This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “The Dead Zone.”
The Movie: “The Dead Zone”
Starring: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt
Director: David Cronenberg
Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A man awakens from a coma to discover he has a psychic ability.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 90 percent
Brown: A week ago, we were going into the twisted, ‘70s music-filled world of Quentin Tarantino’s alternative world of Nazi killing in “Inglorious Basterds.”
And now, it’s time to delve into the terrifying world of
Maine Stephen King by looking at 1983’s “The Dead Zone.”
Stephen King adaptations are so hit and miss. I’d never seen this movie, so I was curious to see if it would be an amazing film like “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile” or the loose adaptation we saw in “The Running Man.” Or, would it be a gigantic waste of time like “It” or “The Lawnmower Man.”
Also, we have Christopher Walken. In a lead role. I don’t know about you, Froemming, but that is something I’m just not used to seeing. Even more shocking, I was stunned to see it work as well as it did while watching this movie.
Before we go over all the usual King tropes like anti-religion and making The Pine Tree State into a hellscape, what are your initial thoughts, Froemming?
Froemming: “The Dead Zone” is one of the few King books I have actually read, and I kinda remembered watching this when I was like 11, so I went into this with a vague recollection of
Ed Glosser: Trivial Psychic Johnny Smith and his abilities to see into people’s lives via touching their hands like a weirdo.
And it was about (REDACTED) time we got to a Walken film. He is usually a side character or an antagonist, so it was odd seeing him as the hero in this. A very, very weird ass hero. Well, why don’t you kick this off while I yell at people about how THE ICE IS GONNA BREAK!
Brown: First thing I saw in this movie is that David Cronenberg was the director and that took me right out of the movie. I was waiting for Cronenberg to Cronenberg this movie. Yes, thanks to “Rick and Morty,” Cronenberg is a verb.
And right away, we’re introduced to school teacher Johnny Smith, who is reading Poe’s “The Raven” to his English class. Two things:
- If I didn’t know this was Edgar Allen Poe, you could have told me Walken wrote this poem in his free time and I’d believe you. He’s that creepy.
- All I could think of while I read this is the video of Walken reading “The Three Little Pigs.”
Walken is very good in this, very sympathetic, but 34 years of pop culture between this movie’s release and today doesn’t do a lot to enhance the viewing experience. He also tells the class to read “Sleepy Hollow” where he would star as the headless horseman years later, thanks to Tim Burton.
Froemming: Exactly. Also, before his coma, Johnny looks like a middle-aged Harry Potter.
Now, we see Johnny has issues with headaches early on. He takes his girlfriend, Sarah Bracknell, to an abandoned amusement park — something I could envision Walken himself doing in real life — where they ride a rollercoaster by themselves and he starts getting pains in his mind grapes.
This leads to the moral of the story: After this, Johnny is at Sarah’s house, where she wants him to spend the night. He declines, only to get in a fierce car accident. The moral here is never turn down sex, otherwise you will almost die in a wreck and become a psychic.
Brown: Like, OK, Johnny, I get it. You have a brain freeze headache (my assumption) and you’re not exactly in the mood for sex. But it is pouring rain outside. Visibility isn’t great. Maybe go inside Sarah’s for an hour or so, do some making out… do whatever you want, you’re consenting adults. Just wait for the weather to taper off so your crappy Volkswagen doesn’t crash into a ditch.
Alas, he decides tonight’s not the night to consummate the relationship so he tries to drive home, only to run into a tipped-over milk truck. A truck that even with partially-working brakes Johnny could have stopped in front of if he were a better driver.
Fade to black, and we are in a hospital bed. And Johnny is perfectly fine for a guy who just got into what looked like a gnarly car wreck. Wolverine healing ability, perhaps?
Nope, he’s been in a coma for five years.
Froemming: He wakes up to find the world he knew is gone. Sarah moved on and is married, which Johnny’s mom thought was terrible. Look, dude was a vegetable for half a decade, I don’t blame her. He’s also lost his job and has to move back in with his parents like George Costanza. But hey, he has a creepy doctor who I imagine practices pseudo-science in his spare time, because he is all over Johnny when his magic powers begin to show themselves.
And they begin when he grabs a nurse’s hand and sees her house on fire and her daughter screaming.
Brown: I’ll be honest, Froemming: Sweating bullets when seeing a child’s room up in flames with said child screaming out for help, that’s how I imagine Christopher Walken wakes up every day of his life.
However, the movie does this differently by having this image show when Johnny makes physical contact with one of the nurses in charge of his care. Convinced by Johnny’s vision, the nurse rushes home just in time to save her daughter from certain death.
