“If you could go back in time to Germany, before Hitler came to power, knowing what you know now, would you kill him?”
Political horror tends toward the satirical–politicians who literally make deals with the devil, or absurd corporate conspiracies, ala The Stuff. The Dead Zone is almost unique in presenting a nightmarish vision that gets more and more realistic every day. It’s not hard at all to see Donald Trump in Greg Stillson, Stephen King’s fictional candidate for Senate. Stillson is an ambitious political outsider with a disruptive, aggressive campaign style; he’s anti-establishment; he’s willing to strong-arm the press to avoid negative coverage; and he’s nothing short of megalomaniacal. To those of us familiar with this prescient 1983 film, it was impossible to read about Trump’s cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons and not think of Stillson:
The conundrum presented by the movie is an uncomfortable but very real question about the role of violence in American politics. It’s a paranoid nightmare–everybody else seems taken in by a charismatic demagogue, and only you know that this politician is secretly a danger to the nation. The problem with resorting to the gun in the face of such a circumstance is that we’ve entered a period in our politics where both sides feel that the other is rooting for a Greg Stillson. And yet The Dead Zone still makes what Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) sets out to do seem perfectly reasonable, if not inevitable. “You’d never get away alive,” says Johnny when his doctor Weizak (Herbert Lom) answers the Hitler question in the affirmative. “It doesn’t matter,” says the doctor. “I would kill him.” Knowing what Johnny knows, so would we.
What makes The Dead Zone work so well is that, like the best political films, it begins with a story and only arrives near the end at polemics. (Another great example of this is the documentary Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, which begins as a murder investigation but ends in a very unexpected call to political action). For the majority of its running time, the film is by turns a romance, a drama, even a serial killer story, but Cronenberg cleverly pares King’s episodic narrative down to the singular point that each experience is meant to express to us and to Johnny in preparation for the narrative’s climax.
No Cronenberg movie ever follows a narrative formula; even when, in retrospect, his films’ endings seem inevitable, they were still surprising. Each one is a journey that begins far from its end, and that’s just as true for one of Cronenberg’s few literary adaptations, The Dead Zone. We begin with Walken’s Johnny Smith, a sweet, ordinary schoolteacher who invites comparisons to the equally lanky and awkward literary figure, Ichabod Crane. Like Crane, Smith is also unlucky in love; after a lovely date with his co-worker, Sarah (Brooke Adams), Johnny gets in a car accident and sinks into a coma. After five long years, he awakes to find his muscles have atrophied and his girl has moved on, both scars he will carry for the rest of his life. In some kind of twisted exchange, though, Johnny also emerges with a kind of gift–the ability to experience psychic visions through touch. Over the course of the movie, and in sequences that never fail to bring us (and Johnny) a powerful sense of dread, he will see dangers past, present, and even future. The question of the film is whether this knowledge, these horrors, have a purpose, or whether Johnny has been arbitrarily cursed with useless understanding.
Johnny’s conflict is classic stuff, not too different from the lessons of Spider-Man comics. Does his great power come with great responsibility? On the one hand, looking can be awful all on its own–there are shades of Thomas Harris’ traumatized empath Will Graham (Red Dragon was published two years after King’s novel) in Johnny’s horror at touching the mind of the killer in Castle Rock–and being a self-avowed psychic also comes with unwanted attention from the press, not to mention a mountain of heartbreaking letters from damaged souls seeking Johnny’s services. Smith is so damaged himself that he prefers to repudiate his gift and live in almost total isolation. One poignant moment calls back to his time as an English teacher before the accident:
Johnny: It reminds me of a line from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the last story I read to my class before… the accident. Ichabod Crane disappears… the line goes: “As he was a bachelor, and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled their head about him anymore.”
Sarah: Is that what you feel?
Johnny: It’s what I want… what I want.
On the other hand, Johnny’s mother Vera (Jackie Burroughs), a deeply religious woman, warns him to not keep his light under a bushel, that God has a plan for him. Johnny’s guilt ultimately drives him to use his gift again, helping Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) of Castle Rock catch a killer of women. That sequence, where Johnny discovers that Bannerman’s own deputy, Frank Dodd (Nicholas Campbell) is the murderer, is one of the film’s most horrifying scenes. Dodd commits suicide in truly grotesque fashion just as Johnny realizes that Dodd’s mother was aware of her son’s crimes.
The notion of knowledge as a powerful tool that must be acted upon or shared, not hidden, runs as a theme through each of Johnny’s psychic incidents. The most delicate involves a young boy Johnny has begun tutoring; after a vision of the boy’s death during a hockey practice, Johnny decides to share the information (“The ICE… is gonna BREAK!”), even though he knows it will end a previously idyllic situation. He was close to the boy, he was respected by the boy’s father as a teacher, not a sideshow attraction, but it’s more important to him to seize the chance to actually change the future for the better. Earlier in the film, Johnny is shaken to the core after a vision in which he watches Dodd commit murder: “I did nothing. I stood there and watched him kill that girl. Dodd! I stood there, I did nothing!” These moments are how the film demonstrates Johnny’s slow acceptance of the importance of his powers, how they cannot be ignored if there’s an opportunity to avert disaster.
