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The Dead Zone (1983)

by on 2012/08/09

“You knew. Didn’t you? You knew.”

* * * *

In the mid-Eighties, I loved Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. It was among the first of his books I discovered through a part-time job, at a junior high school library book sale.

Years later I saw the video, then forgot nearly everything about it . . . except a lingering distaste for the word “gazebo”.

Nonetheless when, even more years later, I saw Christopher Walken as “Ed Glosser, Trivial Psychic” on Saturday Night Live, I recalled enough of the source details to get in on the joke.

Although Walken is the central figure, he’s joined by a cast of international ringers: Brooke Adams (1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Jackie Burroughs (Last Night), Nicholas Campbell (The Englishman’s Boy), Colleen Dewhurst (Anne of Green Gables), Herbert Lom (The Pink Panther), Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now), and Tom Skerritt (Alien).

David Cronenberg directs them in this series of connected tales involving a small town English teacher, John Smith, whose traffic accident costs him five years, his health, his job, a relationship, and his former religious faith. He wakes from a coma in Castle Rock’s Weizak Clinic, able to conjure — and project himself into — psychometric visions.

He lacks the power to conjure a better hairdo, unfortunately. (Early Seventies Bowie wants his wig back, by the way.)

We are pointedly, and repeatedly, reminded to compare Smith’s situation with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. I was more convinced the creators were delivering a new take on Frankenstein.

Such allusions aside, it’s not a great literary labour. (Nor does the source demand it, to be fair.) The direction seems anonymously competent, in solid journeyman mode. Without knowing who directed it, I might not have spotted the influence. Its Ontarian scenes are convincing as New England . . . at least to someone who’s spent no time in Maine or thereabouts.

Which is not to diminish the movie in general, or Cronenberg’s effort in particular. He demonstrates impressive picturesque touches, including a montage of outdoor stills behind slowly-building titles, a rider against the setting sun seen through a bus window, and a dark stone tunnel evoking parts of Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

(Likewise, the “stabbing strings” of Smith’s insights evoke Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, though I’d rather not revisit my distaste for Michael Kamen’s scores yet again.)

My greatest surprise — almost but not quite disappointment — was the vaguely disjointed and near-episodic plot. The filmmakers structured the action as a sequence of vignettes and related flashbacks, rather than a single mass of interwoven threads. While hints appear throughout the earlier running to seed the final conflict, that climax feels less organic than added-on. Again, however, it doesn’t negate the interest.

All of which combines to deliver a better-than-expected result. Superior to many King-inspired productions, but a workmanlike entry in Cronenberg’s repertoire, The Dead Zone still remains a more compelling experience than I remembered.

Except, of course, for Walken’s monstrous hair.

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

103 minutes

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