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Monday, June 6, 2016

Film Land - The Dead Zone

Edited by Robert Beach 

In case you’re one of my international viewers not paying terribly close attention, America is in the midst of an election year, and what an election it’s shaping up to be. We actually haven’t even entered the election proper. However, we have been slowly making our way through the Democratic and Republican primaries, and we’ve already been confronted by an avalanche of nightmare candidates and idiocy that makes it seem like we’ve all been enveloped by a surrealist political satire and just didn’t realize it. 

Even though I don’t cover politics on this blog, they’re a big part of life as they inform the art and media that I do focus on here. All the terrible politics that have been clogging up the national consciousness this entire year have left me thinking a lot about the idea of political horror. It’s a strange concept, and while we’ve got a pretty good standard bearer for it now in the Purge series, there used to be only one name in this limited subgenre: The Dead Zone. 

Before I dive into The Dead Zone, I need to talk a bit about one of the three men who helped make the movie, the American horror author of Stephen King. King is one of the most prolific and popular authors of the modern era, succeeding in the unique niche of producing multiple popular novels that aren’t connected as part of a series. 

He’s had innumerable books turned into movies, mini-series, and TV shows, for he still produces new novels to this day with his most recent work being published just this month.  I’ll probably dive deeper into King’s body of adapted work at a later date, but a big part of his central appeal is the unique kind of branded storytelling he engages in. 

In short, King’s style of fiction relies on a lot of tropes and clichés to fill in the scaffolding of his universe, shepherding the audience into the various worlds of haunted cars, vampires, alien domes, or extra-dimensional monsters. The downside is that King stories that don’t conform to his tropes tend to fall by the wayside regardless of quality. That’s why films like The Dead Zone or 1408 stand up as some of the all-time best King adaptations. They’re nowhere near as prevalent in popular culture as Carry or The Mist. 

To wit, The Dead Zone is the story of a New Hampshire schoolteacher named Johnny Smith, played by Christopher Walken in one of his all-time greatest roles, who ends up in a coma after a serious car accident.  Waking up 5 years after his accident, Smith develops bizarre psychic powers of omniscience upon touching people. Whenever he touches another individual, he sees visions of their past or future along with intimate knowledge about those visions as well. 

The mechanisms of Johnny’s psychic powers aren’t really explained, and the bigger emphasis of the story is less about how Johnny’s powers work than about him trying to live with this power. We see his painful road to recovery coming out of the coma, the gritty and creepy reality of him trying to use his powers to help the police, and the harsh, almost insurmountable issues when he tries to use his abilities to avert tragedy. 

The film is helmed by Canadian master of sci-fi and horror David Cronenberg and is a great example of how much a great filmmaker can make a story his own. Cronenberg’s filmography has become more and more eclectic in later years, but his prime period was punctuated by movies that utilized disturbing sci-fi allegory to comment on society’s collective inhumanities. In the case of The Dead Zone, Johnny’s psychic powers are part of a broader metaphor on the way society alienates and disenfranchises the challengingly visionary. 

Every attempt Johnny makes to use his powers to improve the world ends up forcing him further and further away from humanity, which itself only serves to increase his abilities. The path of Johnny’s abilities, going from visions of the past to the immediate future to a time possibly years away, mimics his seclusion from society perfectly. As he slips further and further away from the outside world, he’s able to see the farther and farther beyond the state of things as they are today. 

What does all of this have to do with the elections or the concept of political horror?  Well, in the film’s 3rd act, Johnny becomes interested in the political machinations of a senatorial candidate Greg Stillson, played by Martin Sheen. Upon shaking Stillson’s hand Johnny sees a vision of a future where Stillson is President and has initiated a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. From there, the film becomes an increasingly tense and terrifying thriller as we follow both men in the lead up to a rally where Johnny attempts to assassinate Stillson. 

It’s an incredible twist of direction that pushes the film from a bizarre blend of realistic sci-fi/superhero film into a straight-up horror movie. Stillson is a terrifying on-screen politician. Seamlessly, he blends between the larger-than-life energy of a real candidate and the sociopathic megalomania of a true tyrant. Sheen nails the part, never once veering over the line into cartoon insanity or parody politics. Sheen always stays just true enough to real life to be absolutely identifiable as someone who could actually happen. 

That blend of pitch-perfect writing and Sheen’s dynamite performance make Stillson an amazing villain, even though he doesn’t enter the film until the final third.  The film does a good job foreshadowing Stillson near the middle of the film. Stillson enters John’s life through TV ads and connections to acquaintances and a building sense of inevitability. Through a collection of three truly unnerving scenes, Dead Zone makes you genuinely believe that Stillson won’t just win, but there’s no way anyone could stop him. We see the rich working against him, the press, and fellow politicians. We see those social bulwarks undone against the gravity of fate that seems to be dragging everything towards an inevitable Armageddon. 

The question of ‘fate’ actually ends up looming large over the third act. The idea of altering the future is at the crux of the second act finale, and the answer is pretty ambiguous. It implies that tragedies can’t be averted only mitigated. Additionally, the various scenes of Stillson tearing down his opponents are punctuated by his enigmatic bodyguard/henchmen Sonny, one of the film’s best elements. Played by Géza Kovács, Sonny is one of the most ingenuous parts of the film and is uniquely terrifying in his own way. 

There’s something about him that’s just constantly off; the way he moves and interacts with other people exudes this sense that everyone he’s around is in danger. It’s not an idol threat either as we see he’s fully willing to murder people to ensure Stillson’s rise to power. Sonny’s inhuman baring and complete dedication to Stillson is so unnerving. It starts to make you wonder if there’s something deeper to his presence as if he’s a demon attempting to shepherd humanity to its doom. The entire thing is reminiscent of elements of Omen III: The Final Conflict, another political horror flick from 1981 (fun, but not quite as disturbing or well made). 

All of this creepy political horror and building metaphysical tension comes to a head at a Stillson rally where Johnny attempts to assassinate the would-be Senator.  Though Johnny doesn’t manage to kill Stillson, he does end up forcing Stillson to use a baby for cover, a defining image that ends up sinking Stillson’s campaign. Though Stillson’s evil is extinguished, Johnny ends up gunned down by Sonny and dies in the aftermath of the assassination attempt. 

It’s a bittersweet ending that re-emphasizes the film’s points of sacrifice and societal destruction aimed towards bizarre visionaries like Johnny. That emphasis on the cost of power and the destructive price paid by good intentions makeThe Dead Zone the best “gritty realism” superhero film. In addition to the other hats it wears, The Dead Zone is possibly the darkest statement imaginable with its happy ending. If heroes really did wonder among us, not only would we not realize it, we’d mistake them for villains. 

The Dead Zone was thoroughly successful when it came out, enjoying critical praise and a lot of audience good will. And yet, it didn’t really stick in pop culture like one might think. All three men involved (Cronenberg, Walken, and King) have done work with much greater lasting impact on pop culture. Despite a TV revival of the premise in the mid-2000s, most folks probably wouldn’t even bring up The Dead Zone for a list of the top Stephen King adaptations. 

I’m hopeful that more folks will rediscover it now. Even without the eerily familiar tone of Stillson (seriously, Sheen’s performance plays like it was inspired by the 2016 election rather than predicting it), The Dead Zone stands up incredibly well thanks to its own as a unique blend of social commentary, sci-fi thriller, and political horror. Now, its most terrifying element of whether or not using a baby as a human shield would be enough to sink a candidacy becomes closer and closer to reality. I’d like to think defending yourself with the purest form of humanity will kneecap your political chances, but that’s just wishful thinking. 

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