No. 37: The Dead Zone

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Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

We now reach our first film of the countdown to gross over $20 million at the box office and it also happens to be the first of three films released in 1983 based on the works of author Stephen King. All three films performed almost identically at the box office so you’ll be seeing them in fairly rapid succession here on the blog over the next few weeks.

Heading into 1983, King had already had two successful films made out of his novels in 1976’s Carrie and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece The Shining (a film adaptation which King vehemently disapproved of) and was also becoming a reliable hit-maker in the print world as well. But 1983 marks a new point in King’s career, a year in which he went from being a well-known novelist whose work lent itself to the screen to being a major entertainment franchise. According to Box Office Mojo, King has been the creative inspiration for 38 theatrically released films, making him possibly the most oft-adapted American writer of all time. Not every film made from King’s work has been of equal quality (as we’ll see in the next few installments of Back to the Movies) but it’s clear that as a writer one of King’s greatest strengths is coming up with a premise that everyone, including movie producers, finds intriguing and fraught with possibilities.

The premise of The Dead Zone, directed by a young David Cronenberg, is fairly simple and not all that unfamiliar sounding to fans of science fiction and horror. A man with the bizarrely boring name of Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) gets into an auto accident and awakens from a coma five years later to find that he has psychic abilities. As a premise, it could go either way: in the hands of a mediocre writer it could turn into a series of small episodes where Johnny uses his abilities to solve minor problems for people like some sort of superhero (in fact, that’s exactly what happened with the television adaptation of this story made for USA Network a few years ago). In the hands of a more twisted mind, it becomes a fascinating vehicle to explore what a true curse such a gift would become were an average person to find themselves in possession of it.

After his initial discovery of his gift helps to save the life of a young child, Johnny suddenly finds himself becoming a local media sensation, viewed as a fascinating freak show to some and a delusional wacko to others. Johnny does what he can to stay out of the limelight but when a desperate sheriff (played by the awesome Tom Skerritt) comes to him for help in an unsolved serial murder case, Johnny feels that lending his talents to the case is the right thing to do.

How that situation resolves itself I will leave unspoiled as it serves as a sort of climax unto itself, a standalone episode within the film that works as a fascinating example of where Johnny’s story could go if using his gift weren’t slowly destroying him both mentally and emotionally.

The second half of the movie almost serves as an entirely separate story, with Johnny trying to start his life over in a place where no one knows about his abilities. There’s also another advantage of moving away from his hometown for Johnny in that it allows him to put his former fiance Sarah (Brooke Adams), who ended up getting married and having a baby while he was in a coma, out of his mind once and for all. Or so he thinks…

What makes the second half of the movie really interesting, in addition to Walken’s superb acting throughout, is the appearance of Martin Sheen as the maniacal rising star politician Greg Stillson. As a huge fan of Sheen’s great work on “The West Wing” as a beneficent, principled president I got a real kick out of seeing him play the complete opposite, a dirty politician who has used pessimism and anger to facilitate his rise to power. Sheen’s performance, like his character’s storyline, just skirts the edge of being overblown and ludicrous but somehow manages to stay believable, thanks not only to great acting and directing but also to King’s attention to detail in his story. King manages to drop breadcrumbs all along the way in the story that all begin to pay off in the film’s final act.

Minor spoiler alert for this paragraph and the video below: A great example of this film’s ability to actually pull off a scene that could be disastrously outrageous comes when Johnny shakes hands with Stillson and has a vision of the future that essentially determines Johnny’s motivation for the rest of the film. In this vision, we see Stillson as the President of the United States in a room at what is presumably Camp David. He pressures a general into putting his hand onto a briefcase-sized hand scanner before inputting a sequence of numbers. Stillson then walks out of the room to face a group of advisors to whom he makes a chilling proclamation.

(End Spoiler)

It’s a scene that I’m convinced shouldn’t work and wouldn’t work if had a different writer, a different director or a different actor involved. But as with a lot of things in this movie, the combination of King, Cronenberg and the superb actors involved make potentially ridiculous scenes into believable and chilling ones (Roger Ebert pointed out in his review that the fact that they are believable is exactly what makes them so chilling).

According to most of the reviews of the day, The Dead Zone is far and away the best of the three Stephen King movies released in 1983 (almost every review nearly spits when referring to Cujo, released two months earlier). It’s a tough call, but I’d say for me The Dead Zone is perhaps my favorite of the 14 films I’ve seen for this project thus far. If nothing else, it has led me to strongly consider picking up King’s original novel, a major achievement considering I’m not much of a reader. The Dead Zone certainly isn’t the scariest King-based film ever made but it is one of the most interesting, character-centric films I’ve seen based on his work.

Next Up: The re-release of the 1977 Disney animated classic The Rescuers.