Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining proved to be a game-changer in terms of horror, with a major director transforming a genre tale into something at once more mainstream and also more arty. Adaptations of Stephen King’s work that followed were a mixed bag, but the property seemed to drive the project, and major talents like John Carpenter mixed with accomplished journeymen like Mark L Lester and Lewis Teague. For David Cronenberg, fast becoming a major name in horror, taking on a King project was a promising idea, and The Dead Zone establishing a number of cinematic tropes that have stuck.
The setting, of course, is Castle Rock, and the central character Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a man out of time, left in a five year comatose state by an accident, and emerging from the fringes of life and death, a magnet for bad things happening like Henry Deevers in the Castle Rock tv show. On his hospital bed, Smith sees a nurse’s house burning down with a child inside, and a boy he tutors will fall through cracking ice at an ice-hockey match. Smith has a gift for precognition, and with the help of a doctor (Herbert Lom), he is able to use his gift to stop these deadly events from happening, as well as helping local police to track down the Castle Rock Killer. An encounter with a crooked politician provides the climax here, with Martin Sheen reversing on the JFK character that was his 1980’s signature role.
The Dead Zone has an effective, wintry feel, bolstered by Walken’s wonderfully off-beat characterisation of Johnny. Castle Rock is shown as a bad place in various ways, with crooked politicians and businessmen, sick, twisted individuals on the loose and a decaying set of morals. And the ending packs a punch; rather than the every-increasing circles of horror featured in the Castle Rock tv show, Cronenberg nails the story down to one brief, satisfying plot twist.
The Dead Zone has a few nasty details, but it’s generally a classy, accessible horror film that’s gained in richness over the years. Many of the ideas contained here have become clichés, but Cronenberg’s restrain and visual austerity are nicely matched here by King’s ability to conjure up the inner lives of the Castle Rock denizens.