Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Cronenberg Blogathon: The Dead Zone (1983) and the Horror of the Mind

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cronenberg Blogathon: The Dead Zone (1983) and the Horror of the Mind

by Bryce Wilson

[Bryce Wilson, of Things That Don't Suck, enters the fray with an anecdotal piece questioning whether Cronenberg should only be known for "body horror."]

“You are either in the possession of a very new human ability. Or a very old one.”

Conventional wisdom says that the pairing of David Cronenberg and Stephen King was an odd one. Never mind the fact that the two have never shown each other anything but mutual respect. People can’t seem to wrap their heads around it. After all in one corner there’s ole Uncle Stevie, this generation’s Rod Serling: slaughtering a massive forest every year to peddle his mainstream morality plays masked as horror yarns to an undemanding public; delivering a gentle “boo” with a chuckle. And on the other hand there’s Dave Depraved himself: a man whose mind seems to work like an anthropologist from the future; a man given to dropping phrases like, “the genetic imperative to protect one’s offspring is strong” in interviews in order to explain parental love; a man if whom he ever had a sentimental bone in his body dug it out with a scalpel and sautéed and ate it long ago, but not after first examining it under a microscope; a man whose films thrive on the transgressive. How could the combination of those two ever work? Most critics when writing about The Dead Zone dismiss it, like the work of a major league baseball player making a charity visit to the farm leagues.

As with much conventional wisdom, this is all ultimately bullshit.

But why? It's not as if King films don’t depend on the chemistry with the director. It's no accident that his best adaptations are, for the most part, delivered by capable journeymen like Rob Reiner and Frank Darabont, directors as skilled at handling big emotions as they are big set pieces. The closest precedent for a director of Cronenberg’s clinical temperament would be Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining, a movie which despite its sterling reputation I find almost completely uninvolving, a profoundly miscalculated adaptation on a very basic level. What chance could Cronenberg have?

First off, unlike Kubrick, there’s not as much difference between the two artists as one might think. King’s writing does have certain flaws, but a tendency to play it safe is not one of them. I’ve always believed that King’s crossover success can be better connected to his uncanny ability to write how people think (he is the master of the interior monologue) as opposed to any promise of safety. Far from being the sentimentalist he’s derided as, if King has proven one thing over and over again it is that he absolutely will go there. He will roast children alive. He’ll leave his heroes broken. He’ll tap dance on the grave of the world. A happy ending is not a right with King.

But beyond their similarities in style, the fact is that King and Cronenberg walk the same beat. Roughly speaking, King’s horror comes from three areas of unease (as he calls sources of horror in Danse Macabre): the corruption of the mind (The Shining, Carrie, Cell, The Dark Half); the corruption of the body (Salem’s Lot, Misery); and the corruption of the soul (Pet Sematary, Desperation, Needful Things). These are the exact three areas from which Cronenberg draws his sources of horror from (though the stringently Darwinist Cronenberg would probably prefer replacing the term "soul" with "mind").

He is most famous for the corruption of the body, certainly inventing and more or less dominating the genre of body horror despite not making a movie that could be termed such for over a decade. And it is of little wonder. No one who has ever seen “The Museum of Brundlefly,” or the birthing of the children of rage, or whatever it is that happens to James Woods in Videodrome has ever forgotten the images. But the more I think about it, the more I confess that I believe the body horror in Cronenberg to be an elaborate feint, a window dressing for his real obsession, that of the corruption of the mind.

I’ll admit I didn’t start thinking that way until I began writing this very piece and tried to pinpoint exactly were Cronenberg’s shift from the horror of the body to the horror of the mind began. His last two films dealt with two personalities housed in a single mind. But surely it began with Spider. His portrait of madness that concerned itself solely with the disintegration of a single mind. But wait, before that was eXistenZ and for all the teeth guns wasn’t that primarily about the power of the mind over the flesh, the power of the mind to imprison the body in layers upon layers of intractable information? Crash and M. Butterfly are so obviously concerned with mental aberration it hardly even seems worth mentioning. Naked Lunch is life through the filter of Burroughs, which has to be damn close to a dictionary definition of mental mutation. Dead Ringers is in a way the reverse of his later films, a single personality in two physical bodies. The Fly draws as much horror from Brundle’s mental deterioration as from his physical deterioration, as does Videodrome. Scanners is about physical aberration brought on by mental aberration, as is The Brood. Rabid focuses on Marilyn Chambers' Brundlefly-like deterioration, and They Came From Within is, as King himself quipped, “as much about Erica Jong’s ‘zipless fuck’ as it is about how you’d like to have a leech affix itself to your face.” There’s literally not a case where Cronenberg’s terror of the body takes precedent over his terror of the mind.

The Dead Zone is King’s synthesis of these areas of unease. It gapes in horror at both the untold depths of the mind, and the havoc they can wreck on the physical body. Far from being the unlikely fit that it first appeared as, it becomes impossible to see how The Dead Zone wouldn’t be fertile ground for Cronenberg.

The Dead Zone follows Johnny Smith, a high school teacher who awakens from a coma to find he now has psychic powers. After several misadventures (and it is to Cronenberg’s credit that the film never feels episodic even though it intrinsically is), he comes across the man who seems destined to start World War III.

Smith is played by Christopher Walken. It takes awhile to readjust our expectations of Walken back to versatile character actor, rather then entertaining caricature. Particularly as we’re first introduced to him reading "The Raven" in the same deadpan sing song cadence with which he so memorably immortalized Goodnight Moon on The Simpsons and the lyrics to "Poker Face" on German TV. But readjust we do, because Walken makes Smith a character of such apparent decency, though his weird charisma and pools of rage keep him from being the upright mannequin he easily could have been in the hands of a less idiosyncratic actor. Decency is a characteristic Walken is not often called on to display (a notable exception being Catch Me If You Can... perhaps not coincidently one of the few times in the past decade he’s played a recognizable human being), but he does so admirably.

