Sight and Sound, Spring 1984, p. 150

Uneasy lies the head

Christine and The Dead Zone

Philip Strick

Not unlike the demented character he himself plays in Creepshow, Stephen King has in mild bewilderment seen success bursting from him in a thicket of uncontrollable growth. His eight novels have all been bestsellers, and since his persuasive style is achieved with enviable speed he has found time for some screenplays as well. The fashion may prove short-lived, as he´s the first to grant, but for the moment every producer in Hollywood appears eager to own, like some prestigious species of tropical houseplant, a Stephen King property.

Lewis Teague´s Cujo, from King´s own (uncredited) script, has had a good, if not outstanding, recent commercial run. Dino DeLaurentiis has assigned Mark (Gold of the Amazon Women) Lester to tackle Firestarter and New World Pictures is devoting $3 million to Children of the Corn, King´s screenplay from one of his Night Shift stories. Meanwhile, John Carpenter´s Christine and David Cronenberg´s The Dead Zone, unleashed in close proximity by the same distributor (Columbia-EMI-Warner), provide the useful opportunity to judge whether, when it comes to the special boundaries of King´s domain, today´s film-maker (the echoes of Carrie and The Shining still ringing in his ears)  is left with any moves to make.

Originally snapped up for Stanley Donen to direct, The Dead Zone came to Cronenberg by way of Debra Hill, Carpenter´s early partner of films like Halloween and The Fog. Cronenberg trimmed the story from a sprawlingly apocalyptical original into a more modest account of a schoolteacher who acquires the ability to 'see' violent events, past or future, in the lives of people he touches. The gift scares him into seclusion until, accidentally encountering a candidate for senatorial office whose future potentially carries global disaster, he is forced to become an assassin.

From King´s text, the film of Dead Zone inherits generous amounts of vagueness and coincidence. There´s no indication, for a start, where the 'gift' comes from; unlike the similarly precognitive skills of The Shining, there are no evolutionary implications and must assume it´s what might be called Carrie´s syndrome. After a traffic accident and a five-year-coma, his only previous brainstorm a slight queasiness on a rollercoaster, the schoolteacher wakes up, holds his nurse´s hand, and is able to tell that her daughter´s bedroom is on fire. Each time he has such visions, they weaken him, which seems an inevitable biological price; however, the 'dead zone' itself gets everyone into something of a muddle. King described it as the effect of a brain tumour, said to be a frequent condition among assassins, but on-screen it´s confusingly identified as an area permitting the future to be changed.

With all it irrationalities, The Dead Zone is Cronenberg´s most accomplished film so far, created with flair, fluency and welcome understatement. No exploding heads or bursting stomachs, and apart from the unnecessary and repellent suicide, very little blood. Instead, the impact comes from incongruity, as the teacher, reading minds, finds himself plunged into a flaming nursery, wandering through a battlefield, or standing as helpless witness to a murder. In gentler contexts, the film is impressively reticent. When a girl drives away from the man she has lost, she weeps briefly, silently, behind the windscreen, before turning her car down a bleak road, all in one discreet shot. Similarly, as as father come to terms with the realisation that he has been close, from sheer obdurancy, to killing his own son, the camera simply eases back across the room from his blank face.

Where King and Cronenberg turn out to overlap is in the eccentricities of their characters; both film-maker and writer specialise in a disconcerting behavioural oddness that Dead Zone captures exactly, not just in Christopher Walken´s superbly haunted performance, perpetually seeming to listen for fragments of a distant conversation in his head, but also in the smaller roles - the hesitant Bible-clutching parents, the desperate cop, the obsessive businessman. The specialist, of course, is a familiar Cronenberg figure, and King´s Doctor Weizak, excellently played with a gleam of jovial lunacy by Herbert Lom, effortlessly resurrects such alumni as Antoine Rouge, Dr. Keloid and Brian O´Blivion.

With Christine we seem at first to be in quite different territory. What captures the mind of Arnie, gangling American teenager with standard parent problems and the usual obsession with girls who might but won´t, is a 1958 Plymouth Fury automobile, all glowing chromium and high-gloss scarlet. As usual, King provides no explanation for his central premise - a self-regenerating car that plays only 50s rock´n´roll on its radio and adores its owner with a jealous passion - and, as usual, for as long as the story lasts, the daftness of this beautiful idea (Christine is street-lethal, for no perceptible reason, straight off the assembly line) doesn´t seem to matter.

But altough both could be called road movies of a kind, the most notable common theme between Dead Zone and Christine is the horror writer´s most convenient device - the trap. Like Cujo, both films are compilations of enclosed emergency, the walls closing in, the time running out, and each is centered on a figure abruptly imprisoned by the irrational but inescapable impulses of his own mind. States of siege certainly find John Carpenter on home ground, and Christine turns out to be full of Carpenter´s landmarks - the wide, eerie streets of Halloween, the atmosphere of urban warfare from Assault on Precint 13, the indestructible enemy and terror of 'possession' from The Thing, the supernatural hunger for vengeance from The Fog. The primary victim, as in Someone´s Watching Me, is a cornered, hysterical girl. And one could argue that Elvis; the Movie (shot by the same cameraman, Don Morgan) was a first exercise on Christine´s amiable suggestions that rock´n´roll offers special compensation in cases of deprived childhood.

Where Cronenberg, however, gives the impression of having enlisted all the King´s men to equip his own private army, Carpenter´s interest strikes one as less personal. The film is made with spectacular efficiency, but its signature is ill-defined, as if eroded by the King imprimatur, outshone by the charisma of Christine herself and overtaken by the pace of the whole venture, which had Christine completed less than a year from the first publication of the novel. At character level, it´s little more than a series of sketches: the weakling, the bully, the loyal friend, the weary cop.

More  King than Carpenter, surely, are the exasperated parents ('Part of being a parent,' claims their son gloomily, 'is trying to kill their kids'), the classroom cruelties, the teenage feuds. But no matter. King´s fireball image of Christine, an envoy straight from hell blazing down the highway in pursuit of a terrified thug, carries the kind of charge that a filmmaker, like the rest of us, can only wonder at, and cherish.