Friday, September 19, 2008

Nobody Troubled Their Head About Him Anymore

The 1983 film of THE DEAD ZONE was no doubt my introduction to names like David Cronenberg and Christopher Walken. I’m not sure how aware I was of Stephen King at that point, but I’d begin reading his books soon enough. I was lucky to see the film at the impressionable age I was when it first played in theaters nearly 25 years ago, no doubt part of the reason why it remains such a favorite of mine. But as I’ve gotten older, the ways the film has deepened in meaning for me are difficult to fully express. There’s something so truly sorrowful in what it expresses that you can’t fully understand when you’re a kid. Taking the essence and basic plot of the Stephen King novel, almost giving the impression of being more faithful than it is, all of the elements come together in a way which allow it to still hold up today. The way Cronenberg fuses with this material he didn’t create makes it just as much a work of his as it is King’s. That feeling which I would one day appreciate as being uniquely Cronenbergian spreads throughout every frame, such as to the screenplay by the late Jeffrey Boam which does a masterful job of fitting a huge amount of plot into a relatively brief running time. The series of incidents (it feel too frivolous to refer to the story of Johnny Smith as ‘plot’) move fast through its 103 minutes, yet it never feels like it’s in a rush. There’s barely a wasted moment in this economically told story. Though the score is by Michael Kamen, not Howard Shore who usually works with the director, it still manages to sound exactly like it belongs to a Cronenberg film. This isn’t to imply that it sounds like music by Howard Shore, but it connects with the images right from the opening title sequence so well that it’s hard to believe it could be improved on. It somehow expresses the extreme sadness of fate in a way that you usually only get from Ennio Morricone and is probably the best fully original score the late composer ever created.

There’s a surprising sensitivity in the performances as well, something that would usually be unexpected from a film with “Dino De Laurentiis Presents”. Names like Anthony Zerbe, Tom Skerritt and Martin Sheen in 1983 would seem to imply a cheesefest, maybe one where the actors would be featured in boxes at the bottom of the poster but that never happens. This is particularly the case with the great Herbert Lom. The moment when the actor best known as Chief Inspector Dreyfus makes a certain phone call, covering his face as he realizes the gravity of his discovery is a small piece of heartbreaking beauty but not one that the film dwells on for simple melodrama either. On this viewing I was also reminded of the presence of various lesser-known actors who had appeared in earlier Cronenberg films, each lending something to the film and making it that much more special with their presence. As for Christopher Walken, yes, this is an iconic role for him and yes, he’s parodied it on Saturday Night Live in a sketch which has long been a favorite of mine, but anyone who thinks that his entire performance lies in “THE ICE IS GONNA BREAK!” hamminess should really go take a look at that long close-up of his face near the end just before he rises up to make his presence known. The camera holds on Walken as he waits, as he mentally prepares, as he accepts his destiny. Watching it again a few days ago, I think that shot encapsulated more of the film’s power than any other moment.

For a long time, I’ve also associated the film of THE DEAD ZONE with my father. I think he had a particular fondness for it. He was never one to make such proclamations but I do remember him mentioning his fondness for it once or twice and I’ve always wondered how much he identified with the story of John Smith. A schoolteacher thrust into a destiny he never wanted which irrevocably altered his life, yet still trying to make his time here mean something. If I’d ever asked him about such things I’m sure I would have gotten nowhere. But the more I think about what this film may possibly have meant to him, the more painful it becomes. Maybe that’s why THE DEAD ZONE is, for me, one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of the things that were never said. And never will be. But I think about my father, remembering what he was like and imagine all the things I wish I could talk about with him right now. That’s the way it’s always going to be.


September 10, 1939 – September 19, 1998


Unknown said...

Great piece on this movie. There is a melancholy to so many Cronenberg films which is absolutely felt in this one.

Coincidentally, I saw this movie with my father the day it opened, and I too strongly associate my dad with the picture. He was a high school schoolteacher too -- just like Johnny. I remember feeling proud that I brought him to a film that he seemed to genuinely like a lot.

Mapeel said...

Doesn't 10 years go by in the blink of an eye? My father did not make it out of his 50s either.

I did not see The Dead Zone when it came out, but on tv years later. I like the coloring of the film--the whites, the blues. It's a cool film to associate with your father.

James said...

THE DEAD ZONE is probably my favorite Cronenberg film and favorite King film adaptation. It is so sad, so heavy with melancholy ... and it reminds me of the hero/anti-hero of the old Universal horror films. A man who is burdened with a curse that he can not escape ... until only death can release him. There was always a sadness surrounding those vintage monsters.

Unknown said...

Ah, a time when Christopher Walken didn't phone in his performances. It's a shame that he seems to take everything that comes along nowadays... or maybe back then he just got lucky with the projects he did. THE DEAD ZONE is definitely one of his best roles and I had always wished that he and Cronenberg would do another film together. After THE SHINING, this is probably my fave Stephen King adaptation.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

For all sorts of reasons, the movie just stays with you. It manages to get you where you feel it. Thanks to you all for the comments, it really means a lot.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Very moving post on one of my favorite films. I still remember seeing this at the theaters with both my parents in Henderson, Ky. when I was around twelve. It made a huge impact on me and I don't let a year slip by without revisiting it and letting its haunting and hypnotic power wash back over me. Walken has never been better and to my eyes it is still one of Cronenberg's best and most criminally undervalued works.
Lovely piece...very moving.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks very much, Jeremy. It's nice to know that you were able to see it at such an impressionable age as well and that it's always stayed with you. It remains a very powerful, emotional film and it's wonderful to know that other people out there still feel that way.

Guillaume said...

Beautiful,moving piece on this movie!

I also like very much THE DEAD ZONE,probably my favorite Cronenberg movie!

Great lead performance from Christopher Walken,great supporting performances (especially from the touching Brooke Adams and Herbert Lom) and overall an heartbreaking tale of love,fate and death.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thank you very much for saying that, it means a lot. The performances really are all quite wonderful and the sadness the movie expresses stays with you through the years. I'm glad that you enjoyed such a piece on your favorite Cronenberg film.