Hello to all those faithfully reading and hopefully enjoying this effort to make even the worst horror movie more watcha... aw, screw that - I'm not that good. If a movie makes you cringe because yet another batch of unlikable teens that are pushing 30 are inching toward their deaths, having a party no one does anywhere ever, a paranormal movie is boring you to tears with unending pans of empty rooms, or thanks to CGI technology when people finally bite it, their blood squirts everywhere except on the victim, the ground, the people next to them... you're in good company and this is the right place for you.

Friday, April 19, 2013

NO KILLER CARS, KILLER CLOWNS OR TELEKINETICS -  JUST JOHNNY




The Dead Zone (1983)

Starting easy with an old favorite I haven't seen in years I decided on the story Stephen King wrote about a plain man shoved into not-so-plain circumstances who basically ends up saving the world. Simple, yes? Directed by David Cronenberg this is a King classic with no special effects, sets or killer cars, and yet manages to be both spooky and endearing at the same time. A real triumph for both writer and director. Having Christopher Walken as the main character was also a major coup for this story.

Watching this movie again with a more mature and critical (read smart-ass) eye, I could see several spots of real DUH moments and oh-come-on situations that were more than a bit fortuitous, but as a whole the story and the characters are engrossing and you almost forget you're watching a horror film, and especially one by the great King.

I remember finding out they had made this into a TV series and watching one or two of them. Eh, not bad, but when you go from Christopher Walken to Anthony Michael Hall, you can't help but be a bit disappointed. No one can replace the great Walken. It was movies like this that made you appreciate that yeah, he can be over the top but he is also a solidly great actor.

Having read the 1979 novel I did notice they dispensed with the prologue that would have explained a lot of why Johnny Smith (great name by the way King) gained his 'powers'. In the movie, the only hint you get that something must have gone on inside that melon of his before his accident was a scene where he clutches his head in pain for no discernible reason. 

If you read the book, you know that hints of his 'gift' began to appear in his childhood, since, let's face it, this kid was a massive klutz. He's wanged in the head (I know that's not a word, but sounded good) and knocked unconscious, after which he gives a message to an adult that comes true later on... and suffers headaches without knowing why. They explain it away as a 'dead zone' in his brain, caused by the damages he received from childhood. In the movie, the 'dead zone' is explained as the part of his visions that allow him to change the future. Okay that's a duh. Sorry. 

The movie officially starts with Johnny as a schoolteacher. Life is good, he loves his girlfriend Sarah (Brooke Adams). One dark and stormy night (sorry) a tanker of milk (Gah, milk? No explosions then.) coming the other direction crashes when its driver falls asleep at the wheel. The tanker itself overturns and slides down the frozen street (the whole movie, despite the passing of years, is always shown in winter) and Johnny, barely able to see out his VW Bug window swerves but clips it and flips the car. The tanker must have been mostly empty 'cause the car should have been flooded but we just see splashes.

For five years he lays (Lies? Lays? Uh.... lays.) in a coma. In a movie duh moment he chooses to wake up at the precise moment the director of the clinic who cares for him is standing at his bedside and his parents waiting right outside his door. He finds out he's lost everything - okay he's just lost his job and his girlfriend, but he thinks that's everything. He goes into a coma with a bowl haircut and wakes looking picture perfect with the hair-combed-back hairstyle that we're all used to - no scars, no gray hairs. I should look so good after sleeping through the night.

After getting back to his family after his first grab-their-hand-and-act-like-a-psycho experience with a nurse whose house is on fire, Johnny tries to be 'normal' but hey, it's apparently Alaska where he lives, everything is always frozen and people have nothing else to do but harass him. Note about the movie location: They filmed this movie, although it of course takes place in New England, in Ontario mostly, during a particularly brutal winter where it was almost too cold for everyone to even tolerate, much less work in. 

That's why this movie, which is supposed to span years, is frozen over for the whole damn thing. Okay, Canada costs are incredibly cheaper for film makers, but geez, are we supposed to believe that everything Johnny experiences is ONLY during the winter? Yes. Yes we are.

