Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) was a schoolteacher who had his life planned out, as everything was going well, especially regarding his girlfriend Sarah (Brooke Adams) who was also a teacher at his school. One Friday after class was over and he had assigned his pupils to read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, he took Sarah out to the local carnival where they had a go on the rollercoaster, but while they were enjoying themselves Johnny had an odd turn. He put it down to the speed of the ride, and took her home, but did not go inside to spend the night - there was always tomorrow.
Ah, but you never know what might be around the corner was one of the messages of The Dead Zone, the David Cronenberg adaptation of one of Stephen King's best books, which he took on as a director of someone else's script, not something he had done before. For that reason his fans tended to be rather disappointed that his work here was notably less transgressive than what he had conjured up in the first phase of his career, so while it was still a horror movie there was much less extreme in its chills than those aficionados were used to. This in spite of a combination of two titans of the shocker genre.
But looking at it now you can see why Cronenberg took it on, as it enabled him to explore a different side to his style, and that was most obvious in the manner that a deep, heavy sadness weighed on the film. What happens to Johnny is bad enough, but what happens next threatens to break him: on the way home from Sarah's, after putting off consummating their relationship, he is in a serious car accident which lands him in a coma - for five long years. When he wakes up he has lost his job, everyone has moved on, and most heartbreakingly he has lost Sarah, who has since got married and had a baby. So where is Johnny's place in the world now that so much has been taken away?
That sense of missing out feeds into the growing theme of making up for the opportunities lost, though obviously that would not turn out quite as drastic for most people as it does for Johnny. For a man who has been away from the world for such a length of time, he continues to shun society after his recovery moves on apace (though he still has to walk with a stick), but a newfound side effect of the coma is that he has a psychic ability now. All he need do is hold someone's hand tightly and he can see an important image from their life: past or future. After saving a nurse's child from a fire in that way, he becomes a minor celebrity, but is so upset about the way things have turned out, even though Sarah goes to see him, that he is happier to let the rest continue to pass him by.
The King novel didn't seem quite as episodic on the page, yet at times the film feels like an anthology featuring the same central character, so little wonder this was adapted into a television series around twenty years later. Those stories include Herbert Lom as Johnny's doctor finding out through him his mother is still alive, the tentative rekindling of the relationship with Sarah which he knows can go nowhere now, and more substantially tracking down a serial killer when Tom Skerritt's Sheriff pleads for help in the case, the tutoring of the son of millionaire Anthony Zerbe, and the part everyone recalls, the final act where Johnny realises senate candidate Martin Sheen could actually become President, a move which would spell disaster. Of course, a more proactive stance in your existence and doing something to assist your fellow man grows more intense with each of these episodes, but the chilly, wintry location Cronenberg used never makes this over the top. It might not be his flashiest work, but he demonstrated great skill and sympathy used to best effect in The Fly. Music by Michael Kamen.
Highly regarded Canadian writer/director who frequently combines intellectual concerns with genre subjects. Began directing in the late-70s with a series of gruesome but socially aware horror thrillers, such as Shivers, Rabid and The Brood. 1981's Scanners was Cronenberg's commercial breakthrough, and if the hallucinatory Videodrome was box office flop, it remains one of the finest films of his career. The sombre Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone and the hugely successful remake of The Fly followed.
The disturbing Dead Ringers (1988) was a watershed film, based for the first time entirely in reality and featuring a career-best performance from Jeremy Irons. The 1990s saw Cronenberg in uncompromising form, adapting a pair of "unfilmable" modern classics - Burrough's Naked Lunch and Ballard's Crash - in typically idiosyncratic style. M. Butterfly was something of a misfire, but eXistenZ surprised many by being fast-moving and funny, while 2002's powerful Spider saw Cronenberg at his most art-house.