The other theme that aligns Johnny’s experiences, and prepares the way for his decision with Stillson, is subtler, involving the uncovering of corrupt authority figures. Dodd is a police officer who abuses his position to lure women to their death; a skeptical reporter eggs Johnny into using his abilities for the cameras and Johnny threatens to divulge of the reporter’s darkest secrets (“It’s not all right,” Johnny whispers, “it’s not okay”); and the father of Johnny’s student is a wealthy, strong-willed man whose absolute authority over his son represents the boy’s biggest obstacle to normalcy. Even the early sequence where Johnny sees his doctor’s unknown past, the fate of the man’s mother during World War II, brings in the Hitler comparison.
In short, by the time Johnny clasps Greg Stillson’s hand and realizes that Stillson represents an extreme danger to the entire world, both we and Smith have been prepared to both believe in this moment and to know what must be done. Rarely has a political assassin been portrayed with such empathy; we understand exactly what he’s feeling, and ultimately see his decision to act as the only rational option available to him. Both novel and film are clever in finding an unconventional resolution to what would seem like a binary proposition, and also by working in the romantic subplot with Sarah. There are shades of Taxi Driver there; Sarah should have been Johnny’s, except for an accident on the road, and is now married to the supporter of a corrupt politician whom Johnny intends to kill. But in contrast to Travis Bickle, Johnny’s motives are pure, and the last moments of the film present a poignant release of his long-held inner tension.
One of the most human and soulful of all Cronenberg films, The Dead Zone hangs in large part on Christopher Walken’s magnificent performance as an ordinary man submitted to extraordinary circumstances and pressures. Walken’s best work is often in supporting roles, from his memorable Tarantino-penned monologues in Pulp Fiction and True Romance to his single (but hilarious) scene in Annie Hall as the guy who offers to drive Woody Allen home from a party not long after explaining in perfect seriousness how he suffers from a recurring temptation to commit suicide by car. He has a bizarre, off-putting energy to his speech patterns and lanky, twitchy body that tends to play better in comedy (“More cowbell!” wouldn’t be nearly as funny coming from any other actor). But in The Dead Zone, Walken dials himself back, drawing inward until those few moments when he explodes, vibrating with horror, rage, or the intense need to be believed. His reedy, hitching voice sells Johnny’s unhappiness like nobody else could have:
“Bless me”? Do you know what God did for me? He threw an 18-wheeled truck at me and bounced me into nowhere for five years! When I woke up, my girl was gone, my job was gone, my legs are just about useless… Blessed me? God’s been a real sport to me!
The other side of the equation is David Cronenberg. Not only is his script a master class in the subtle art of adaptation, but Cronenberg brings his peculiar skill at crafting lucid nightmares to bear. Johnny’s visions place him (and us) in the center of the horror, whether that’s sweating in a flaming bedroom or drowning in the icy water of a lake. The visions come to him in jolts and jump cuts, Johnny’s eyes always wide with the shock of revelation, and they stand out because Cronenberg takes care to let the rest of the film play out in a much less obtrusive, more conventional manner. He gets out of the way of his actors, which is no small feat; Cronenberg is often lauded for his magnificent, grotesque effects, but his facility with drawing out great performances can go overlooked, from Jeremy Irons’ masterful double turn as the creepy twins in Dead Ringers to Viggo Mortensen’s haunted work in A History of Violence and the poignant horror of Jeff Goldblum’s doomed scientist in The Fly. Here he gets a beautiful performance out of Walken and an equally excellent, absolutely chilling one out of Martin Sheen, whose insane-but-personable Stillson is like a haunting mirror image of Sheen’s wholesome President Bartlet on The West Wing.
Cronenberg’s subjects vary but he always returns obsessively to obsession, to minds that fall into patterns, to bodies that change, and to the intersection of media, technology, and humanity. More than a few of his movies are political in nature, particularly his paranoid sci-fi thrillers, including Scanners (an evil Canadian corporation conducts experiments to create an army of psychic soldiers) and Videodrome (a pirate TV broadcast signifies a dark conspiracy), of which The Dead Zone is the least overtly scary. The film’s chief emotion is dread, the very definition of which is the fear of an inevitable future. Many people in Cronenberg’s movies want to change the world, from VR game designer Allegra Gellar (eXistenZ) to the car accident fetishists in Crash to Freud and Jung inventing psychoanlysis (A Dangerous Method), but only The Dead Zone gets to the heart of the terror of being presented with that opportunity, of shouldering an unwanted responsibility that nonetheless cannot be ignored.
According to Weizak, the “dead zone” itself is “the possibility of… of altering the outcome of your premonitions.” In the broader sense, it’s the opportunity we all have to see what’s coming, and to change it. Johnny Smith uses a gun, and we understand why; but we are not one person forced to act alone. Just as Johnny can’t pretend he doesn’t see who Greg Stillson really is, so, too, we cannot pretend that we’re ignorant of the danger a man like Donald Trump presents. The question is often asked: if you could go back in time before Hitler came to power, would you kill him? Nobody ever asks if you would vote against him, but Germany had that chance to reject Hitler and his party in 1930, ’32, and ’33. There is still time, now, to vote, to ensure the better course of history. The missiles are not yet flying. Hallelujah.
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because the future is in your hands. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.