Well, this is too much for his mother, portrayed as a bit of a religious nut, and she has one of those dramatic deaths where she doesn't take her last breath until her final message to Johnny (duh). Then Sarah decides to 'forget' she's married for an afternoon and with her son asleep in the next room she and Johnny... uh, yeah. On top of that drama (and another both fortuitous and duh movie device) a sheriff (Tom Skerritt) wants his help to solve a serial killer puzzle, one Johnny initially declined. When he does decide to help, well, let's see. We have him, his dad, Sarah, the Sheriff, the Deputy.... and that's it. So who's the killer? You have 3 seconds and one guess.

He grips the hand of the latest victim and 'sees' her murder at the hand of... who? C'mon, say it with me. The Deputy has been committing them all in some schizoid rift of his personality and knowing that Johnny has found out (he can count characters too ya know) drives off for home and hari kari's himself with the scissors he's been using (Scissors? Honestly?) naked except for an overcoat in his bathtub. 

And come on - those scissors were not long enough to cut off his tonsils, much less kill him from shoving them in his mouth. What did he die of? Severe bleeding of the gums? After the Sheriff and Johnny burst into his mother's house where he lives (oh, THAT explains it) which happens with murder investigations in no place on Earth ever, Johnny grabs the hand of his mother and finds that she's known all along. Apparently she can count too. That pisses her off, plus she's freaking cold and wants out of this movie, so she shoots Johnny and the Sheriff shoots her dead. After what he's been through though bullets are just a minor inconvenience, so after healing he moves away to... more ice and snow. Goody.

He meets a shy young boy and with no weirdness about a father wanting a grown man to develop a relationship with his son (ahem) manages to teach him not to be so introverted as well as, uh, what did he teach? English Literature? Is that still it? I dunno, but all is good until one day he takes the kid's hand and 'sees' him dying of drowning (How could ANYTHING not be frozen solid there?). 

He tells the kid's father, who has arranged for the local boys to have a hockey team on a local pond (another convenient duh). The father fires him on the spot but can't get his kid, thoroughly scared, to come with him and surprise surprise doesn't force him. This time when Johnny grabs his hand he sees - nothing. This is what they call the 'dead zone'. Those are the times when he apparently changes things and can't see them. Later he learns that two other kids died on the ice - uh, I mean under the ice.

Now in the department of incredible fortuitous movie plots we have him still living in his overly large McMansion but directly across is a (frozen) park where a huge sign is declaring a certain candidate, Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen, being over-the-top but perfect in this part) as a possible future president. He'd met him before but instead of shaking his hand he'd gotten a campaign button. Keeping with fortuitous circumstances, not only does the Stillson rally occur across the street, but the main campaign manager is none other than Sarah's husband - meaning she is there also. 

He goes over to see her but instead bumps into Stillson and we see Greg the Bunny - uh, sorry, Greg the Presidential candidate's true mission - his 'destiny' is to destroy the world, sending nukes over to Russia and killing untold numbers of people. Johnny asks his doctor for advice since, fort- well you know that word by now- his doctor was Jewish, being saved from encroaching Germans by his mother who Johnny told him was actually alive. He asks if he would have killed Hitler given the chance, even knowing he wouldn't survive it. Well duh.

So Johnny the psychic becomes Johnny the psycho since somehow he manages to get to a Stillson rally with a rifle on a bus and breaks into the building, hiding in a balcony. Here it gets really silly. The place is packed with people. No security, no police, just a single hired gun Stillson keeps with him for the usual pistol whipping of opponents of his campaign. And to make it even more dramatic, not only is his campaign manager on stage with him, but so is Sarah and her baby. Uh, no.

So Johnny goes for the shot, Sarah distracts him and he misses - but Stillson, being the craven coward grabs her baby and uses it as a human shield. Johnny is shot and falls to the emptied (How the hell did they move that fast?) seats below. Stillson yells at his ape to grab the photographer that took his picture with the human shield but the guy, evil but not THAT evil shrugs and leaves. 

He yells at Johnny who of course grabs his hand. This time all Johnny sees is the cover of Newsweek (back when they actually were a NEWS magazine, not just a serious looking People magazine) with Stillson and the baby - bye bye candidacy. Stillson kills himself. Knowing the world is safe (from Stillson anyway) Johnny tells Sarah goodbye and dies as she whispers she loves him.

Okay there was a lot of contrivances in the movie version of a very good (and for Stephen King, very subtle)  horror story. And you just can't say enough good things about anything Christopher Walken does. I pick at 'em 'cause that's my job - but I thoroughly enjoyed it then and now and recommend it to anyone.