Moving Pictures
Jul 11, 2023, 06:26AM

The Dead Zone Movie Sucks

So does this cartoon about hair.

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I just saw the Rotten Tomatoes score for The Dead Zone (1983). Believe me, those people are crazy—that thing’s a bore. Stephen King’s lively paperback sprawler gets pared down to a series of chilly postcards featuring underlit living room interiors with a person or two sitting in them. Not interiors of much note when it comes to composition or set decoration; they’re just places for the close-ups to be parked, and the close-ups aren’t much either. David Cronenberg directed himself 103 tight, turgid minutes that add up to a frozen pucker of a movie, a desolate skin flap where something living and whole ought to be.

On the Internet you can find a quote where King says the screenplay gave his story more punch. I think he was being polite. Everything about this movie brought the story down, an elk gummed by dogs that were toothless but somehow deadly. Martin Sheen’s performance features what is almost a Southern accent. Brooke Adams reminds you how often a woman star’s job is just to be there; she presents her cheekbones and the story moves on. Christopher Walken, as the lead, seems like a refrigerator hum. Now a beloved pet oddity, the venerable star was once occasionally an actor; this wasn’t one of the occasions.

Weighty and perfunctory at the same time, the Dead Zone movie shows it’s serious by acting serious, which means acting glum. Those poor people freezing their knees while the winter light creeps in—they’re taking part in a tense psychological study, an introspective examination of… Ha, no. The movie’s not quite two hours of well-mannered nothing punctuated by uh-duh indications that at last here’s something big happening (the eye popping, the mouth O’ing, the shattered vase). Tense psychological studies featuring winter light do exist. But this is a counterfeit, and too bad King’s novel had to be juiced down to make it happen. One especially regrets the loss of everything that made the book distinctive, starting with the narrative voice and the wealth of incidental detail. One also regrets the nonpresence of any compensating virtues to make up for the loss. No pace, no suspense, just Walken’s voice getting louder when required (“The ice! Is going to break!”). Gratefully, one looks at his hair: in the later scenes it’s like a Versailles fountain, reaching upward and outward as he recites his dialogue. Here we have the single point where the movie gives instead of takes, embroiders instead of flattens. So much else is gone, but this prodigy has arrived.

Speaking of which…  “But I wish more people understood the complicated relationship I have with my hair.” A waterdrop matches the mist, this quote matches our times. It’s from a cartoon [https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2023/07/09/my-curly-hair-didnt-meet-korean-beauty-standards-so-i-shaved-it-off/] that ran in the Sunday Washington Post’s lifestyle section. Apparently The New Yorker has started a trend for MSM publication of offbeat, personal comic strips by youngish artists, so now a Post perspective piece may also be a descending series of rectangles bearing whimsical, pale-tinted adequacy (if I may sound a Llewellyn Sinclair sort of note). This piece is by a Korean woman who lives in Brooklyn. She’s an artist and wants to share one of her life’s little ins-and-outs, and naturally we start seeing faux-naif refrigerator-door drawings of her hipster friends, followed by something about beauty standards and “For a teenager, being different is daunting.” The piece seems bent on being typical, specifically of our era’s more commercially successful art cartoons and the brand of received wisdom preferred by their creators and audience.

I made myself scroll to the end and it turns out the artist is now happy with her hair. But getting there was a trial, for her and me.


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