VHS Revival explores the modern-day relevance of Cronenberg’s alluringly drab King adaptation
As a movie, The Dead Zone is not without its flaws, but it proves extremely relevant in regards to today’s political climate.
Although not as high profile as numerous other Stephen King adaptions, it is one of the most loyal in terms of how it translates to the screen, and is certainly one of the most underappreciated, in spite of its often clunky pacing and superfluous action. The movie is directed by none other than David Cronenberg, a man who has long since reached a wider mainstream audience, although even his more high-profile pictures could never really be classed as conventional. More recent movies, such as A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and Cosmopolis, were popular releases featuring A-list actors but were hardly the kind of movies that would see him front and centre at the Oscars, which on the evidence of his work I am assuming he is more than comfortable with.
Before the release of The Dead Zone back in 1983, Cronenberg already had a fine catalogue of cult movies under his belt, and based on low-budget efforts such as Shivers and Rabid he is considered a pioneer of the body horror genre, one he would explore further with metaphysical treats The Brood and Videodrome. In spite of his disregard for mainstream accolades, the director has never struggled to attract actors of the highest calibre, with the likes of James Woods and even Oliver Reed getting on board for movies which were hardly likely to give them maximum exposure at vital junctures in their esteemed careers. The bottom line is, Cronenberg is a wonderful director, the kind whose innovation puts much of Hollywood to shame, attracting some of the industry’s finest talent based on his skill and propensity for experimentation.
At its best, The Dead Zone is a wonderfully bleak affair of drab palettes and understated performances. It is the story of Johnny Smith, a high school teacher who falls into a five-year coma after a motor accident, robbing him of a sweetheart who would inevitably marry in his absence. Mired in grief, Johnny grabs the hand of a hospital nurse and is able to see the woman’s daughter trapped in a house fire, an intensely vivid vision that will change his life forever. Once the press get wind of Johnny’s ability to see the unknown, they predictably swarm, and after he helps solve the case of a local serial killer he becomes very much in demand. Torn apart by the loss of a woman who is still very much in love with him, Johnny is reluctant to expose himself to the curious impositions of the community, but a sense of duty convinces him otherwise, and as a result he becomes a rather reclusive figure as the desperate pleas of the country weigh heavily on his shoulders.
Johnny Smith – It reminds me of a line from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” the last story I read to my class before… the accident. Ichabod Crane disappears… the line goes: “As he was a bachelor, and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled their head about him anymore.”
Events transpire in Stephen King’s fictional town of Castle Rock, the place in which much of his work is set, and the story includes many of the writer’s hallmarks as the lurid secrets of small town life bleed through the cracks to stain the lives of its undeserving residents. King’s secondary characters tend to conflict with the movie’s tone at times, while the director’s decision to include a plethora of meandering subplots seems to detract from its central narrative, but Cronenberg captures the essence of the story’s world-weary protagonist superbly, and you can’t help but admire the bleakness of his vision.
The movie is further elevated thanks to a stellar cast, led by a wonderfully beleaguered Christopher Walken, whose offbeat style proves perfect for the part of a man facing such a peculiar predicament. Also on board are Herbert Lom as Johnny’s concerned doctor, an unlikely ally who soon realises that his patient’s gift comes at a great physical price, and Martin Sheen as senatorial candidate Greg Stillson, a duplicitous panderer with corrupt designs on becoming the US president. There is also formidable support from a steely Brooke Addams as Smith’s cautiously loyal ex and Alien‘s Tom Skerritt as the quietly disconsolate sheriff drowning in the mire of the town’s grisly misfortunes.
In spite of his continued isolation, Johnny continues to use his gift to help others, and as a consequence he is able to form an unlikely bond with the insular son of Roger Stuart (Anthony Zerbe), a local man of wealth and prominence who employs him to communicate with his forlorn offspring. Chris is a timid young boy struggling under the pressure of his father’s conventional demands, and when he and Johnny form a bond based on their shared conflicts, Smith is able to call on his former occupation as a grade school teacher, an experience that proves therapeutic for them both.
Of course, this is a Cronenberg project, and Johnny’s mini redemption proves to be little more than a plot device designed to reveal our protagonist’s true calling. Chris’s father is an unwilling sponsor of senator Stillson’s duplicitous presidential campaign, and when Johnny runs into him at a publicity event he is confronted by a vision that threatens the human race as we know it.
In the hands of another director, The Dead Zone may have descended into a contrived affair, but Cronenberg is able to add his barren touch to proceedings, taking a potentially fantastical science fiction story and grounding it very much in reality. The movie features one of modern cinema’s most rewarding pay-offs, a double-edged finale that distances itself from the cinematic propaganda which dominated the period, and it is hard to imagine the movie being made today given its relevance in regards to current political events.
Though The Dead Zone proved a relative box office success following the poorly received Videodrome, audiences were still unconvinced with a director who had both repulsed and confused them during his indie days, and given the film’s rebellious political nature it isn’t at all surprising. The movie was made during a peak in the decades-long Cold War conflict and proved an uncomfortable watch for those used to movies championing American democracy, but Martin Sheen’s irrepressible Greg Stillson is very much an authentic character, and actually shares many characteristics with current US president Donald Trump. Stillson is a man of great showmanship whose campaign is based largely on pandering to America’s rust belt. Beneath the gleaming, full-bodied smile he is someone driven almost entirely by ego, a leader whose unbridled petulance is enough to make the world a very precarious place indeed.
Greg Stillson – The missiles are flying. Hallelujah, Hallelujah!
In 2017, as politics descends ever more heavily into the realms of celebrity, the world continues to arm itself more freely and protectionism becomes the rhetoric of the day. Invariably, it is the likes of Johnny Smith — the downtrodden and the isolated — who are able to put aside their delusions and see the world for what it truly is. Though unlike Smith, very few of those people are able to do anything about it.