Saturday, October 15, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 15: The Dead Zone (1983)

(dir. David Cronenberg)

Paramount Pictures
An accident leaves a man with the physic power to see a person’s past, present, and future, which sends him on a collision course with a senate candidate who will destroy the world.

I’ve been thinking a lot about The Dead Zone, a lot about how seemingly small choices can snowball into something potentially ruinous, leaving us to ask “how did we come to this?” Call it 2016 election anxiety. Election Anxiety is paramount to Cronenberg’s adaptation of one of my favorite Stephen King novels. But before we get to Greg Stillson and his army of supporters and hauntingly familiar campaign slogan “send mediocrity to hell!” we have a film about a series of tiny deaths and rebirths, leading to a destiny dictated by choice.

It’s easy to forget that Christopher Walken was once a true screen presence before becoming the self-parody version that so many films utilize him for today. Walken brings a haunting charm and sorrow to Johnny Smith which blends in nicely with Cronenberg’s particular weirdness. Coming out the same year as Videodrome and three years before The Fly, The Dead Zone seems like a break in Cronenberg’s then oeuvre of body horror and strange births. But all the still pieces are there. Johnny’s accident occurs when he collides with an overturned milk truck, an immovable symbol of new birth if ever there was one. And the body horror is of the internal variety, similar to the kind of body horror Cronenberg would begin more exclusively tackling in 2002’s Spider and beyond. The fact that Johnny’s accident occurred after turning down the opportunity to spend the night at his girlfriend's, declaring that “some things ae worth waiting for” is no small degree of body horror itself. While the film omits some of the smaller character-centric moments and attachments that made the book so heartbreaking, Cronenberg still manages to find a way to create a new kind of heartbreak through the film’s consistently chilly aesthetic. Johnny’s series of deaths and rebirths operate almost as trials, each one more dangerous than the last as saving a little girl from a fire, leads to stopping a serial killer, to finally defeating an insane political candidate who many very well be the antichrist.

Stillson isn’t explored nearly as intimately as he is in the novel, but Martin Sheen’s convincing performance and the way his supporters react around him still make him a frightening figure. Smartly, the film keeps Stillson in the background during the first half of the film, we hear him, get a sense of his growing presence, but only fully understand what he's capable of when it seems too late. This use of Stillson as a spectre mirrors our real-world inability to pay attention to future threats, despite all the signs, because we become distracted by so many other things. The film's major questions about how much responsibility we have to prevent damnation surround the growing threat of Stillson, and Smith’s vision of his future. Using the “if you had a chance to kill Hitler, would you?” narrative, as a jumping off point the film leads to an conclusion where we expect a certain outcome but are delivered another one. Unlike so many horror films, The Dead Zone isn’t a film about the taking of lives but the saving of them. So it makes sense that it isn’t a bullet that saves the world, but a scenario that creates a revelation where the simplicity both good and evil stand revealed.

Scare Factor: 3/5 The Dead Zone is psychological horror and political horror that creates an emotional horror for the viewer, one that lingers. There’s an inescapable sense of sadness to Cronenberg’s film but also a thread of hope that exists in the reminder that every choice we make matters, and that destiny isn’t written in stone. 

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