Johnny Smith awakens from a five-year coma to discover he has psychic abilities. After helping a small-town Sheriff catch a serial killer, Johnny is convinced that crusading politician Greg Stillson is a potential danger to the world.
One of a wave of Stephen King adaptations from the early 1980s, this was a step towards the mainstream for weirdo auteur David Cronenberg. It has some of that episodic ‘compressed miniseries’ feel which a lot of King pictures get stuck with (the book was later redone as a TV serial with Anthony Michael Hall) but still manages a lot of powerful material.
Walken has one of his signature roles as stiff-legged outsider Johnny Smith, alienated by the loss of his entire life (his girlfriend Brooke Adams has married someone else) who foresees disasters wherever he goes. There’s a mini-psycho picture as Smith helps the cops in King’s small town of Castle Rock root out the killer in their midst, which prompts the film’s few straight shock sequences (a scissors suicide, a mad performance from Colleen Dewhurst as the monster’s mother), but the dramatic meat of the piece comes when Johnny tangles with up-and-coming politico Stillson, a folksy homicidal maniac who now looks horribly like a young George W. Bush.
Cronenberg gets a lot out of the wintery Canadian locations passed off as King’s haunted Maine, and works hard with his actors – weaving between the s-f/horror stuff is a great deal of underplayed emotion, especially in the heartbreaking business between Walken and the underrated Adams. Familiar supporting players like Skerritt, Herbert Lom and Anthony Zerbe – who are usually asked to turn up and read their lines – get a little more meat, and rise to the occasion. And West Wing fans who think Sheen ought to be President should check out his political villainy here.
Cronenburg attempting a little mainstream with this Stephen King yarn and really pulling it off.