Throwback Thursday Review: “Needful Things” (1993)



Title: Needful Things
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Posted September 22, 2016 by

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Stephen King is a fantastic author, and to refer to him otherwise would be doing him a great disservice. After all, how can we not admire the man who’s creative efforts have inspired such marvelous films as “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994); “The Shining” (1980); “Carrie” (1976); “Stand by Me” (1986); and “Misery” (1990), to name just a few. Yet sadly, there have been quite a number of epic misfires as well. Ranging in quality from completely forgettable, to utterly embarrassing, these failed attempts far outnumber the successes. I suspect the reasons for this may vary greatly from one movie to the next, but that is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say, there’s a reason moviegoers tend to approach his films with a healthy dose of skepticism.

In 1991, King published a Novel entitled, “Needful Things”, a 700-page tale that bears a strong resemblance to the 1962 Ray Bradbury classic, “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. The book did well, and it was not long before interest was shown in bringing it to the big screen. Going in, I had two major concerns; First, could the massive work be pruned down to a manageable size without completely butchering the story in the process? Secondly, would first time director Fraser Heston (son of the great Charlton Heston) succeed where so many others had failed, and deliver a movie that would truly do the source material justice? Happily, the end result proved to be fairly respectable.


The nightmare takes place in a small New England town known as Castle Rock, which uncoincidentally, also happens to be the name of the production company responsible for the film. The residents have all known each other for years, and appear to be generally content. One day out of the blue, a mysterious man named Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow) rolls into town, and opens a most unusual store. One by one the townspeople visit his shop, each in turn discovering the object of their deepest desire. The problem of course, is that Gaunt is actually the Devil, and they are paying a much greater price for these items than they could have possibly imagined. Gaunt watches with playful amusement as greed sets in, and the good people of the town begin to turn on each other. Within a matter of days, calm equanimity and relative peace give way to absolute pandemonium, and the town literally implodes. Only the sheriff (Ed Harris) suspects that Gaunt might somehow be the root of problem.

The film is well crafted, and despite being a full two hours in length, marches along nicely towards its inevitable conclusion. The cinematography and musical score are both on par with other mainstream movies of this time period, and the special effects are acceptable as well. The real strength of the movie, however, is the remarkably strong cast assembled for the project. Amanda Plummer is her usual quirky self, and J.T. Walsh has all sorts of fun in his role as an unlucky gambler, destined for a major meltdown. Bonnie Bedelia is also fine as the sheriff’s love interest, conveying a kind of naïve charm typical of a small town native. Next up is Ed Harris, who turns in yet another fine performance as the films’ reluctant hero. His character serves as the moral compass of the movie, and we are essentially viewing the horrific events through his eyes. As usual, he plays his part with passion and conviction throughout.

This brings us to Max von Sydow, who is perfectly cast as the films’ charismatic villain, and courtesy of his work in “The Exorcist” (1973), and “The Heretic” (1977), has no shortage of experience in films exploring demonic themes. Unfortunately, his considerable talent is largely wasted here, as instead of compelling dialogue, he is mainly relegated to delivering  second-rate one liners, and mildly clever puns. This feels like a real missed opportunity, given the range he is capable of showing. His performance is in no way bad, but with just a little more to work with, could have been something really memorable.

Although “Needful Things” may ultimately pale in comparison to the very best of the Stephen King adaptations, it is nevertheless a worthy entry, significantly better than many of the previously unsuccessful attempts. If I were ranking all of King’s films today, I’d put this one near the upper-middle, and would generally recommend it to those looking for a fun, lighthearted poke at country life, with an undercurrent of horror flowing just beneath the surface. I believe all but the most die-hard Stephen King fans would be pleasantly surprised, which is actually saying quite a lot.




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