Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Halloween Reviews: NEEDFUL THINGS (1993)

Stephen King is a prolific writer with over 70 novels in his portfolio. A lot of them were adapted for the big screen, some with great success, while others not so much. Among the weaker projects, I recall such misfires as “Cujo”, “Pet Sematary”, or “Maximum Overdrive”, the latter written and directed by King himself. Fans, however, will fondly remember such classics as “Carrie”, “Misery”, “The Shining”, “The Dead Zone”, “The Shawshank Redemption”, “The Green Mile”, or ”The Mist”, movies that truly captured the essence of his novels, ensured their place in moviemaking history and jump-started the careers of such directors as Frank Darabont and Brian De Palma.

In the barely-above-average category we have “Needful Things” which is a mixed bag of delights that will only be truly appreciated by Stephen King enthusiasts. A mysterious stranger, Leland Gaunt (Max Von Sydow) arrives in the peaceful town of Castle Rock and opens up an antique shop. Peaking the curiosity of the locals, the little shop of “Needful Things” soon becomes very popular. Gaunt offers not only collectible items, but also, as the title suggests, things that are of great need for each person. In his shop, they all find the objects that haunt their dreams and fuel their obsessions. They would even be willing to sell their own souls in exchange for these items. In fact, that's exactly what Gaunt is after. Soon enough, he begins cashing in on the “debts”, turning people against one another, bringing about anarchy and corruption that threaten to wipe Castle Rock from the face of the earth. He grows stronger as the small town is subdued to his dark will. The only one who seems out of Gaunt’s reach is sheriff Alan Pangborn (Ed Harris), who will come face to face with absolute evil in a confrontation that defies the limits of humanity.

This movie is the cinematic debut of Fraser Clarke Heston, Charlton Heston’s son. He hasn't directed anything else since, but it would have been a decent start for his career, despite his occasional clumsiness in handling the story. “Needful Things” skips through way too fast, compressing the story to fit its 2-hour running time. The book, written in 1991, is about 690-pages long, so I assume a lot of things were left out. From what I understand there is a three-hour version on TV, but it has never been released on DVD and only exists in the US. If my math is right, that's about one hour of deleted scenes. I'm sure the plot lost some interesting stuff. The downside to the TV extended cut, however, is that the R-rated content has been removed so the movie could be shown on television. Win some, lose some.

The whole show is held up by its impressive cast. Everyone acts as if aware of the B quality of the movie, which is to say they overact their way through it with glee. And it's actually a lot of fun. Released in 1993, it has a simplistic, made-for-TV feel to it, although it does have its fair share of quality technical values. You'll find some spectacular explosions, an excellent ominous soundtrack by Patrick Doyle which sounds like it belongs in “The Omen”, and some slick dark cinematography that commands attention and generates a convincing atmosphere of dread. What is lacking is a solid script. There is, I suppose, a lot of detail in the way these characters evolve in the book. It's something King does very well. But in the movie the characters are mere stereotypes, their madness and inner conflicts in relation to the concept of the faustian deal becoming absurd in the absence of genuine character depth. It works, but it doesn't take you very far.

I would have loved to see the three-hour extended cut, since it probably improves on character development and maybe makes more sense of the story. As it is, it’s a flawed, but passable Stephen King adaptation that will please avid collectors of B flicks and small-town gothic tales.

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