It seems that every director with a distinctive, challenging style eventually reigns in their impulses and makes a more conventional feature for a major studio. Not too long after David Lynch surprised everybody with The Elephant Man, David Cronenberg made the Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone. How strange to think both directors also turned down the opportunity to direct Return Of The Jedi. Imagine how that would have turned out under the direction of either auteur!
The Dead Zone finds Cronenberg stepping away from body horror, resulting in of the most warmly human movies he has made to date. Some of the best moments here are simply cutaways to one character watching two other characters interacting. For a change, this is a film focused more on the interactions between humans instead of horrific things happening with their internal organs. On the other hand, the source material is a King novel and we are talking Cronenberg, so there is some violence along with some restrained gore (really, just squibs emulating gunshot wounds).
Where the real magic lies in the movie is in the underlying current of unease. Christopher Walken expertly channels that feeling of lingering dread, portraying a teacher who awakens from a five-year coma to discover he has lost his finance and gained a horrible physic ability that, upon touching somebody’s hand, enables him to see their future, and even current but unknown events related to them. Each of those scenes gives me a weird electric thrill, as Walken finds himself immersed into scenes he is witnessing.
In addition to Walken, the cast is stacked with great actors and all do some of their best work here, among them Brooke Adams, Martin Sheen, Tom Skerritt and Herbert Lom.
If there is one aspect of the movie that is somewhat difficult to reconcile, it is the structure. This isn’t a typical three-act structure. In my mind, I view the movie as being in two parts: the hunt for the serial killer (and everything leading up to that) and then the attempt to stop Stillson from being elected (basically, everything starting with Walken relocating to another town). In actuality, the movie is probably more of a four-act structure but, regardless, it used to take some mental recalibration for me to become fully immersed in the movie.
Here is one of those movies I could watch at any time. There honestly isn’t anything about it I don’t like, and it is interesting to see Cronenberg do something with this much humanity in it. Apparently, that warmth carried over into the entire production, as the gazebo that was constructed for the movie was built to code and then donated to the town for permanent use. Because of insurance concerns, sets are usually torn down when a shoot wraps, but here was something extra done just as a gesture of thanks to the town.
Dir: David Cronenberg
Starring Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Martin Sheen, Herbert Lom
Watched on Shout Factory blu-ray