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KING'S CORNER: Needful Things (1993)

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

Needful Things - King's Corner Review


Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.


We all have that something we really want. Something unattainable that we desire above all else. What if all that could change in an instant? What if one simple deed could grant you your obsession. The question shifts from what to how as you have to ask yourself, how far am I willing to go to get what I want? Would you be willing to sell your soul to the devil himself? These are the questions at the heart of Stephen King's 1991 novel 'Needful Things'.


Director: Fraser C. Heston

Starring: Ed Harris, Max von Sydow, Bonnie Bedelia, Amanda Plummer, J.T. Walsh


Written by: W. D. Richter

Produced by: Jack Cummins

Cinematography by: Tony Westman

Original Score by: Patrick Doyle


Synopsis:

A mysterious new shop opens in a small town which always seems to stock the deepest desires of each shopper, with a price far heavier than expected.

Thoughts:

The origins of the novel stem from the excesses of 1980's America under Ronald Reagan. According to Stephen King.com it was a time when, "greed was good and that hypocrisy was simply another tool for getting along. It was the last hurrah for cigarettes, unsafe sex, and all sorts of drugs. It was the final corruption of the Love and Peace Generation--The Big Cop-out--and I thought it was a case of having to laugh." With everything for sale (including one's soul) he decided to write a satire which condensed the 80's to a small town in America but it was no ordinary small town. It was to be set in the iconic town of Castle Rock where previous stories like 'Cujo' and 'The Dead Zone' were set.



King wanted Needful Things to serve as "The Last Castle Rock Story" as he viewed it as a way to depart from supernatural horror in his writing. Although this proved to not be the case, the grand novel began with a simple idea. In an interview with Fangoria magazine King said, "for a long time, I worked with just simply one image... a little boy throwing mud at sheets. And I knew whoever came home and discovered the mud on the sheets was going to think that somebody else did it." This simple idea conjured up a novel about temptation, obsession and small town paranoia which stands as one of King's most underrated works.


After the success of adapting King's novella 'The Body' into 'Stand By Me', Rob Reiner's production company Castle Rock Entertainment lined up 'Needful Things' as their next King related project. Peter Yates was originally hired to helm the project but was later replaced by Charlton Heston's son, Fraser Heston. It was to be his debut feature and was released months after the ill fated mini series adaptation of 'The Tommyknockers'. Ironically the film's original cut ran 4 hours long and there were discussions that it could be split into like a miniseries. In an interview with the website, Lilja's Library King compared the two by saying, "as a four-hour miniseries, it works. When edited down to 'movie length', it is almost indecipherable because it doesn't have time to tell all the stories and do all the setups."



The film opens with some autumnal sweeping shots of Castle Rock establishing it as the prototype for a mid American town. The evolution of Castle Rock on screen is an interesting one as each film seems to take place predominantly during one season for a specific reason. 'Cujo' is set in the summer to increase the stakes of Donna and Tad's situation as they are trapped in a boiling hot car with no water. 'The Dead Zone' is set during the winter, not only to give us the immortal line, "the ice is gonna break" but to reflect the cold emotional state of Johnny after his accident strips him of almost everything including the one he loves. The autumn setting for 'Needful Things' evokes Halloween, a time for devilish mischief, when the barrier between our world and the Otherworld are at its weakest allowing someone like Leland Gaunt to slip through. The music played over these shots further enhances this feeling as it is like a cross between Jerry Goldsmith's work on 'The Omen' and Danny Elfman's score for 'Beetlejuice' . It sets the scene nicely so full credit to Patrick Doyle for his contribution in setting the scene.

Driving into town in his black 1958 Mercedes Benz we are introduced to the enigmatic Leland Gaunt, who sets up an antiques store known as Needful Things. This introduction as the car roars through the rural leaf strewn roads of Castle Rock has an aura of Ray Bradbury's 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' building anticipation as to what he is going to do in town. For this kind of film the casting of Gaunt is crucial and thankfully Max von Sydow is perfect in the role. A far cry from his performance as Jesus Christ in 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' it reaffirms his range. The way in which he manipulates the residents of Castle Rock to do his bidding for his amusement is terrific as his direct yet polite manner tinged with suggestion allows him to get what he wants by offering the people of the town what they want. You can tell von Sydow had a ball playing the role as the playful manner he delivers one liners under his breath is executed with relish making it a joy to watch for audiences. As quoted in the book 'Stephen King at the Movies' von Sydow says, "I knew instantly that portraying him would be an actor's delight". Like the book this performance as Gaunt has to be one of the most underrated from a villain in any media associated with King's work.



