The Dead Zone and(Paramount Home Entertainment, 9.26.2006)
If anyone ever tries to generalize about Stephen King films, slap them. There are simply too many -- around 100, by the internet movie database's count -- for any meaningful generalization to be made. For every skillful, stylized horror film (Carrie, The Shining, Misery), there's a well-crafted, horror-free drama (Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, Dolores Claiborne). For every worthwhile made-for-TV adaptation (Tobe Hooper's version of Salem's Lot, It, the first half of Desperation), there's a low rent, made-for-TV dud (The Langoliers, The Stand, the second half of Desperation). For every watchable, no frills adaptation (Cujo, Firestarter, Cat's Eye, The Dark Half), there's an unwatchable mess with little-if-any-connection to its source material (Graveyard Shift, Sometimes They Come Back, The Lawnmower Man, The Mangler). Plus, there's a whole slew of hit-and-miss films that fit in multiple categories, including Creepshow, Christine, Children of the Corn, The Running Man, Needful Things, Apt Pupil, and the unfairly maligned Sleepwalkers. And that barely scratches the surface.
Truth be told, the cinematic oeuvre of Stephen King is terrible, incredible, and everything in between. There's no better evidence of that than Paramount's new Stephen King box set, which includes new special editions of The Dead Zone and Pet Sematary, alongside repackaged, bare bones editions of Silver Bullet and Graveyard Shift. With a new slate of extras, The Dead Zone and Pet Sematary are the only discs in the set worthy of review, but I'd like to quickly draw attention to the horrible new covers that Paramount has given all four.
Aping the format of your standard paperback reissue, these covers are all about the words "Stephen" and "King." More importantly, they obscure the style and substance of each film, presumably in the hope of reaching a more general audience. This may be a sound marketing strategy, but it's worth noting that the old covers -- which weren't that great to begin with -- are vastly superior to the new ones.
Of the categories mentioned above, The Dead Zone fits somewhere between "skillful, stylized horror film" and "watchable, no frills adaptation." It's an extremely engaging, disciplined film, but it's not original or challenging in the way that director David Cronenberg's best films (ie. Videodrome, Spider) typically are. As Cronenberg notes in one of the featurettes on this disc, The Dead Zone was a director-for-hire gig, conceived primarily as a showcase for the talents of Stephen King. In addition, the film was scripted by Jeffrey Boam, limiting Cronenberg's creative input to his contributions as director (a similar approach was repeated in his slightly more hands-on and personal followup, The Fly). Thankfully, Cronenberg delivered much more effectively as a gun-for-hire here than in last year's heavy-handed, schematic, and wildly overrated A History of Violence.
If there are 10 levels to the hierarchy of Stephen King films -- 10 being the best, 1 being the worst -- The Dead Zone is a 7 or 8. Made with the far less sure directorial hand of "Like a Virgin" director Mary Lambert, Pet Sematary is closer to a 5. But that's not necessarily an insult. It's just another way of saying that, while roughly half of Stephen King's films are better than Pet Sematary, roughly half are worse.
Marred by a TV-movie-level cast, the film is almost singlehandedly redeemed by the Robert De Niro of late '80s/early '90s child actors, Miko Hughes. Although Miko received far more acclaim for his later work (Kindergarten Cop, Wes Craven's New Nightmare), his first role was the role of a lifetime. As De Niro himself once said, "Gage Creed was Miko Hughes's Jake LaMotta." And all he got was a lousy Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films nomination (for "outstanding performance by an actor under nine years of age"). As Gage Creed would say, "no fair!"
Both discs include an impressive -- if incomplete -- selection of extras. While The Dead Zone includes over 40 minutes of engaging new featurettes, Christopher Walken is sadly missing-in-action. The other unfortunate omission is the absence of a commentary by the usually pro-commentary Cronenberg. This may have something to do with his lack of involvement in the writing process but, thankfully, he offers illuminating and thoughtful comments in all the featurettes. The highlight of the extras (on both discs), however, is Stephen King biographer Douglas E. Winter, providing the kind of background and detail that even King might forget if he were on-hand (which he isn't).
Actually, to be fair, King does make several appearances in some infommercial-looking footage on the Pet Sematary disc. I don't know where this material was discovered -- the original EPK? -- but it's relevant and actually quite memorable. Running approximately 36 minutes in total, the Pet Sematary featurettes are a little bit shorter than The Dead Zone featurettes, but the disc includes the added bonus of a commentary (by director Mary Lambert).
Again, the featurettes on this disc are entertaining and worthwhile, but with a few problems: 1) the participants seem to respect the film a bit more than it deserves (admittedly, a subjective call) and 2) Miko is nowhere to be seen. From what I can gather online, Miko (now 20-years-old) is still keeping busy with acting and his one true love: beekeeping. If the picture below is any indication, he might also be a private eye.
All joking aside, if you're looking to pad your Stephen King (or Miko Hughes) DVD collection, these discs are priced fairly and worth the upgrade. As for Paramount's Stephen King box set, it's basically a buy-three-get-one-free proposition, but I'd recommend buying the three worthwhile films individually, rather than pollute your collection with the bottom-of-the-barrel Graveyard Shift (a level 1 King film, if ever there was one). Of course, if you like those new covers, you might want to take the plunge. -- Jonathan Doyle