Needful Things (1993)



Main Cast: Max Von Sydow and Ed Harris

Director: Fraser C. Heston

I just CAN’T with this movie. To be fair, though, I felt the same way about the book. I first read Stephen King’s Needful Things when it was published in 1991 during a week of inactivity due to blood poisoning from a spider bite. Unfortunately, this 690 page giant didn’t do anything to alleviate my boredom. What does the movie have that the book didn’t? This only took 2 hours to bore me.

In the 1993 Needful Things movie, written by W. D. Richter and directed by Fraser C. Heston, Max Von Sydow plays Leland Gaunt who may or may not be the devil. Gaunt has opened a new shop in Castle Rock called Needful Things, where shoppers are very likely to find the object they crave most in the world. For the first customer, 11-year-old Brian Rusk, it’s a 1956 Mickey Mantle baseball card to round out the collection he started with his dad. Brian only has $0.95 to offer Gaunt, and the old man takes it, offering to take the balance out in trade. If Brian does a little thing for Gaunt, they’re square. It’s just a little prank. No one will ever know it was Brian. All he has to do is throw mud on the clean sheets of a local woman.

The local woman, Wilma Jerzyck, thinks the deed was done by Nettie Cobb (Amanda Plummer putting on the WORST accent of her career) after Wilma threatened Nettie’s dog. So back in town, Wilma harasses Nettie at the diner where she works.

Meanwhile Sheriff Alan Pang born (Ed Harris) is trying to propose to his girlfriend Polly Chalmers (Bonny Bedelia). Polly’s arthritis has been pretty terrible lately, but Leland Gaunt has something that might help with that. Hugh Priest longs for his glory days, but Leland Gaunt has something that might help with that. Selectman Danforth Keeton (JT Walsh) has lost $20,000 of the town’s money gambling on horse races, but Leland Gaunt has something that might help with that. Nettie Cobb sees a figurine in the store that’s just like one she used to own before her abusive husband broke it. Leland Gaunt will sell it to her cheap, if she promises to do a little favor for him.

Round and round it goes until soon the entire town is at each other’s throats, and Alan Pangborn, the one man in town whom Gaunt couldn’t tempt, is stuck in the middle of it.

Admittedly, I guess the plot does show some promise of a great experience, but the finished product just doesn’t live up to that promise at all.

Screenwriter W. D Richter has done some great things in the genre over the years (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dracula, Big Trouble in Little China), but it couldn’t have been an easy task compressing King’s original novel with its dozens of characters into something digestible for 1993 moviegoers. So he’s got my sympathy. But still. This is just a hard movie to get behind. The characters he’s chosen to adapt from book to movie are about as cliché and stereotypical as one can find, and none of them have any depth whatsoever. While it was easy to SEE the strings Gaunt was pulling, I just didn’t care about them because I didn’t care about the characters. Not even a little.

And director Fraser Heston didn’t help matters by filming a “horror” movie as an opera and setting it to “Ave Maria” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. “Mountain King” is too light and faux mischievous for such subject matter and it belies the seriousness of the story, while “Ave Maria” doesn‘t contain the right kind of darkness this story demands. Obviously Heston was having fun with this movie, but fun was NOT the order of the day here. The opportunities for a story about the devil manipulating an entire town into killing one another were plentiful. But Heston’s vision was simply too grand for his skills to pull off and instead what we get is a silly mess of a movie. I’m not scared by this premise. And I should be!

Also, come on, man, you couldn’t pick a few more original songs than “Ave Maria” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King”??? Really?

But at this point, we have to return to the novel. Because, as I said, I wasn’t impressed with this one the first time I encountered it, and that was under the mastery of King himself. How can a subpar novel possibly fair as a movie when made by a man who had done so little up to that point? I mean think about it. The successful King movies were made by directors who really knew their stuff. De Palma had 16 years under his belt when he made Carrie. Kubrick had almost 30, and had already made 2001 and A Clockwork Orange. Cronenberg had almost 20 years in the game and was just coming off a winning horror streak of The Brood, Scanners and Videodrome when he made The Dead Zone, and was on his way to The Fly and Dead Ringers. John Carpenter had just made Escape from New York and The Thing when he tackled King’s Christine. These are directors who knew exactly what they wanted and exactly how to get it. These are records you can’t dispute. So why give what was, at the time, one of the biggest King novels, thematically, to a director whose biggest claim to fame at that point was being the son of Charlton Heston? Give him The Running Man or Children of the Corn. Give him something simple.

Properly adapting this massive book with its staggering cast of characters and its over-complicated plot was definitely going to take the hand of a much more seasoned director.

Then again, my actual advice would have been not to bother making it, but it had King’s name on it, so I think we all know that wasn’t going to happen.

Let’s face it. We’re smack in the middle of a very low period for Stephen King adaptations, and we’ve got a few more titles to go before we pull ourselves, only very briefly, out of it, before sinking right back down where we’re going to stay for a while. Needful Things is not the worst of the worst. If nothing else, Ed Harris really seems to be trying to make something of this mess, and it’s impossible, for me, to not love JT Walsh (who played “Buster” Keeton) in everything he was in before his too-soon death a few years later. And for all the silliness of this story, Max Von Sydow turned in a really great performance as the evil Leland Gaunt. And there is the ultimate bright side: somewhere out there is a three hour version of this movie, but it’s the two hour version that most of us will ever have access to. That’s got to count for something, huh? Another hour of top of the mess I just watched? Now THAT would be torture.

I had middling hopes the first time I saw this movie, only a couple of years after not being impressed with the book, and even that had been too much to ask. But a second viewing 20 years later and I’m even more convinced Needful Things is one of the forgettable ones. Hell, I wonder if even King himself remembers this one. This one was made for the name, because at one time, a book with King’s name on the spine also needed a movie to go along with it. They got what they got and hopefully, when all was said and done, everyone involved went home and put it out of their minds and got on with their lives, just like I’m gonna do any minute now.

King on Film
1976-1992 (Carrie to Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice)

The Dark Half (1993)
The Tommy knockers (1993)

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