With Gaunt setting up shop we are then introduced to the people of Castle Rock. One of the first people we meet is the town sheriff Alan Pangborn (played by Ed Harris) who was previously played by Michael Rooker in 'The Dark Half'. He takes a different approach to the character as he is looking for a simple life, as a career as a city cop has left him jaded, but Gaunt's arrival draws out that part of him. This cynicism creeps forth now and again with one example coming from a moment he splits up a fight between two townspeople saying, "everyone is insane everywhere". He initially tries to be a voice of reason over the mounting tensions in the town but he too gets pushed to the brink by Gaunt's manipulations. Harris plays this well with his trademark gruff intensity complete with exasperation at the situation.



Opposite Harris is Bonnie Bedelia as Pangborn's fiancé Polly Chambers who is afflicted with arthritis. She is quite good in the role but her character seems to be more of a plot device than anything else. Other noteworthy performances come from the likes of J. T. Walsh as the corrupt boat salesman Danforth "Buster" Keeton III who is the embodiment of Gaunt's work as he becomes increasingly unhinged in his desperation throughout until the explosive finale. Walsh conveys equal amounts of confusion and enjoyment in his actions, brilliantly making for an eye catching performance. Amanda Plummer as the shy diner worker and domestic violence victim Netitia "Nettie" Cobb also stands out as someone whose vulnerability is taken advantage of for Gaunt's entertainment. The way she shyly hides away from her violent inclinations before unleashing them in one of the film's main set pieces is excellent. Heston as director alongside writer W. D. Richter does a good job at establishing other townspeople but feels almost hindered by the film's runtime as they are never fully fleshed out.

One thing the film does well is establishing the various rivalries and grudges in the town like Nettie and local turkey farmer Wilma Wadlowski Jerzyck (played by Valri Bromfield) or between Father Meehan (played by W. Morgan Sheppard) and Reverend Willie Rose (played by Don S. Davis). Their motives for being disdainful towards each other almost have you rubbing your hands with glee as you wait for Gaunt to escalate things.


Whilst the town in the story acts like a microcosm for life in 80's America it is still relevant today and not limited to America. Within society people always have and always will have differences with each other but sometimes a Gaunt like figure will enter the equation causing further distrust and division. In short he opens the door to tensions that have been bubbling under the surface. In America the presidency of Trump and the rise in far right extremism in US politics seem like increments of Gaunt's work in action. In the UK you can almost imagine Gaunt influencing David Cameron to have a referendum on Brexit knowing well how it will be one of the most divisive moves in European politics.



Of course these opposing views can have deadly consequences. In 'Needful Things' this comes about in one of the film's key scenes when Nettie confronts Wilma after they both believe the other person has wronged them. Nettie, armed with a knife, stands before Wilma in her home blaming her for her dog's death while Wilma, grabbing a cleaver, blames Nettie on breaking the windows of her home with cooking apples. What ensues is a brutal scene of near operatic violence where the pair stab each in a rough and tumble scrap to the song Ava Maria showing how this contrasting piece of music acts like a death kneel to the decency and communal spirit of Castle Rock. The fight concludes with Nettie tackling Wilma out of a window with the pair landing a fatal blow with their weapons during the fall. It almost feels like there is no turning back at this point in the story.

As Gaunt's work tears Castle Rock apart an explosion planted by Keeton outside the Catholic Church causes a riot in the middle of town with the residents fighting each other in the middle of the street. The film ends with Pangborn trying to convince the town that Gaunt is the source of all of the trouble but he stands at the side revelling in his misdeeds. Keeton arrives with a vest strapped with explosives threatening to kill everyone along with himself. A war of words ensues between Pangborn and Gaunt as they both try and encourage/diffuse the situation but Gaunt in his manipulations exposes Keeton's inadequacies forcing him to tackle Gaunt through the front window of the Needful Things shop, blowing it to pieces. The town thinks it is all over but Gaunt emerges from the flaming wreckage unharmed but defeated. He tells Alan and Polly that he will meet their grandson in the future before departing town in his black Mercedes Benz as the devil's work is never done. It is a real gut punch of an ending showing that evil is eternal. On paper this sounds grim in that although evil can never be defeated it is also true to the dark comedic elements of the film.



Whilst 'Needful Things' may be one of Stephen King's most underrated novels the same can't be said of the adaptation. It's a fine piece of work with a superb performance from Max von Sydow but you can't help but feel it tried to put too much into the two hour runtime. Given the scale of the novel itself it perhaps would be better served as a mini series but given the basic premise and the divisive times we live in, perhaps a revisit from Leland Gaunt into the modern world would work now more than ever by raising a fragmented mirror to our society.


Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️½


- Joseph McElroy

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