As I’ve done in past Halloween seasons, have written some appreciative pieces for a few opening titles sequences involving cinema’s darker fare. Today, it’s for one of my all-time favorite film adaptations of a Stephen King novel, The Dead Zone by David Cronenberg. While the film’s inception is not lengthy as Prince of Darkness, or impressionistic as Sleepy Hallow, nor even musically fanciful like the Dark Shadows remake, this one richly imbued the film with another vibe.
And that is a distinct and wholly human sense of sadness, care of the emotional undertow brought about by the segment’s imagery, its title graphics, and especially the music that fills it. In the years since its late-’70s publication, a turbulent period to say the least, I feel some have forgotten this novel by the author, which would be unfortunate. It was one of the King’s best and had a more than worthy movie translation1. From the author’s web site:
“Waking up from a five-year coma after a car accident, former schoolteacher Johnny Smith discovers that he can see people’s futures and pasts when he touches them. Many consider his talent a gift; Johnny feels cursed. His fiance married another man during his coma and people clamor for him to solve their problems. When Johnny has a disturbing vision after he shakes the hand of an ambitious and amoral politician, he must decide if he should take drastic action to change the future.”
It begins quietly enough after the venerable Paramount Studio logo drifts past and the initial notes to its stellar theme2 comes up. Following the appearance of the uninvolving titles for Dino de Laurentiis and film, graphic designers Richard Greenberg and Wayne Fitzgerald (uncredited) will begin a slow reveal and accord it a sense of foreboding. Interspersing photograph stills, some of which are the locations used in the film, with the credits that build to what the segment truly centered on.
Whilst each frame fades into the next — instilling a sense of gentle recall to the proceedings like pictures being turned in a memory book — here things waywardly shift and are not as irenic as they seem:
“Black shards slowly fade in, superimposed on scenes of placid suburban homes. The pieces are eerie, disjointed, coming into view in a puzzling way. The negative space of the title typography instills a sense of slow encroachment, straddling that grey area between what’s present and what’s just beyond our grasp.
Throughout the ’80s, Title Designer Richard Greenberg often used type in this way, both as structure and as obstruction, typographically setting the tone for the film’s motifs. The titles for David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone are a kind of parallel–inverse of an earlier technique used in 1980’s Alien. Those titles feature a disjointed version of Helvetica Black, imbuing the opening with a sense of unease. The letters are broken into pieces, the space between them unsettling.”
It not only exposed the film’s title in a more dramatic presentation but hinted via its graphics what would happen to the main character in the story. Keenly, Johnny’s cognizance being inevitably taken away from him, and articulated by negative space. The serene stills, representative of his New England life, now pushed to the background by that. All replaced by fragments of blackness. Slowly, his pre-coma existence literally and typographically transformed into its title: The Dead Zone.
While there are other constructed title sequences that heavily involve typeface, few conveyed a sense of forfeiture as done here. Negative space removes elements of an image yet can reveal another. It evokes unease by taking away things yet adds mystery and conjure emotions of longing or loss by their removal. By cleverly deploying this elegant artistic technique, the title designers delivered a somber outcome and allegory as a result.
This no doubt all suffused by one of great and mournful film scores and themes, ever, done by the late composer, Michael Kamen. The Oscar-nominated3 scorer, conductor, and arranger, who’d work directly with a number of rock stars4, produced one of the more mournful bits of music for a film. And if it feels familiar, it’s Kamen’s variation on a theme from the second movement of the Symphony Nr. 2 in D by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).
All told, in less than three minutes one of the more graceful and meaningful title sequences, which fit the storyline beautifully, was rendered.
- Stephen King’s written material screen translations vary in quality and controversy (reference The Shining). ↩
- Couldn’t help but notice the similar notes used at the start of the Silence of the Lambs theme by Howard Shore in its opening titles sequence recalls Michael Kamen‘s somewhat. ↩
- The Dead Zone one of his earliest scores, and would go on to do the Lethal Weapon series, the Edge of Darkness TV series in the U.K., Highlander, Die Hard 2 and Die Hard with a Vengeance, among others. ↩
- He co-wrote songs with Bryan Adams, was musical director on David Bowie‘s Diamond Dogs tour, and did a breakthrough score with 1987’s Lethal Weapon, which was initially deployed in that film’s titles sequence, in collaboration with Eric Clapton. ↩