I don’t know why, but over the years, the best films based on the works of Stephen King have been those based on material that didn’t fit into the stereotypical mold of the horror-meister, like Stand by Me, Misery and David Cronenerg’s adaptation of The Dead Zone. The straight spook-and-slash flicks have been cranked out by hacks who lean entirely on the gooey red stuff and toss King’s characterization and texture over the side. On the other end of the spectrum was Stanley Kubrick’s arid interpretation of The Shining, where the director’s distance from the material could be measured in light-years.
The Dead Zone’s greatest strength is that, like the novel and the best of King’s work, the story is grounded is the prosaic details of everyday life in New England, which gives substance to the fantastic elements that follow. Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a popular high school English teacher, happily in love with fellow teacher Sarah (Brooke Adams). One foggy night on the way home from her house, his VW bug is slammed by a tanker truck, plunging Johnny into a five-year coma.
He wakes up to discover that, in the intervening years, Sarah got married and had a kid. To top this off, the whack to the noggin has scrambled his circuits and left him with the ability the see the future of people he touches and thus change it. The film doesn’t simply treat this as a comic book super power, but delves into the human consequences of such an event. Initially, he goes into seclusion, shutting himself off from the world rather than dealing with his ability. But when a local sheriff (Tom Skerrit) asks for his help catching a serial killer, he realizes that he can use his talent to help people. That responsibility comes with a terrible weight when he shakes the hand of a popular aspiring politician (Martin Sheen in his first “presidential” role) and realizes that this guy has a future that involves a few billion people dying in a nuclear war.
The question of what do lies at the heart of this film’s primary dilemma, which comes out in a conversation between Johnny and his doctor, a Polish Holocaust survivor named Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom). If Sam found himself back in Germany in the 1920s with the chance to take out Hitler, would he ice the little bohemian corporal?
The film isn’t perfect, mainly because Sheen’s role is written a bit shallowly. The story is also episodic to the point of being somewhat disjointed, but on the whole, it holds together.
As I noted in my review of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, The Dead Zone is easily the director’s most mainstream film, with the emphasis on the rich humanity of the characters rather than the icky red stuff. It remains one of the strongest King adaptations and the David Cronenberg film for people who hate David Cronenberg films.