They’re just ordinary people, but they have extraordinary powers. The type of powers that people spend their whole lives dreaming about. But in reality, these powers mean social isolation. People are afraid of them, want to use them, want to see them as gods. So they retreat from society, forced into isolation by a world that doesn’t understand. I’m not talking about the X-Men. I’m talking about the protagonists of David Cronenberg movies.
From Scanners to A History of Violence, Cronenberg has focused on people who would much rather keep to themselves. His 1983 Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone is no exception.
Christopher Walken’s Johnny Smith is a teacher in small-town New Hampshire (Castle Rock in King’s first use of the fictional town) who just wants to teach his students about Ichabod Crane and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” He’s got a great relationship with another teacher, but he’s taking things slow. Then he gets into a car crash that sends him into a coma and gives him psychic powers.
In interviews around the movie’s release, Cronenberg called The Dead Zone’s characters “very open, simple, accessible, almost naive small-town characters. Very different than the characters I normally deal with...and I very much wanted to fuse my own sensibility with that aspect of Stephen King’s sensibility.”
Cronenberg seemed to be especially interested in King’s use of small-town America as a means of exploring issues of power and control. The film’s gorgeous opening credits have a camera looking steadily at images one would see in Castle Rock: a house, fields, empty roads, rolling hills. These images have black spots within them, which the camera pulls back to reveal The Dead Zone's title card.
These credits show how the movie operates: with patience, never forcing a plot onto characters that are trying to heal. But once the zoom out finally occurs, Johnny’s powers have overtaken him.
This was Cronenberg’s first feature that he didn’t also write, and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam used the episodic nature of King’s book to inform the movie’s episodic structure. First, we see Johnny’s recovery process. Then, he uses his psychic powers to help solve a murder. Finally, his powers lead to the discovery that a local politician will eventually start a nuclear war.
It’s the last of these three that has raised the most eyebrows in recent years, given how much the politician, Greg Stillson, resembles former President Donald Trump. Played with pure hucksterism by Martin Sheen, Stillson talks fast and talks a lot, a third-party populist who talks about himself in the third person and promises to “send mediocrity to Hell!” Cronenberg and Boam cut out some of the more gruesome aspects of King’s portrayal of Stillson, like his kicking a dog to death, which works to let the movie burn slowly.
The Dead Zone is an atmospheric movie, which in this case means that the scenery is as fascinating as the story. The settings of The Dead Zone, from the rich child's home where Johnny tutors to his father’s home, are filled with details that make them feel explicitly lived in. There’s a warmth to these sets, which then becomes slowly uncomfortable as Cronenberg lingers on them. What are we missing? What can we not see?
While others are left wondering, Johnny is tormented with the answers. Walken is terrific in this performance, the pain and frustration of his powers is all over his face. While he can help save people, he finds that they often hold him in contempt—stopping a future event that only he can see leaves bystanders frustrated by the possibility that he was wrong.
He feels conflicted by what he sees in Stillson’s future. He asks his doctor, the Czech-born British actor Herbert Lom, a question that King would return to one way or another in his work: if you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you?
The Dead Zone is a slow burner, an anomaly in the King-adaptation genre. It lacks the outright thrills and chills of some of his other works, but the world built around Johnny Smith and his powers feels very lived in. And it’s all the more haunting for it.
The Dead Zone is streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime in the U.S.