Cinefantastique, # 58, Vol. 14, No. 2, December / January 1983-84, p. 51

King & Cronenberg: it´s the best of both worlds


Those of us who love genre films often feel as though we are squandering our love on an idiot, and that perhaps we should be devoting our energies and affection to more seemly pursuits, like computer programming or an MBA degree.

It´s a rare moment, then, when a genre film with power, craft, and intelligence enough to justify our love comes along. Such a film is THE DEAD ZONE, which is not only the finest work to date by director David Cronenberg and the best adaptation of a Stephen King novel, but a splendid film by any standard.

John Smith (Christopher Walken) is a gentle, small town schoolteacher who sinks into a coma after being gravely injured in an auto crash. He awakens five years later to find his limbs atrophied and the woman he loves married to another man. Smith also discovers that he possesses a disconcerting, sometimes frightening ability to see past, present and future events. He warns a nurse that her daughter is imperiled by fire, and informs his doctor (Herbert Lom) that the man´s mother survived the holocaust, and is living in the United States. Smith´s darkest vision involves a gladhanding state politician named Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) who is destined to become President and plunge  the world into nuclear war. Although the visions are clouded by a "dead zone" - an are of uncertainty which cannot be penetrated - Smith resolves to stop Stillson´s rise.

David Cronenberg is an original, highly talented director whose earlier films succeeded primarily on the strength of their energy and freshness of ideas, even if they fail in areas of characterization and eposition. Like the best absurdist prose, Cronenberg´s film have been simultaneously exhilarating and maddening. VIDOEDROME, for instance, is so loaded with fascinating thoughts that it becomes even richer than the thickest bernaise. However, its characters seem more iconographic than truly real, and its narrative - resolutely literal during event the most bizarre moments - ultimately falls into confusion.

News that Cronenberg had been signed to direct THE DEAD ZONE was a surprise that conjured up visions of all sorts of outrageous goings-on. If he had exploded  a man´s had in SCANNERS and proposed a slimy stomach slit in VIDEODROME, what would Cronenberg do with Stephen King´s provocative and relatively sweet novel?

Fortunately, Cronenberg´s direction of THE DEAD ZONE is intelligent, restrained and often graceful. The traffic accident that changes Smith´s life is surrealistically pretty,  as a jackknifed milk truck slowly but inexorably grinds across the road in Smith´s path like a neon caterpillar. A premontion of disaster at a children´s hockey game unreels like a silent, ethereal nightmare, while Smith´s investigation of a series of brutal rape/murders climaxes with the weirdest mother/son team since PSYCHO.

At first glance, the film appears to be excessively jerky and episodic; Smith´s involvement in a given situation is typically intense but quickly resolved. In a blank, supporting characters are discarded, and Smith is on to something new. Eventually, though, this choppiness takes on a clear meaning. Through his jerky, quick pacing, Cronenberg wants to frustrate his audience, and in the process, mirror the hopelessness and anxiety John Smith feels in his scattered, incomplete experiences.

Because Smith has lost his lover and five years of his life, he is tempted to give up on all the years that remain. He becomes a free-floater, and consciously likens himself to the lonely Ichabod Crane and the miserable narrator of Poe´s "Lenore".

His emotional involvements are intense but painfully brief. The only constant in his life is Sarah (Brooke Adams), the woman whom Smith had once hoped to marry. Sarah´s tender, intelligent eyes and expansive smile mark her as a fantasy girl for quietly decent dreamers. Though she has moved beyond Smith´s claim on her, she continues to pop into his life: at the hospital bedside when he awakens, at his father´s home for a loving but one-time-only tryst, and - ironically- as a guileless campaigner for Greg Stillson. Sarah is the dream from which Smith cannot - and will not - awaken.

Cronenberg has never before demonstrated as sure a hand with actors as here, nor has he enjoyed a more talented cast. Forceful personalities like Herbert Lom and Anthony Zerbe are intelligent and restrained. Tom Skerritt and Colleen Dewhurst (in a cameo) are splendid, while Brooke Adams could not be warmer or more appealing. Martin Sheen´s Greg Stillson is the only overtly theatrical character, and approprietly so. Sheen affects a tooth amiability that doesn´t quite conceal the character´s cruelty and arrogance. Stillson dreams of no one but himself; John Smith is a fitting adversary.

Appearing in almost every scene, Christopher Walken gives his best screen work to date. His haunted eyes and pallid face seem at home in the chilly Canadian locations. With subtelties of gesture, body language and intonation, Walken creates a character who earns our respect and concern. Smith - like the film - successfully hooks our emotions, drawing us into the effable sadness of missed opportunities and lost love.

THE DEAD ZONE is an encouraging and uplifting look at the courage of the human spirit. The romance that is central to its plot persists against all odds. We see how a woman can unknowingly inspire a man to greatness and that even the most persuasive evil must ultimately give way to love and decency.

In almost every way and on many levels, THE DEAD ZONE is a glowing success. Tapping into new resources, Cronenberg proves he´s an insightful director of people, and not simply a visceral manipulator of intruiging ideas. Cronenberg is poised, if not for greatness, then surely for great significance.

David J. Hogan