"Needful Things" joins the ranks as yet another movie based on a novel by Stephen King. But, as it boasts a stellar cast, and a director with old-Hollywood connections, does this film have a chance of rising above the ranks of losers such as "Graveyard Shift" and "Silver Bullet"?
"Needful Things" takes place in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, which has been featured in many of King's stories (such as "Stand by Me") and was the inspiration of Castle Rock Entertainment. In this story, a sophisticated stranger named Leland Gaunt (Max Von Sydow) arrives in Castle Rock, and opens a store called Needful Things. In this unusual store, the residents of the town find treasures that have a deeply personal meaning to them. Whether it be an item that one has always longed for, or an object from the past someone thought was lost forever, Needful Things has it in stock.
Mr. Gaunt gladly gives the people what they want, but there is a price. He asks that the townspeople play little "tricks" on each other, such as soiling clean laundry or breaking windows. These "pranks" set the town on edge and suddenly the bucolic residents of Castle Rock are ready to murder each other, while Mr. Gaunt just sits back and laughs. Only one man, Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Ed Harris, playing a role that was essayed by Michael Rooker in "The Dark Half") can see what is really happening and he begins to suspect that Mr. Gaunt might not be quite human.
As with most adaptions of King's work, "Needful Things" bites off way more than it can chew in trying to bring the 700-page book to the screen. Still, the main idea of the story is intact in this version, although some things have been changed. (The oddest of which is the occupation of Polly Chalmers, played by Bonnie Bedelia. In the book, she owned a sewing store and this gave a deeper meaning to her crippling arthritis. Here, she runs a diner, and we never see how her affliction interferes with her work.) While the book is an obvious nod to "Faust" and Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes", the movie accentuates these references and the story comes across as somewhat unoriginal and hackneyed.
The movie plays like a "Greatest Hits" version of the book, highlighting some of the bigger plots and scenes, while doing away all-together with others. (One can't help but feel that there were many deleted scenes in this film. Heck, the trailer is basically a deleted scenes reel!) This allows the movie to get its point across, but some characterization is sacrificed in the process. Director Fraser C. Heston (son of Charlton Heston and also the actor who played the infant Moses in "The Ten Commandments") keeps things moving along well here, but one gets the feeling that he was obligated to turn in a two-hour film and had trouble deciding what to cut.
The film's saving grace is the cast. Max Von Sydow is fantastic as the nefarious figure who seeks to corrupt the town. His ability to play both fatherly and evil make him perfect for this role. As ususal, Ed Harris is very stong, although his powerful speech during the finale feels like it should be in another movie. The late J.T. Walsh steals the show here, playing another one of his unlikable characters. As the mawkish and corrupt civic leader Danforth "Buster" Keeton, Walsh is able to go from pathetic to menacing during the course of the film.
As is usually the case when a novel is made into a movie, "Needful Things" will most likely be enjoyed more by those who have not read the book. Fans of the novel will be too bust spotting the things that were left out. But, as horror/fantasy films, and Stephen King films for that matter go, "Needful Things" is a fun thriller that offers some great performances.
"Needful Things" is presented on this DVD in an anamporphic widescreen, which has been letterboxed at 1.85:1. The image is sharp, but not always clear. At times, there is a noticable amount of haze to the picture, making the image overly dark. Also, the colors are faded at times. On the plus side, there isn't too much grain and the amount of noticable artifacting is kept to a minimum.
The audio on this disc is a Dolby Stereo Surround mix, which is unfortunately, woefully unstable. The dialogue is clear and intelligible, but the explosions and musical cues are recorded much louder than the dialogue, forcing one to keep the remote handy. The use of surround sound is limited to the aforementioned explosions, musical interludes, and crowd noise, but it is used effectively...when it isn't overwhelming the dialogue.
The only extra on this DVD is the original theatrical trailer, which is letterboxed at 1.85:1. As noted above, it's a keeper, as it features several shots that aren't in the finished film.