Written by: Stephen King (book), W.D. Richter (screenplay)
Directed by: Fraser C. Hestone
Starring: Max von Sydow, Ed Harris, and Bonnie Bedelia
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Kill them all. Let God sort them out."
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing pop culture to reduce him to a kind of harmless avatar. You know the sort: a red-skinned, winged serpent that judges the damned, perhaps with pitchfork in hand. Having become such a familiar depiction, it’s almost reduced the devil to a powerless figure, a far cry from the insidious dark lord that caused mankind’s entire downfall. Leave it to Stephen King to get back to the terrifying heart of what Satan can accomplish: seemingly going all the way back to his original depiction in Genesis, King reestablishes the devil as an almost impish agent of chaos in Needful Things. Forget dispatching demonic minions or possessing the innocent—this Satan is only here to sow chaos through deceit and confusion. He doesn’t need to bring hell to Castle Rock; instead, Castle Rock goes to hell all by itself in this reasonably decent adaptation that, if nothing else, throws itself into the novel’s premise with a wicked glee that would make Satan himself proud.
You sense the playfulness almost immediately. Here’s Max von Sydow—often depicted as cinema’s great warrior of faith—strolling into Castle Rock as Leland Gaunt, the mysterious owner of a new antique shop. He seems friendly enough, as he offers all sorts of trinkets and wares, and bears a warm smile to boot. But there’s also something a bit unsettling about his ability to procure exactly what his customers desire, be it a rare Mickey Mantle baseball card or a long-lost letterman’s jacket from 40 years ago. There’s a reason for that, of course, and there’s also a reason he enlists those customers to perform ghoulish favors in lieu of monetary payments: he is the Dark Lord himself, here to spread deception through the town’s citizens in the hopes that they’ll destroy each other through their various feuds and misdeeds.
To get a picture of how this looks, imagine a really fucked-up game of telephone. Once Gaunt surveys the lay of the land to figure out which citizens share a natural enmity with each other, he sets out to exchanging his wares for increasingly screwy “pranks.” The young kid in search of a baseball card is enlisted to toss apples through a local farmer’s (Valri Bromfield) windows; that local farmer is feuding with a cook at the local diner (Amanda Plummer), whose dog is precious to her. Another citizen is dispatched to literally skin that dog alive, and the two women naturally suspect each other, leading to a violent, bloody confrontation—and so on and so forth as Gaunt spread his specific brand of misery throughout Castle Rock.
That’s a terrific concept, and the resulting film is obviously quite smitten with it. There’s a predictably lurid intrigue to these proceedings, and director Fraser Heston indulges them with a rambunctious verve. Needful Things is at its best when it revels in Gaunt’s sinister scheming, which often ends with hatchets being planted in someone’s head or double-barreled shotgun blasts blowing away a poor bar-owner ((though that skinned dog is a touch too much). It’s arguably King reduced to his most pulpy impulses, as the film begins to thrive off of that very specific paperback trash novel sort of energy. The sensation isn’t too far removed from hearing neighborhood gossip: did you hear what happened to the vigilant deputy? How about the town’s obligatory rich jerk (J.T. Walsh), who’s lost a ton of money at the racetrack and might be embezzling city funds? Let me tell you about the warring Catholic priest and the Baptist pastor, two not-so-godly men at each other’s throats (I have to believe Gaunt is especially pleased with exploiting this feud).
Granted, it has the effect of losing sight of the characters a bit. At nearly 700 pages, Needful Things isn’t one of King’s most epic novels (that’s about half the size of It), but there’s some sprawl to it to capture that typical lived-in quality associated with the author’s work. Heston’s adaptation skims the surface well enough to capture the colorful personalities residing in Castle Rock, particularly the tics and motivations that drive them to do Gaunt’s bidding. The performances are consequently rather broadly-sketched, with most of the actors seemingly engaged in a scenery-chewing competition. It has the effect of reducing them to pawns for the plot’s various twists and turns, so it’s tough to say that you ever get to know most of these folks as people since they’re defined by whatever Gaunt can exploit. For example, all we know about poor Polly Chambers (Bonnie Bedelia) is that she’s recently engaged to town sheriff Alan Pangborn (Ed Harris, inhabiting the same role as Michael Rooker in The Dark Half, also released in 1993) and suffers from some sort of hand condition.
Some personalities are too forceful to deny, though. Von Sydow is most notable as Gaunt, a positively Luciferin figure with a disturbingly gregarious exterior. He’s a perfect sort of boogeyman, kind of in the order of Angus Scrimm’s The Tall Man: he’s the spooky old man who haunts your nightmares despite his best efforts to appear charming. While he’s not identified as the eternal fiend, the clues make it clear enough, and Von Sydow especially relishes the role as the truth becomes clear to the citizens of Castle Rock. Harris makes a decent enough foil, though there are large stretches where he all but disappears from the proceedings as the town goes about its gruesome business. Once he reemerges for the finale, he’s one of those good-hearted King protagonists who becomes the town’s voice of reason. Well, until shit starts to literally explode.
It goes without saying that this one starts to get away from Heston a bit towards the end. If you want to peg down a specific moment, it’s around the time J.T. Walsh begins to forcefully assert himself on the proceedings. At some point, it becomes clear that he’s more than just another of Gaunt’s pawns, and Walsh’s turn grows bigger and broader as he helps to usher the film to its wild, over-the-top climax. His manic, bug-eyed paranoia becomes so infectious that the entire film takes on the tenor of a black comedy, a tone that only lurks beneath the surface (mostly in von Sydow’s increasingly wry performance) for most of Needful Things. In a film headlined by Ed Harris and Max von Sydow, it’s J.T. Walsh that runs off with it and takes any sense of coherent tone with him.
To be fair to Heston, the clashing tones and thinly-sketched characters are almost certainly the result of studio tinkering that chopped an entire hour off of the runtime. Entire characters—like Brian Rusk’s mom—are excised in the final cut but did turn up in the 3-hour More Needful Things cut that Heston put together for the film’s premiere on TNT. Unfortunately, that cut has yet to be released on home video, and IMDb insists it may never be due to some nebulous “legal issues.” That’s a shame—while the theatrical cut is fine, it feels like the mini-series format was (as it usually is) more conducive to capturing the breadth and width of King’s work. Some of that does still shine through in the theatrical cut, as this is one of the very few movies to capture the kind of immense, menacing cosmic scale of King. It’s suggested that Gaunt is an eternal evil, one that has always existed and will continue to do so.
Even though Needful Things is a complete gas by the end (complete with multiple explosions), Gaunt’s final threat that he’ll one day do battle with Harris’s unborn grandson is a cool, shivers-inducing moment that’s pure King. Like so many of King’s creations, there’s an ominous sense of permanence to Leland Gaunt, a demon who can’t be defeated so much as he can simply be contained for this fleeting moment in time. He’ll be back, once again ready to send another batch of unsuspecting souls straight to a hell forged from the crucible of their own pettiness.
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