For obvious reasons, his therapist, Dr. Weizak, doubts these abilities. For all he knows, Johnny is a creepy-ass dude. He’s played by Christopher Walken, so I can see why.
Froemming: He doubts them, until Johnny clutches his hand and sees that the good doctor’s mother survived the war. I think they allude it is WWII, and there is fire and horses and Brick Tamland kills a guy with a trident — wait, wrong movie.
Then, for reasons that make not a lick of sense, there is a press conference called at the hospital, where Johnny fields questions from journalists about saving the nurse’s daughter with his magical powers. THAT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN!
Brown: Yeah, that was a little much. I get working in small-town newspapers and looking into rumors. But needing a big press conference for what is a rumor? Yeah, maybe the town’s weekly shows up. No one else.
But journalism as we know it doesn’t work that way in Maine and a reporter demands a live demonstration of Johnny’s ability. And for his trouble, said reporter finds out his sister committed suicide. Naturally, the reporter is pissed off because who wants to be reminded of a loved one committing suicide?
My question: Who lets this become a media circus? Like, the doctor is cool with this. Why? Shouldn’t your patient’s condition and confidentiality important here? And does Johnny’s family really want us media jackals out in front of the house?
Froemming: His mother doesn’t last long enough for the #FakeNews media to swarm her house, because she kicks the bucket after watching her son on television.
Johnny is now out of the hospital and living with his now-widower father. And who shows up to salt the existential wounds for old Johnny? Sarah does! She pops over with her child (she visited him briefly while in the hospital) and we soon find his old flame is there to bump some uglies, which made me feel terrible for her husband.
Brown: I had a laugh when Johnny meets Sarah’s kid, Denny, and calls him Danny. I’d like to believe Walken thought it was Danny and probably insisted to Cronenberg that Danny would be better.
Froemming: I am also going to believe this is the child version of Denny from “The Room.”
Brown: Well, either way, there is no more romantic way to have sex with your ex-boyfriend that was in a coma for five years than wearing your wedding ring and going at it in the next room where your 10 month old is sleeping. Walken just said that he got it, he was gone for five years.
Nope. They have sex. She stays over to make dinner for Johnny, his dad and their love-making stank wafting in the next room.
Then Sarah leaves, saying her husband will make a fuss if she’s gone. Do you know what’ll make him cause a fuss? (REDACTED) SLEEPING WITH ANOTHER GUY!
Froemming: With Johnny’s heart broken twice by the same woman within weeks, we should also mention before this that Johnny had another visitor.
CDR Mike “Viper” Metcalf Sheriff George Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) shows up because he is going to all possibilities regarding the finding of the Castle Rock Killer, who has raped and murdered a bunch of women in the past three years. Being crushed by life at that point, Johnny tells him to put an egg in his shoe and beat it.
Brown: … Until the power of sex (I think) convinces him to use his “gift” for the good of the law and track down this serial killer. When the Sheriff visits the house, I was hoping Johnny would tell him “Drive safe. Watch out for milk trucks.”
So Johnny comes with during a crime scene investigation, eventually getting a glimpse into the past in a gazebo. Here, we see a trenchcoat-wearing baddie triggering a woman by telling her to smile. It’s a woman he knows… and kills with a pair of scissors. I think he watched “A Clockwork Orange” before his murder. No, I will not be linking that scene in this review.
This sets up to one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve seen in a movie. I’ll let you set it up, Froemming.
Froemming: Well, in his vision, Johnny sees the face of the killer. It is the sheriff’s deputy, who flees the scene of the crime with I thought they originally said was the sheriff’s car, but then it was his own car. I could be mistaken here.
Well, the sheriff and Johnny go to the man’s house, and his mother tells them the guy isn’t home, but Johnny saw him in the window.
The mother, for some reason, reminded me of the meth head lady from “Breaking Bad” who crushes her boyfriend’s head with an ATM machine they stole.
Anyway, we get some weird “Manhunter” style lighting and mood from our now-outed killer in his bathroom, where he strips naked and gets into his creepy coat and fondles his scissors like Gene from “Wet Hot American Summer” fondles his sweaters.
Brown: I have to mention that when Johnny and co. get into the house and Johnny touches the mother. Turns out, she knew her son was a serial killer and did nothing. The mom calls Johnny the devil due to his powers. Folks, you can cross off “a character being called the devil” on your Stephen King Bingo cards.
With his goose officially cooked, the deputy decides to go full seppuku by positioning his scissors on a counter and lunging face-first into his instrument of death.
