This adaptation of Stephen King's novel was produced by Rob Reiner's Castle Rock Entertainment, which gave King some of his best onscreen treatments with MISERY and STAND BY ME. This one, while it has its moments, doesn't live up to those earlier successes, and suffers noticeably from
trying to condense a thick book down to feature length.
The setting is King's favorite small town, Castle Rock, Maine (where STAND BY ME was also set, and from which Reiner derived his company's name), where all is fairly peaceful and the worst the local sheriff, Alan Pangborn (Ed Harris), usually has to deal with is the squabbling between the two
local clergymen. Then a mysterious man named Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow) opens a shop called Needful Things in the center of town, and those who visit find that the one item they've always desired can be bought inside. But Gaunt doesn't charge cash; rather, he asks customers to play a prank in
return for their "needful thing." For the first customer, young Brian Rusk (Shane Meier), the cost of a rare baseball card is for him to throw mud on clean sheets that eccentric farmer Wilma Jerzyk (Valri Bromfield) has hung out to dry.
What Brian doesn't know is that Wilma has a feud going with another local woman, Nettie Cobb (Amanda Plummer), who works for Pangborn's girlfriend, Polly Chalmers (Bonnie Bedelia), at the town diner. Wilma assumes Nettie fouled her sheets, exacerbating their conflict. But Nettie has also fallen
under Gaunt's spell, and in return for her treasured item, posts accusatory notes in the home of crooked local businessman Danforth Keeton (J.T. Walsh). Meanwhile, the town drunk, in exchange for a letter jacket like the one he had in high school, butchers Nettie's dog, and Gaunt impels Brian to
throw apples through the windows of Wilma's house. Certain that each was responsible for the destructive acts visited upon the other, Nettie and Wilma have a bloody fight in the latter's house, which ends with the two plunging from an upstairs window to their deaths.
At first, Pangborn can't understand what would drive the two women to such a murderous frenzy, but he soon begins to realize the truth when Brian tearfully explains his part in the conflict to him--just before the boy tries to shoot himself. With no proof of any true wrongdoing on Gaunt's part,
Pangborn can't arrest him, and no one will believe the sheriff's claims of Gaunt's evil nature--not even Polly, who has fallen under Gaunt's spell. Pangborn sneaks into Gaunt's shop, where he finds evidence that the shopkeeper has been responsible for death and tragedy for decades, maybe
centuries, and realizes that Gaunt may be the devil himself.
As the whole town, "crosswired" against each other by Gaunt's persuasions, is exploding in mayhem, climaxing with the blowing up of the local church, Pangborn takes a stand outside the Needful Things shop, entreating the people to realize what Gaunt has done to them and stop the carnage. Gaunt
chides his suspicions, and Keeton, who has already murdered his wife and wired himself with explosives, tries to kill Pangborn. But the sheriff manages to convince everyone of Gaunt's evil nature--including Keeton, who throws himself and Gaunt through one of the store's windows and blows the
building to kingdom come. Then Gaunt appears from the midst of the wreckage, professes himself "disappointed" in the townspeople, and drives off to a new destination.
If nothing else, NEEDFUL THINGS progresses from a terrific central idea, one similar to the classic Twilight Zone episode, "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street"--the notion that the best way for an invading force to destroy a community is to turn its members' own suspicions and petty hatreds
against each other. The setup is good, and director Fraser C. Heston, working for a screenplay adaptation by W.D. Richter, builds some good tension for the film's first half as the various conflicts are set in motion. Throughout the movie, von Sydow (who once fought the devil in THE EXORCIST) is a
welcome presence, playing his Satan as a low-key villain who knows exactly what's going on in his victims' heads. His performance is so well composed that it's a shame Richter forces Gaunt to mouth occasional wise-guy dialogue and to call Pangborn a "wussy" during the climax.
Heston demonstrates some skill at cinematic horror and violence during the gruesome confrontation between Nettie and Wilma, but it's the story's main weakness that, dramatically, there's nowhere for the film to go from there. Once all the conflicts have been set up, all that's left is the
violent payoffs, and since none of them have the impact of the Nettie/Wilma battle, the movie goes slack. As the film's hero, Harris provides some measure of rooting interest as he tries to uncover Gaunt's treachery, but since the audience (by the nature of the story) is way ahead of him, his
investigation doesn't create the tension it might. And his final monologue, as he cries to the Castle Rock citizens to realize what they've done and see Gaunt for what he really is, is embarrassingly overwrought in both writing and performance.
As with many Stephen King adaptations, the problem no doubt partially lies in the necessity to condense the lengthy source novel, with material that might have given the story more depth lost in favor of packing in the horrific highlights. While it's a professional effort that is somewhat
successful in capturing the King spirit, NEEDFUL THINGS nonetheless failed to achieve the box-office equivalent of the novel's best-seller status, though it did manage to outgross the year's other, far superior King film THE DARK HALF. (Violence, nudity, sexual situations, adult situations,profanity.)
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: R
- Review: This adaptation of Stephen King's novel was produced by Rob Reiner's Castle Rock Entertainment, which gave King some of his best onscreen treatments with MISERY and STAND BY ME. This one, while it has its moments, doesn't live up to those earlier successes… (more)