The film does have some flaws, but they are the usual flaws of adaptation. Cronenberg cuts the book’s prologue and initial psychic incident, making the reveal of Smith’s talent considerably more abrupt. This is more problematic for the Stillson portions of the film, as it means the main antagonist doesn’t appear until a full two-thirds into the movie. Instead of hanging over the proceedings as a portent of doom for its entirety, Stillson shows up, announces, “Whelp, I’m crazy, and here to set the third act in motion.” It’s a shame because Sheen nails the character, giving the character a neocon swagger twenty years ahead of schedule; a shame because in the era of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, Stillson seems down right appealing. I mean sure, he wants to start a nuclear holocaust and uses a child as a human shield. But he can form a sentence that isn’t a hate crime against syntax, and that has got to count for something.

The action seems a bit telescoped, with every psychic event occurring right after the other, allowing none of the dread of waiting for the other shoe to drop that King builds into his novel. This is not entirely the film's fault as long scenes of existential dread do not fit readily into mainstream horror films, particularly those produced by Dino DeLaurentis. That said, the scenes themselves are so good that it becomes easy to get lost in them, no matter their arrangement. From the opening shot, The Dead Zone is a movie entirely in control of its tone. It’s interesting to note how clearly the opening scenes would echo A History Of Violence, images of American wholesomeness undercut by Howard Shore’s eerie score, the Cronenbergian void literally cutting transgression out of the peaceful landscape in what has to be one of the creepiest opening credits of all time. The trances are shot in the most straightforward way imaginable for psychic trances. Cronenberg treats them like reality, so they become reality, which isn’t to say that Cronenberg’s talent for arresting imagery goes unused. I for one haven’t been able to shake the scene of the boiling fishbowl erupting since seeing it.

The murder in the gazebo shows Cronenberg working in a key I’ve never seen him shoot in before and is, for my money, one of the most underrated suspense scenes of all time.

So much open space, so much light, we can see so far. Surely someone must see them. Surely someone must stop them. And in a cruel bit of trickery, we know the answer already.

There’s Dodd, now dressed almost exactly as Walken simultaneously foreshadowing and perverting Walken’s act of sacrifice.

The Dead Zone is as meticulous a film as Cronenberg has ever made. But unlike The Shining, where the meticulous itself was the end game, The Dead Zone serves the story it tells. The two artists who told it do not clash but synthesize, an action most familiar to viewers of Cronenberg.


Jay said...

Riffing on your thought about body horror. That wasn't Cronenberg's term. I don't think he coined it. It is what is applied by others.

As for the mind over matter vibe I get from your interpretation of his filmography, I think Cronenberg doesn't separate the mind from the body. There is no separation. There has always been horror of the mind and body as if there is only one.

Ratnakar Sadasyula said...

Great post on one of my favorite DC movies. I do love anything by Stephen King, and DC did a great job here.

But one thing here,regarding the Body Horror stuff for which Cron has often been credited. In DC's movies, the horror is something that comes from deep within. So in The Brood, it is the internal pain manifesting itself as external bruises.

Again in The Fly, the bodily transformation of Seth is first preceded by his mental transformation, as he turns into a super stud, energetic always, but not knowing that his "energy" would foreshadow the tragedy.

The Dead Zone to me had shades of Taxi Driver too, the protagonist obsessed with eliminating whom he sees as a major threat to society.

But most of all to me it also seemed a kind of statement against Super Heroism, where the Hero's gift turns out to be a Curse.

Was Cronenberg making some sort of statement here against people having Super Powers?

--- Ratnakar

Unknown said...

Great assessment on Walken's performance in this film. You would never expect it but he does a great job humanizing Johnny in such a way that you really feel for the guy and empathize with him and it makes the film's conclusion a tragic one steeped in melancholy. Yes, evil was vanquished but at what cost?

This was a fantastic look at this film and definitely one of THE best King adaptations.

SFF said...

A fascinating look at the Dead Zone which really contrasted with my own perceptions of it in some ways. I liked that it made me think differently about the film.

I never saw the King/ Cronenberg collaboration as different, but rather fairly natural.

So there were definitely elements in play here that made your analysis really interesting for me.

Also, it's really something to see the different takes, sometimes markedly different takes, on the films of Cronenberg, even on the same film. Great stuff.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Jay: Excellent Point. I'm a Christian, so I tend to think of the soul and body as separate entities in very definite terms. I can't subscribe to the idea that free will is merely a chemical reaction.

But The mind and the body are intricately tied in Cronberg's films and mutation in one, is usually marked by mutation in the other. Still in some cases there does seem to be a very definite separation between the two, particularly in Dead Ringers and his later work.

@ SciFi Fanatic: Thanks for the kind words man, and I agree, this has been one hell of a blogothon.

@Scorpius: Excellent point on the Taxi Driver comparison. I don't know if Cronenberg is "against" superheroes, he always seems rather excited about The New Flesh. I think he just acknowledges that evolution is a fundamentally very messy process.

@ JD: I completely agree. Infact, I can't think of one I like better (Though The Mist comes awfully close).

Tony Dayoub said...

In my closing Blogathon post on SPIDER, I compared it to this film in many respects. Particularly interesting to me is how Cronenberg revives the film technique of placing the protagonist inside his mindscape, the difference being Spider's is completely unreliable, whereas Johnnie's seems to be just the opposite.