Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Dead Zone (1983) ***1/2

The Dead Zone is hands down one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever to grace the screen, standing right along side The Shining and The Shawshank Redemption.  David Cronenberg's icy direction and Christopher Walken's heartbreaking performance transcend horror genre trappings because its primarily character driven.

Walken plays Johnny Smith, an unassuming English teacher living an ordinary life.  He's about to marry fellow teacher Sarah (Brooke Adams) until a car accident puts him in a coma for five years.  When Johnny wakes up he learns Sarah has moved on and married someone else and that he's acquired psychic abilities.

As word spreads of Johnny's gift many begin to seek him out for help.  The local Sheriff (Tom Skerritt) drafts Johnny to aid a murder investigation.  After a horrific encounter with the killer, Johnny realizes his gift is more of a curse and decides to live as a recluse.

Some have speculated The Dead Zone was an autobiographical novel for King.  People with unique gifts are often exploited by society.  King's ability to write terrifying stories gave him money and fame, but also unwarranted speculation in the media about his mental state and misguided fans stalking him.

Cronenberg's direction emphasizes Johnny's isolation; Walken's performance humanizes him.

Stellar supporting performances adds so much to The Dead Zone: Brooke Adams as Sarah, Czech actor Herbert Lom as Johnny's compassionate doctor and conscience, Martin Sheen as a demagogic politician, and Sean Sullivan as Johnny's father.  

It's hard to believe Walken did not earn an Oscar nomination. Few actors have captured the everyday hero with such quiet eloquence.

I like the references to Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving as Johnny resembles characters from their work: notably The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Raven

Although it was filmed in Canada, the cinematography perfectly evoked the beauty and solitude of a New England winter.  A classic horror film.

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