Dead Zone for just about everyone who loves a bit of telekinesis or "second sight" or whatever you want to call the powers of someone who touches people and sees into their life.
Christopher Walken - only a few years removed from his Oscar win for The Deer Hunter and still looking rather young - stars as Johnny Smith, the ill-fated teacher who enters a coma as a simple young man and wakes up five years later with the power to see.  This power - which allows him to see important/tragic events in peoples' lives - could go a lot of ways (Walken himself famously spoofed the role on an episode of Saturday Night Live), but the film narrows them down to three key points.  These days, you get the feeling a trilogy would be made out of this material - as the TV series showed, there's plenty that could be done with the character - but this film does a more than adequate job of following King's novel and wedging Johnny's story into 103 minutes.
It would be easy for the film - directed by generally abstract filmmaker David Cronenberg - to have gone off on tangents and radically altered King's story.  It worked so well for The Shining, so why not let Cronenberg explode some heads or turn non-vaginal body parts into vaginas?  I have to wonder - did Cronenberg have full control over the movie? Was the studio watching over his shoulder? Or did he really like King's story that much that he didn't want to mess with it?  Whatever the answer is, I'm pretty glad that he - for the most part - stayed true to the novel.  Anyone who watched all six seasons of the TV show - I can't be the only one, can I? - knows that that thing dragged out the most interesting part of the story and never really found closure.
 The most interesting part of the story, as I hinted earlier, is Greg Stillson.  Though Johnny's first encounters with his powers and his time assisting a local sheriff (Tom Skerrit!) with a murder investigation are interesting enough, there are few characters in horror that provoke the same philosophical dilemma that Greg Stillson does.  When we see what Johnny sees - a real world terror the likes of which man has (thankfully) only imagined - Greg Stillson immediately becomes one of the most dangerous men in horror.
Played with a ton of sleaze by Martin Sheen - who seems to partially channeling his future Mass Effect 2 & 3 character and partially mimicking his son Charlie's future crazy eyes - Greg Stillson represents a man who might tear the world apart.  And he's not a dude who might tear the world apart because he's a monster or because he's a physical terror or because he's supernaturally affected. We don't really get a full "why" Greg Stillson might tear the world apart in this movie - the book and show each do more to establish Stillson's mental issues and lust for power/control - but when we see Johnny's vision of Stillson's future there's no questioning that he's more than a bit mad.
With a series of interesting segments (featuring killers, children, politics, and more) and a powerful lead performance by Walken, The Dead Zone is always an interesting story.  It's not the most ambitious story that Cronenberg or King ever put together, but it manages to inspire a lot of thought without diving too far into "crazy about science" territory.  I suppose reading the book would be a bit more rewarding than watching the film - DON'T TELL ANYONE I JUST SAID THAT - but if you're in a pinch for time you'll surely enjoy The Dead Zone as an intelligent and well-made '80s horror film.

1 comment:

Will Errickson said...

DZ is also a favorite King novel of mine, and the pairing of King, Walken, and Cronenberg is terrific and true to each artist. But one of the best aspects of the film is the chilling, wintry, and oh-so-melancholy score by Michael Kamen. Try rereading the novel while playing it in the background sometime...