Yeah, you don’t see the actual suicide, but the implication of what he does is so (REDACTED) up. Imagine the will and force you have to have to kill yourself that way. And it’s a great set-up by Cronenberg, because it’s left to your imagination and it is gruesome.
Froemming: It is one of the most unsettling scenes I have seen in a film.
The day isn’t over yet for our heroes, because the mother got herself a case of gun-fever, and is itching to kill Johnny because she thinks he is the devil? Lady, your son was a serial killer and you knew it, you don’t have the moral high ground here.
Well, she gets a shot off at Johnny, and Sheriff Bannerman pops her in the gut with a bullet. If his days from now on are going to be like this, I don’t blame Johnny for going into seclusion. It is a bit much.
Brown: Right, and considering he needs to get around with a cane and isn’t fully recovered from the whole accident/coma thing, hermit Johnny is understandable.
Looking for something to do that isn’t hunting down scissormen, he goes back into teaching as a tutor. It’s here that a wealthy man named Roger inquires about hiring Johnny to tutor his also-isolated son Chris.
Look, people can parent how they want to parent. I just think it’s weird that Roger can’t get his son in a car to meet Johnny and see if the two will get along. Johnny HAS to leave his situation to cater to this rich absentee father because reasons.
So, Johnny comes to visit and we’re greeted by the future president of the United States?
Froemming: We meet Greg Stillson, played by Martin Sheen. It is a chaotic performance that lead me to believe Martin dipped into his son’s high-octane drug called Charlie Sheen.
Stillson is a third-party candidate running for the U.S. Senate. He is a red MAGA hat away from our reality today, which I refer to as “the darkest timeline.”
Brown: I assumed that Martin Sheen shared a cocaine-filled trailer with Stephen King during filming of this movie. Stillson is bonkers. And yes, the Trump parallels are obvious. He talks about how Washington isn’t working and he’s going to bring mining jobs back.
But we’ll get into Stillson later. Right now, we see Johnny and Chris build a bond because Johnny actually gives a crap about the kid.
And then, the abilities kick in, and we see Chris drowning under an icy pond in hockey gear. Turns out, Roger is having a hockey game for Chris and his friends. Johnny… he’s a little passionate about not having Chris on the ice for this contest. And folks, as aggressive as Walken is in this scene, pop culture cannot let me take this scene serious. This scene is classic Walken.
Froemming: Well, the father says he will cancel the game, even though they always hit the ice in March. Maybe in Minnesota, pal, but probably not Maine.
But it is a lie. Despite the fact Johnny’s abilities lead to the end of a gruesome serial killer, the dad ignores his warnings. But Chris is not a daft as his old man, and heeds the advice.
Two children end up dead because this guy ignored Johnny. And Johnny, to rub it in perhaps, calls the guy’s house. Chris knows it is Johnny calling.
But there is trouble a brewin’, because this town’s newspaper decided to write an editorial criticizing Stillson. And in what is probably a certain politician’s wet dream, we see Stillson and his goon blackmail the newspaper’s editor with photos of infidelity and threats of violence if he doesn’t make a deal with them and not run the editorial.
One, it looks late and unless he is also the publisher, this man is not stopping the presses. I mean, Stillson already had a copy of the paper. That paper is on its way out the door.
Also, that’s a giant leap in logic. The guy is running for the U.S. Senate, is he really going to go to every newspaper in Maine to bully positive editorials out of overworked editors? I don’t think so.
Brown: He absolutely will! Because Stillson is more or less is like a religious zealot (cross that off your Stephen King Bingo card) who believes it’s God’s will that he one day become president of the United States (which he later does under the assumed name of Jed Bartlet). Stillson is essentially the lamest Blues Brother imaginable.
Plus, Stillson probably went to the newspaper to object to its layout on the ice accident paper. Guys, put a picture above the fold. That’s, like, journalism 101.
I also think part of this movie’s message is that third-party candidates are evil. So confirmed: Cronenberg is not a fan of Ross Perot, Ralph Nader or Kang and Kodos.
Froemming: I like how they don’t give us any of his politics here. If you’re a liberal, you’ll see him as a conservative. If you’re a conservative, you’ll see him as a liberal. He is just a scummy politician drunk on visions of God telling him he will one day rule the planet, which is how I view almost all politicians.
Now, after a quick Google search and finding he will be busy bullying all 47 newspapers in Maine, he also has to campaign as well, so two birds with one stone, I guess. And someone knocks on Johnny’s door wanting to tell him the Good News on Stillson (comparing the evils of crooked politicians to religion, scratch that off your King Bingo Card), and we see it is the poor husband of Sarah, who cheated on him with Johnny. Awkward….
