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The Dead Zone

How tightly wrapped up is Stephen King with his many novels and the movies that are based on them? The prolific author might downplay any coincidences, but consider this: King's 1979 The Dead Zone (and the 1983 film by David Cronenberg) tells the story of a schoolteacher who is horrifyingly mangled in a freak car accident, only to wake up a shell of his former physical self, but with supernatural powers. In particular, he can see into the future, and it's suggested that perhaps he even foresaw the catastrophic crash. Years later, in 1999, King himself was hit by a runaway van, injured so badly that multiple surgeries and extensive physical therapy were the only way he could return to a normal lifestyle. In writing The Dead Zone, did King perhaps unwittingly peer into his own future? Of course, you say, it's a coincidence. Don't be silly. And our more rational selves tend to look at "A" and then look at "B" and see nothing there. Yet many of us are King fans, loyal followers of a clever tale-teller who loves nothing more than to find out how short the distance between two points actually may be. Christopher Walken stars in The Dead Zone as Johnny Smith, an English teacher with an unassuming, small-town life. Engaged to the pretty Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams), Johnny intends to marry her one day, but when he slams his car into a runaway truck on a stormy night, he loses five years of his life to a coma. When he awakens, his severe muscular atrophy requires constant care and therapy; he no longer has any sort of teaching career; and Sarah has moved on, married to another man and the mother of a small child. And then bad becomes much worse, because before long Johnny also discovers he has the power of second sight — all he has to do is touch the hand of another human being and he is able to travel through time, glancing into their past or looking into their future. His first preternatural act saves the life of a small girl trapped in a burning home. He also proves his powers to his doctor (Herbert Lom) by locating his long-lost mother. The local sheriff (Tom Skerritt) even has Johnny assist solving a difficult murder case. But soon Johnny, while tutoring a withdrawn boy, comes into contact with third-party presidential candidate Greg Stillson (a scenery-chewing Martin Sheen), where he discovers not only the fate of one man, but the fate of nations.

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The works of Stephen King are no strangers to box-office success, and everything from straightforward dramas (Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil) to flat-out creepers (The Shining, Carrie, Misery) usually finds an audience. But The Dead Zone must rank among the better King-based films, and this despite the guiding hand of the "Baron of Blood" Cronenberg — a guy still remembered for the 1981 Scanners, in which people's heads memorably explode. But The Dead Zone bears little resemblance to Cronenberg-fare like Scanners or The Fly, sticking very much with what makes King the best, most successful writer of popular fiction. While people may think of him as a "horror" novelist, he actually is much more concerned with the supernatural — horror simply is one of the potential results of his supernatural investigations. And as The Dead Zone is not a bloody affair, Cronenberg reels in some of his more sensationalist instincts, putting the creepy, methodical nature of King's story at center stage. Could anybody but Christopher Walken play the confused, erratic Johnny? After one viewing, it's impossible to consider another actor in the part, and supporting work from Skerritt, Sheen, Adams, and Colleen Dewhurst round out the small-town tale nicely. Don't go into this one expecting a turn-out-the-lights slasher. Paramount's DVD edition of The Dead Zone features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a good source print that is colorful and only showing a little flecking. Audio is available in the original Dolby 2.0 Surround or a new DD 5.1 mix (which Michael Kamen's score benefits from). Extras are thin (just a trailer), but we'll take it anyway.
—JJB



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