The Dead Zone(1983)
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Martin Sheen
A change of pace for director Cronenberg, often known for complex, but gross, genre flicks. Based off of the Stephen King best-seller, The Dead Zone is not just one of the finest films this director would make, but perhaps the most satisfying of all King adaptions. The author's work has always had a strange transition to film, from classics like Carrie(1977) and The Shining(1980) to dreadful disasters like Pet Sematary(1989) and The Langoliers(1997). Croneberg, the most inventive and talented horror filmmaker of the last 30 years, was just the right director to adapt his work and portray it correctly.
The film follows the plight of a kindly schoolteacher, Johnny(Christopher Walken) who gets into an accident one foggy evening and ends up in a coma for a number of years. In the process, he loses his job and his fiance, Sarah(Brooke Adams) and finds himself endowed with an amazing ability:he is able to forsee the future.
He discovers this when a nurse touches him and he sees her daughter's room on fire and alerts her to the situation. Through his doctor(the always excellent, Herbert Lom) he sees the invasion of Poland in 1939, and discovers that his mother is still alive. His former-fiance is now married, and has a child, and attempts to befriend Johnny, who now lives a very confused life, crippled in one leg and wary of his "gift."
He is constantly badgered to assist others, including the police, where he helps apprehend a murderer, whose mother shoots Johnny when he is found out.
Johnny moves away and becomes a private tutor, and becomes involved with a rich man(Roger Stuart) and his son(Simon Craig), who is very shy. He discovers that the child will die if the father makes him a play a game of ice hockey, along with several other children. Of course, he dosen't believe, but luckily, his son does and is spared the tragedy.
A chance meeting with Sarah, reveals that she is help campaigning for a shady congressman(Martin Sheen), who turns out to be the one responsible for starting World War 3. Burdened with guilt, Johnny takes a rifle from his father's home and goes to assasinate the congressman, but is distracted by Chris. He misses and is shot to death, but not before the congressman can shield himself with Chris' child. His future is finished, a vision of a suicide, and Johnny dies in Chris' arms.
Christopher Walken delivers one of the finest genre performances in this film. His character of Johnny Smith, is a classic tragic figure, an innocent caught in a situation he could no avoid. Cronenberg has always succeeded in getting the very best from his leading men. Michael Ironside in Scanners(1981), James Woods in Videodrome(1983), Jeff Goldblum in The Fly(1986) and Julian Sands in Dead Ringers(1988) spring to mind, and certainly Walken's performance is just as superb. In fact, it may be the best performance of his career.
There's a very sad quality to his character, much more poignant than anything Cronenberg had handled up to that time, and more out of the realm of the weirdos and nutcases that Walken is now known for. His character is a victim and his pain is relateable and unforgettable. The moment where Brooke Adams makes love to him, after years of seperation, is one of the most moving moments in the horror fillm and is handled with the right amount of sensitivity and restraint. Most of the Cronenberg blood and gore is not here, though the suicide by scissors is about as disturbing as anything you are likely to see on the screen.
The cast all handle their parts quite well and hold their own with Walken's powerful portrayal. Adams, who was probably most famous for her nude stroll in Philip Kaufmann's remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers(1977) is able to inject sympathy into her character, that makes the audience care for her and understand her situation. She still very much loves Walken's character, but like all Cronenberg protagonists, his is on the path of no return and cannot go back to normalacy.
The true villain of the piece is Martin Sheen, who makes the most of his scheming, psycho-politician and his ultimate demise is both welcome and satisfactory. That future segment where he pressures a General into helping to launch nukes and decalres, "The missiles are flying. Hallelujah, Hallelujah!" is genuinely unnerving.
Herbert Lom has some of the best moments as Johnny's doctor, including a funny bit where when asked if he would shoot Hitler if he had the chance , he replies, "I'm a man of medicine. I'm expected to save lives and ease suffering. I love people. Therefore, I would have no choice but to kill the son of a bitch"
This was a big step towards the mainstream for Cronenberg, who would go on to helm the excellent remake of The Fly(1986) and recieve universal acclaim and move more towards the path of the majors. King's work would be adapted again and again, but none would capture the haunting quality of this one, nor the sensitivity. In many respects, this film is reminiscent of what made the classic horror films so effective. It's fear is captured in it's stark humanity and terrifying poignancy. A television series would follow two decades later, but that proved largely unmemorable and not nearly as thought provoking as this classic work, which ranks among the best made by two of the genre's greatest innovators.