Brown: As the guy walked down the stairs, I was waiting for Johnny to be like “BTW, (REDACTED) yo’ gurl, lol.” I get how the kids talk today.
So we have Johnny wander into a Stillson rally, where he is being cheered on like a cult leader. And as Stillson is making the rounds, he makes the tactical error of shaking the psychic’s hand. And this reveals that
Stillson has a limp handshake like George W. Bush Stillson will one day become president and send the world into a nuclear apocalypse via a “Simon Says” game, I think.
And man, if my theory that Martin Sheen had some of Stephen King’s nose candy or his son’s tiger blood, just watch this scene in all its majesty.
Froemming: Well, we now know where Charlie got some of his personality.
Brown: Quick question: Do you want to start shaking people’s hands and start twitching like Johnny? I kind of want to see other people’s reactions.
Froemming: That would be a lot of fun. I also suspected Johnny went into the zone because of a contact high from touching Martin Sheen’s cocaine-fueled skin.
Brown: I’ll watch this movie back and see if Sheen had a coke nail like Carrie Fisher did in “Star Wars.”
Froemming: This moment and saving Chris raises an ethical question for Johnny that he lays on his doctor, who I believe was taking Stupid Pills this whole movie.
He asks the doctor if he knew what Hitler was going to do, would he kill him to stop it. And the doctor, a man whose career is based on precise and well thought-out decisions, is like “yup. Lol!” Not even thinking about what this psychic man is capable of or if this is alluding to something now. It is a brash answer on the morality of murder and if such a thing exists, and if his patient is going to kill someone.
Brown: It’s an obvious answer from the doctor, though. Johnny saw in a vision that the doc’s mother survived the Holocaust, where he previously thought she died. I think this labcoat-clad fella has an obvious vendetta against Hitler. So, Johnny asked because he knew he’d get the answer he wanted.
So, the decision is made: Johnny is going to assassinate Stillson via the rifle Walken likely lifted off the set of “The Deer Hunter.”
Froemming: He writes Sarah a letter, knowing he will not make it out of killing a political candidate in cold blood. So much for the tolerant/compassionate left/right, ammirite? He takes a bus to a building where Stillson is to give a campaign speech. And he waits in the shadows with an unloaded gun….
Why the (REDACTED) didn’t he pop those bullets in before everyone arrived? Did he want to get caught before, so he wouldn’t have to kill Stillson? And how does one kill a man flying high on Tiger Blood? These are questions we don’t have answers to.
Brown: This movie does answer a personal question: What is the best ending to a movie ever?
Answer: “The Dead Zone.”
So, Stillson is giving his stump speech and has Sarah and Denny up on stage, since Sarah is a volunteer on the campaign and all.
It’s here that Johnny decides to take his shot… and he misses. Your fortune telling couldn’t see that, could it, Johnny?
And like any good politician, Stillson combats the assassination attempt by USING A BABY AS A SHIELD!
That’s not a typo or an over-exaggeration. Martin Sheen uses a (REDACTED) baby as a (REDACTED) shield!
Look, I don’t want this to happen in real life because I don’t want a child’s life to be in danger. But if this actually happened… my God, it would be the most tragically hilarious thing ever.
Froemming: Things political candidates can do:
- Talk about grabbing women by the genitals.
- Call the opposition voters deplorable.
- Claim that if they shot someone in downtown New York, they would not lose votes.
- Spout dog whistle comments to racists.
- Have affairs.
- Call all Mexicans rapists.
- Call all southerners racists.
What political candidates can’t do:
- Use a baby as a (REDACTED) shield in an assassination attempt.
And Johnny sees Stillson’s future now: The cover of Newsweek with a photo of him using a baby as a shield. His future is over, and he ends up shooting himself.
That gives Johnny a smile before he croaks. He saved the day.
Brown: I love this ending. It could have been easy to just have Johnny put a bullet through Stillson. Instead, his assassination attempt fails, but Stillson’s actions did the work. He’s not dead now, but his career is. His life will end soon enough. It’s the long con, but it gets the desired result.
Also, I want that Newsweek cover.
Let’s get to recommendations because THE ICE IS GONNA BREAK!
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Brown: Hell yes. This is one of the best Stephen King adaptations I’ve seen. And for as weird as it is now, Walken does a great job playing a sympathetic reluctant hero. Check it out.
Froemming: Yes. I was surprised at how well this film was. King’s horror stories rarely get good film adaptations (“The Shining” and “Misery” are the only other ones I can think of) and this was a good one. Also, this is peak Walken in all his Walken-ness.