David Cronenberg's "The Dead Zone" (1983) is my favorite adaptation of a Stephen King horror novel. Some parts from "The Shawshank Redemption" are terrifying in a different way, and are better classified in other genres. I'm also fond of some of the other films his works have inspired. "Carrie" and "The Shining" were mostly outstanding, but the casting of adults as teens in the first and the absence of an everyman feel to the lead protagonist in the second are the main reasons why I place "The Dead Zone" above them. The latter films were made by exceptional directors (DePalma and Kubrick), but Cronenberg's taste for the unusual, turned out to be a more adequate fit for King's material.
"The Dead Zone" is the story of Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken), a school teacher in love with his colleague Sarah (Brooke Adams). As their romance heads toward nuptials, he's involved in a car accident that puts him in a coma for five years. When he regains consciousness, everything that matters in his life is gone: his fiancée (now married and a mother), his job, his health. He has (reluctantly) acquired the ability to witness relevant past and future events in the lives of those with whom he comes in physical contact.
Eventually Johnny comes to realize that the outcome of these visions isn't set in stone--and if altered, further "viewings" will reflect the latest version of the coming incidents. When a subplot of epic repercussions unfolds, it will give him a chance to make sense of his plight but at the highest cost, with the knowledge that no one will ever be able to make sense of his actions. The movie then becomes a "curse that turned out to be a gift" kind of thriller, much like "The Sixth Sense" (1999) and "Hereafter" (2010) years later. ("Zone" represents a different twist on the latter film as both share the same premise).
A common trait in many of King's protagonists is the supernatural powers that destiny has bestowed upon them. Some were only gimmicks designed to sell tickets (think "Firestarter" (1984)) but Carrie White's telekinesis, Danny Torrance's telepathy and Johnny Smith's psychic visions are all intrinsically related to their characters' stories and as a result have more resonance. That these people seem taken from real life only makes their unusual skills more believable.
"The Dead Zone" also benefited from its lead being written as a good man; an evildoer with qualities of this nature would have made for a standard and lesser picture. In contrast, Jack Torrance from "The Shining" (played by Jack Nicholson) lacked most of these attributes. He didn't appear normal to begin with, his journey into madness felt like a small step, and some of that film's potential impact was lost.
"The Dead Zone" is basically the story of two people who were meant for each other, but destiny had other plans. This kind of predicament has made for some of the best love stories (from "Casablanca" (1942) to the recent "Cast Away" (2000) another tale about a girl who couldn't wait forever). Most similar entries would have settled for building a plot around increasingly louder versions of the hero's new-found skills. "Zone" first establishes the characters' relationship and this becomes the source of their relevance.
The picture also takes into account the implications of the psychic powers for other players. For example, Johnny's physician (Herbert Lom) had an opportunity to to contact the mother he thought dead for decades. He refuses, basing his decision on the notion that it wasn't meant to be, and yet (ironically), when Johnny looks for justification for his final plans, the man unwittingly agrees, despite the fact that the awareness behind Johnny's decision could have only come from the same, supernatural source. These dilemmas reflect the seriousness by the filmmakers in dealing with an otherwise preposterous subject.
Another key element in "The Dead Zone" is the casting of Christopher Walken. He embodies a sense of decency with a bit of an oddness that's not easy to explain; Walken shares a quality with Christina Ricci and John Malkovich that can only be described as other-worldly. He and Karen Adams bring a great humanity to Johnny and Sarah and yet, director Cronenberg chooses his remaining cast with a clear awareness of the kind of movie this should be.
Alongside his leads he drops a few other characters that are just as believable but at the same time have a subtle, unsettling creepiness to them. Think of Johnny's mother with her extremely loving nature, her unusual presence and her all-too-convincing death scene. There's also Deputy Frank Dodd (Nicholas Campbell), the helpful assistant in solving some crimes. His sleeping quarters (and childish wallpaper) instantly confirm our suspicions about him and the bizarre relationship he has with his mother (played by Colleen Dewhurst). There are plenty of hard-to-watch scenes in "The Dead Zone" but Dodd's doom (despite mostly kept off-screen) is almost unbearable to watch.
With the exception of some psychic WW2 scenes, which seem imported from an old "Combat" re-run, Johnny's psychic viewings are handled in an original and bizarre fashion, as he becomes their helpless observer. The best is surely the one in which he's lying in his hospital bed while alternately occupying a child's cradle, surrounded by real fire and the boiling water of a fish bowl (this doesn't seem feasible, but looks spectacular nonetheless).
There's also the final vision of ominous events, a clear case of doing much with little. It involves three men in a cabin (pretending to be Camp David) with a cheesy weapon device but by now the story has grabbed us to a point that this scene becomes tense nonetheless. Instead of relying on elaborate special-effects to tell his story, Cronenberg entrusts his actors abilities to do the job for him. Every one of these episodes, in their own different ways, helps us grasp why Johnny, much like Matt Damon in "Herafter." avoids them at all costs (although Damon's version of heaven seemed nicer and more inviting in comparison).
Despite the use of some standard horror devices, like the "awake and ready to scare" trick -- the seemingly sleeping Johnny inexplicably develops the urge to grab every hand in close vicinity, in tune with a large musical note -- "The Dead Zone" is a rather original picture. Its success is largely based on the script's constant ability to catch the audience off-guard, by taking us on several directions that have little do with our leads' story, but all manage to make it more relevant. In fact, it is made of three chapters that feel as if each belonged to a different feature. We watch it evolving from a first section of relatively small scale (involving the fates of just a few characters) to a second, larger one dealing with the investigation of the murders committed by a serial-killer. These are followed by a third and final act of apocalyptic repercussions with Senate candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) becoming a threat that shifts Johnny's focus away from himself and into more pressing issues.
Sheen's memorable performance has since influenced the way I tend to see real life politicians who seem a bit too emotive and intense for their own sake. His storyline appears to take the film in a different direction, but it actually provides Johnny's personal story with the unexpected opportunity to come full circle.
Early on, after Johnny wakes from a coma, Sarah foolishly allows him a one night stand that consummates a union that can't really go anywhere; as a result, there's a sense of loss throughout the rest of the film. Even when this love story had nowhere to go but hardship, the movie manages to render an elevating ending.
That such a conclusion was extracted from what is essentially a tragedy is what ultimately takes this story to the next level. "The Dead Zone" works just as well as a horror movie and as a thriller but at its core, it always remains the simple tale of two people whose love persisted despite everything working against them. With this idea in mind, a couple of years ago I tried showing it to my wife. She's fond of human stories but weary of horror movies. After just a few minutes, she got up and left the room. At a time when few pictures are truly scary and every artifice designed to frighten an audience has been used to death, "The Dead Zone" remains effective.