When I was 12 or 13, I read my first Stephen King book. As I’ve told you all before, I strive to be Stephen King one day. Once upon a time in my father’s bachelorhood, my father had read and owned many King novels, but in the combination of him and my mom, some of his nerdier and creeper things lost out, and these books were one of those things. Unfortunately therefore, there were none of his books to be pilfered in my home when the time came. Instead, I asked my father what novel I should start on from the vast King collection, and hiked down to the tiny local library to search for it.
He recommended The Dead Zone.
This book was quite long and divided into multiple parts. I couldn’t tell you if my dad choose it because the violence and sex were much lower in this book than many of King’s others, but I frankly doubt this forethought, but purely that he just remembered liking it. I on the other hand had a hard time with this book. It took a long time getting to the point, and I found it difficult to trudge my way through. I did finish it, but I remember being displeased with how boring parts of it were. The plot was interesting, the execution, not his best. I frankly have no idea how I came to love him so much after a not-great first reading. That being said, plot points from it are burned in my memory as it was a highly anticipated reading step in my mind at the time.
Tonight, I relived that experience by watching the 1983 movie version featuring Christopher Walken. It was on Netflix streaming, and I needed a horror movie fix. Here is the trailer:
It definitely wasn’t exactly the horror movie vibe I was wanting, but it was still pretty good, if pretty dramatic.
The plot follows Johnny, a school teacher, who gets into a car accident and enters a coma for five years. When he comes out of the coma, when touching others, he sees visions of the “future.” In this way, he stops a serial killer, saves a boy and a girl’s life on two separate occasions, and then puts a stop to a politician, Greg Stillson, who he sees will one day become president and cause cataclysmic horrors of some undefined nature, through attempted assassination. He is shot and dies in the process, but succeeds in ending the man’s career when he holds a child up as a human shield and photos of it are taken.
This is not unlike the book at all, although the book spends much more time in each plot, including a long period in his head during the actual coma, which I recall was particularly dry. The concept of the “Dead Zone” however is not explored very well at all in this movie, nor is the revelation that a brain tumor is possibly causing his visions while building toward his death. However, a young Christopher Walken does give a very good performance without too many absurdly-placed drawn-out pauses, as is always a danger from him. His face and the music choice during his jolting visions is however, hilarious at best, ridiculous at worst. He also assigns The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as his students’ last homework before his accident, especially ironic since the black coat with exaggerated, popped collar he traipses about in the whole movie definitely resembles his costume as the horseman in Sleepy Hollow over ten years later; oh how circular the world can be.
The gore is extremely limited, and besides a bit of over-the-top corn syrup red ’80s blood, maintains a proper level, albeit a somewhat disinteresting one. Sadly this is partially to blame on the difficulty of translating an immense book with three distinct plot sections into a normal length movie, therefore, none of the true horrors of Greg or the serial killer get their proper time.
The highlight of the whole movie though is Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson. He is brilliant as always at portraying a fiery public speaker, and in that moment you heard in the trailer, ironically states, “I had a vision that I’m going to be President of the United States someday.” Which is just the best because he does, on West Wing! And, he is probably the single coolest fictional president ever, and sometimes I like to pretend his character is the real president forever.. So the irony lies in the idea that he’s supposed to be playing evil in this, which is hard to take seriously once you know the truth that Martin Sheen is just the best president ever! (Yes, I adore West Wing.)
The movie does a much better job of interpreting the book than most King adaptations on the whole. King has had a rough movie go of it. Like The Shining, which while great, misses what King shows is the true horror of The Outlook Hotel in his novel, largely because he is removed from its production and it was changed to fit the director’s vision, a regular plight of King’s. Which stands in contrast to the flip side in which King has great control and writes the screenplays, but receives little backing and production value needed to create a great movie; as in Creepshow II, which I watched recently, and legitimately had four teenagers eaten by what looks like a tarp and a net combined with some lily pads on top of it, which is meant to be a lake monster of some sort; which you know could be creepy reading it, but flops when you’re like “Hey, look, a net.” Or for instance, the TV movie-series of The Stand, his true epic, which he had a large role in and is just too badly made even by ’80s standards to be truly good. (It does however feature Rob Lowe/He-will-always-be-Sam-Seaborn-to-me, as Nick Andros. Let’s play a game! How many West Wing characters can you find in Stephen King movies??)
All the same, it was one of the better made King movies I’ve seen, and Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen do it justice, which is always refreshing. The TV series is also steaming on Netflix, you could make a like two week thing out of it. Just no food comas or anything in the middle, you never know what power you will wake up with..