By Steve Vivona
Screen adaptations of author Stephen King's work have a pretty spotty track record. He's had much more success with his non-horror work as evidenced by films such as "The Green Mile," "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Stand by Me." With the exception of efforts like "Misery," "The Shining" (which was later remade as a TV miniseries) and "Salem's Lot," most adaptations of his horror work are to put it mildly, less than stellar. In fact King is of the opinion that only television can do his novels justice. Films, he believes, condense his books too much. He believes that only six or eight-hour miniseries such as "The Stand" can capture the essence of his work.
There are several films based on King's work that I enjoy. "Cujo," "Pet Sematary" and "Firestarter" are hardly classics but they were entertaining and scary. "Maximum Overdrive," "Silver Bullet," and "Christine" are best forgotten. However for my money one of the best of the early King adaptations is "The Dead Zone" starring Christopher Walken.
Johnny Smith (Walken) is a young man with his whole life ahead of him. All that is ripped away when a car accident leaves him comatose for five years. He awakens to learn that his girlfriend Sarah is married with a child and that he has been permanently crippled. The accident has also left Johnny with a phenomenal gift. He can now read the minds and see the futures of anyone he touches.
When word leaks out Johnny is an instant celebrity and thousands besiege him with letters asking his help with finding missing loved ones and other tragedies. He is asked by the local sheriff (Tom Skerritt) to assist with a murder case that has baffled the police. He manages to uncover the killer's true identity and starts to believe he has a responsibility to use this gift to save lives.
It turns out that Sarah and her husband are working for Senate hopeful Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), an ambitious candidate whose political aspirations know no bounds. During a chance meeting Johnny makes physical contact with Stillson and realizes that when he becomes president he will be responsible for World War III.
Johnny knows he must do something but knows that hell probably die in the process. Will he bring himself to stop this madman?
Unlike many King films "The Dead Zone" is heavier on suspense than blood which works in its favor. Walken gives a chilling performance as a man who is saddled with a power beyond anyones understanding. He does a great job portraying the alienation Johnny feels and his resentment toward Sarah and the rest of the world.
"The Dead Zone" features a cast of talented vets, all of whom play their supporting roles beautifully, including Herbert Lom, Coleen Dewhurst and Anthony Zerbe.
"The Dead Zone" was directed by horror auteur David Cronenberg and this has to be his most restrained film to date. Cronenberg's films have gotten increasingly bizarre as the years pass, but this film is an exercise in subtlety compared to efforts like "Naked Lunch," "Dead Ringers" and "Crash." He creates real tension and suspense especially when Johnny is besieged by his visions and trying to uncover their meaning.
Paramount's DVD of "The Dead Zone" is an effective presentation. The transfer is nicely done with strong colors (although it is slightly grainy). The film has been letterboxed at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and the framing seems appropriate. The only supplement is a theatrical trailer.