Bad Movie Wednesday

One of a continuing series

Here’s an old one from 1983, and it’s not so bad. There are obvious flaws and considerable prescience evident. I will explain later. It’s The Dead Zone, based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name. It’s from Paramount Pictures, currently streaming on  Amazon Prime Video. Details are from Wikipedia.

This is about psychic powers, to be expected from Stephen King. We see high school English teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) giving his final lecture, only he doesn’t realize it yet. He finishes reading The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, and promises to get into The Legend of Sleepy Hollow next time. Then he meets up with teacher and lover Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams), and they head off for an afternoon riding a roller coaster before heading back to Sarah’s house for some serious necking. But the ride has put Johnny off his stride, and he declines Sarah’s offer of sexual delights, vowing to save it for after their marriage. Quaint, to say the least, and nearly fatal.

On the drive home Johnny encounters a character that makers of Pet Sematary sought to use six years later. It’s the careless truck driver, shown in multiple flashes as catastrophe draws ever nearer. Sure enough, it’s a tanker truck, and the driver jackknives it in front of Johnny’s little car. Fortunately it’s only carrying milk. Unfortunately Johnny is unable to avoid clipping the end of the skidding trailer.

Five years later Johnny awakes from a coma in the Weizak Clinic, operated by Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom). Sarah has already married somebody else and has a child, a device later used in Cast Away, not by Stephen King.

But something has happened to Johnny during his coma. He has developed psychic powers. When he clasps the nurse’s hand he gets a vision of her young daughter home alone with the house on fire. The fire department is summoned in time to rescue the child. People start to wonder about Johnny.

Grasping Dr. Weizak’s hand, Johnny sees back to the time of the German invasion of Poland in 1939, when Sam’s mother gave him up to a wagon loaded with refugees, sacrificing herself. But Johnny tells Dr. Weizak that his mother is still alive. He tells him where she is now. Dr. Weizak phones and hears the voice of his mother.

Johnny’s mother dies, and Johnny goes home to live with his father. Sarah comes to visit while Johnny’s father is out. She brings along her child, and while the child is sleeping she unbuttons her blouse to give Johnny what she intended to give him five years before. It turns out to be the only pussy Johnny ever gets in his life.

But there is a series of crimes in Castle Rock, Maine (Stephen King is from Maine). Young women and girls are being raped and murdered. It’s a plague that’s been going on for over three years. Can Johnny help? Finally he agrees, and he goes to the scene where the body of a young waitress has been found on a snow-swept gazebo. Johnny removes her mitten and holds her bare hand. He sees the crime being committed. He sees the stalker lure a woman he knows up onto the gazebo. He sees the attack. He sees the killer’s face. It’s the sheriff’s deputy.

Johnny goes with the sheriff to the deputy’s house, where the deputy kills himself with the same scissors he used on his victims. But the deputy’s mother shoots Johnny, and the sheriff kills the mother.

Recovered again, Johnny has a talk with Dr. Weizak, who tells him about verified cases of psychic abilities and about a dead zone. Hence the title. Johnny must abstain from psychic activity, else it will consume his life, and he will die.

Johnny moves to another town and becomes a private tutor. One client is Roger Stuart (Anthony Zerbe) a man of great wealth who has a son who isolates himself from others. What the boy tells Johnny is revealing. It’s the father who lives in isolation. The day Johnny first comes to the Stuart home he is introduced to a campaigning politician named Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen). He also meets Stillson’s creepy henchman, Sonny Elliman (Géza Kovács). Stillson gives the appearance of evil personified. He is power mad and grasping, and nothing will stand in his way. Here is where Stephen King is remarkably prescient. We all know that Stephen King is no fan (understatement alert) of Donald Trump, and Stillson is a remarkable take on politician Trump. After the sinister duo leaves, Stuart tells Johnny he should register to vote, and he should vote against Stillson.

The son makes great progress under Johnny tutelage, but one day Johnny touches him and foresees a future tragedy, as the boy and another fall through the ice in a hockey game on a pond. He demands the hockey tournament Stuart has planned be canceled. Instead Stuart dismisses Johnny and tells his son the game must go on. The boy refuses to play, and the next day the newspaper announces the tragedy of two boys drowning after crashing through the ice at the hockey game.

Surprise. There is a Stillson rally scheduled across the street from where Johnny is living, and Sarah and her new husband show up to hand out Stillson campaign literature. Johnny decides to attend the rally and to meet Stillson again.

He does, and he shake hands with Stillson and sees the future. He see’s Stillson, now President of the United States, awake in the middle of the night with a sudden vision that he must launch nuclear missiles to settle an international dispute. He forces his military commander under threat of violence to submit his hand print to approve the launch.

Johnny talks to Dr. Weizak and confirms that had Weizak known of future events, he would have killed Adolf Hitler. Johnny determines he must kill Stillson. He sneaks into a campaign rally and secretes himself in an upper balcony.

When Stillson takes the stage, with Sarah, holding her child nearby, Johnny rises up to take the shot. But Sarah spots him in the balcony and calls out to him. Stillson turns aside, and Johnny’s shot misses. What comes next is the killer scene. Stillson reveals his true self. He grabs Sarah’s child and holds him up to protect himself from Johnny’s next shot. Sonny shoots Johnny, who lies dying as Stillson leans over him demanding to know who he is. Johnny has one last vision. It’s the future cover of Newsweek showing the image above and carrying the caption “No Future For Stillson.” He sees a pistol lying on the magazine cover, and he sees Stillson picking up the pistol and placing it under his chin. There is a shot, and Stillson’s blood spatters the cover. Johnny tells Stillson, “It’s over. You’re finished.”

Stillson and Sonny leave the auditorium on bad terms, and Johnny dies in Sarah’s arms.

And that is that. What to make of it?

Letting slide the matter of psychic abilities, Weizak’s claim that there are verified cases of psychic abilities is false. But then, this is fiction.

Then there is the opening scene. English scholar Johnny Smith tells his student The Raven is a great work of poetry. It is not. Poe was a great word smith but not a recognized poet. No critical review give The Raven marks as significant poetry.

Five years in a coma, and we are told Johnny has suffered some physical debilitation. The movie shows a man in remarkable condition for having just come out of a five-year coma.

Sarah comes by to visit Johnny and to swap some DNA. It’s an interesting interlude, but it is not relevant to the plot.

Yeah, no real military commander is going to  allow a lunatic President coerce him into participating in a mass murder. Think what you will of our guys, but they are really made of sterner stuff.

The final scene is  totally contrived. A man with a rifle tries to shoot a political candidate in an auditorium full of people and is, in turn, shot to death. And everybody leaves the room so Sarah can have last, tender moments with Johnny. Really? In real life there would be law enforcement all over in 15 seconds. This was directed by David Cronenberg, who takes full responsibility for the absurdity. Producer Dino De Laurentiis is on the hook for lack of management oversight.

We see Stillson as an egomaniac of the lowest character, threatening and bullying in his climb to power. It’s as though 38 years ago (the book came out in 1979) Stephen King envisioned the rise of Donald Trump. Only, in the case of Trump, holding up a baby as a shield would not have dissuaded his loyal base. Nice try, Stephen.

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One thought on “Bad Movie Wednesday

  1. Pingback: Bad Movie Wednesday | Skeptical Analysis

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