Saturday, October 27, 2012

Movie Appraisal: The Dead Zone (1983)

The ICE... is gonna BREAK!
A "horror thriller film," eh? This is where I'm supposed to roll my eyes and wonder how people put movies into genres in the first place. Calling a movie a horror thriller is like calling it a thrilling suspense. It's absolutely redundant. The "horror thriller" line is from Wikipedia. Just ignore that website when it comes to most of these movies. It's a terrible website to get information from in the case of 90% of the stuff I review.

Anyway, this is a "horror" movie by absolute technicality. The director, David Cronenburg, does an absolutely fantastic job of capturing the horror of a terrible curse... or a wonderful gift... whichever you'd like to take it as. It's not precisely a horror film in the classic sense. It's never scary, never terrifying, never really all that horrific. The terror comes from what Johnny sees, and what he goes through in the course of the story. The original novel, also billed as horror, is much of the same way. There is no true horror. The realism is always there, but it is realism with a twist of the supernatural. This film is also a great adaptation of the novel, something I rarely have the chance to say.

The Dead Zone is mostly a collection of vignettes told in a rough story arc. Johnny Smith, played by Christopher Walken, gets into an accident, loses five years of his life to a coma, loses the love of his life, and loses most of his reason for living. He keeps pushing on, but as half a man, one lose to time as much as he is lost to life itself. The story very much pushes the fact that he really dies when he gets into the accident. Sure, five years later he goes on living, but it is no longer him, but a man given a gift, who is eventually told to give his life for the gift anyway.

This movie is not as fun as Graveyard Shift instead relying on serious performances rather than over-the-top ones, and sad moments rather than great lines. I don't know if this is the best adaptation of a Stephen King novel to screen, but it is damn well one of the best. The serious tone mixed with great performances by almost everybody in the film brings this movie to the forefront as a brilliant one from beginning to end. That being said, it's not precisely a horror film in execution, but rather a horror film by premise... if that makes any sense. It probably doesn't. My point is that this won't keep you up nights afraid... but it will make you wonder what you might do if you were given the "gift."

David Cronenburg is at the height of his game here. Coming in the midst of some of his greatest films of all time, and directly after Videodrome, this movie, while a more more "normal" film, does exactly what it needs to do, being both a fantastic and beautiful film as well as a depressing story of a man with a terrible gift. The little stories, all taken from the novel, are incredibly well done and well paced, with the beginning of the movie being nearly heartbreaking. Christopher Walken's performance is easily the best performance I've ever seen by him, and easily one of the most emotionally investing performances I've seen in a long time. Watching the struggle of a man trying to heal his shattered body, then trying to heal his shattered mind is both upsetting and heart-wrenching  Watching as he decides to give up his own life to the greater good is damn near hard to watch. This is a man who could do a lot of good for the world, and he does, but nobody will ever know but him.

Strangely, despite being both a huge fan of David Cronenburg and of Stephen King movie adaptations, I have never seen this movie, although I have owned it for years without watching it. I should have watched it long before now. It was a wonderful experience, and while not precisely the classic horror movie, it really does bring about a melancholic feel to me in late October, a feeling I kind of like this time of year. The Dead Zone, strangely, was one of the last non-recent Stephen King novels I read as well. Not sure why I waited so long for either, but I'm glad I finally read/watched the story unfold. It was really worth it to experience.

I don't have much else but praise for the movie. Sean Sullivan plays the perfect father to Walken's Johnny. I saw that exact man when I read the novel originally, and I felt he was perfectly cast to the role. Walken, although not precisely what I expected for Johnny, worked well here. I had kind of expected a younger man to play the role, but by the end, he really worked for me. He worked especially well after the accident. You really start to feel for him. He is a broken man, and a man who you could easily feel pity for... and so much remorse as well. He's nearly dead... maybe even should be dead, but he isn't. He keeps on living through the pain, through the problems, through losing the love of his life. He loses almost everything but keeps carrying on until he has no choice anymore but to do what needs to be done. And he is easily the most likable man in history. I was endeared to him in good-bye scene to Sarah after the carnival. He walks her to her door, she asks him inside. It starts to rain. And he says no. "Some things are worth the wait." I can't help but like him after that. And when he finally does get passionate when people might die, it's almost heart-wrenching  There are times you want to punch the people who won't listen to him in their faces. Walken and Johnny are really the centerpieces of the movie and they both pull off their jobs amazingly, with Walken acting brilliantly and Johnny being one of the best characters in a movie I have ever seen.

Saying that... Brooke Adams, playing Sarah Bracknell also worked decently, although I never really saw the chemistry between her and Walken, not as much as I thought I should see. Then again, I've never really liked her character, even if I understand her decision to marry someone else; it's still a cruddy decision for her to make. Martin Sheen plays a role he was basically meant for, a corrupt and overbearing politician, Greg Stillson, who has hopes for the White House... and even more hopes to basically destroy the damned world. He works well here, both sleazy and charismatic enough to pull off this political powerhouse of a man.

While some of the scenes happen fast and others take a long time to get anywhere at all, I do believe the movie is well-paced. I don't think a knowledge of the novel itself is needed when seeing the movie either, although in my case I definitely appreciated the background the novel provided. I do somewhat wish the movie had been slightly more fleshed out, with a little bit more added into it, maybe a little bit more establishing or something, but that is a very weak complaint, and really only says that I only truly wished for more. I guess that's why a television series of The Dead Zone existed.

I guess all I can say is that I just reviewed two excellent Stephen King movies in a row, both of which I recommend heartily despite both being completely different types of movies. While this is serious and more thrilling and suspenseful than horrific, it does have its moments. It's a good watch and probably one of the absolute best quality movies I've reviewed this October at least. Give it a watch if you haven't. It's definitely worth your time.


  1. Hey I really enjoyed reading this review! And don't worry your genre analysis totally makes sense. I also love David Cronenberg and Stephen King adaptations and was wondering, what do you think of Cronenberg's Spider and Kubrick's The Shining? I haven't finished going through your blog yet so maybe you've reviewed them before and I'll find out soon. Anyway, keep up the good work!

    1. Oh, thanks!

      I haven't reviewed either. The Shining is an odd one for me. I'll review it eventually. I've seen it a bunch of times, but I can't say I love it. It's better than the book, in my opinion, but I never liked the book all that much. The performances in the movie are quite well done, the directing is solid, but I've never found it scary. That's basically the sole reason I'm fairly neutral on it.

      Spider will be an upcoming review, probably within the next month or so. I won't give anything away now, but I absolutely love most of Cronenburg's horror or near-horror directing.