Director – Fraser C. Heston, Screenplay – W.D. Richter, Based on the Novel by Stephen King, Producer – Jack Cummins, Photography – Tony Westman, Music – Patrick Doyle, Special Effects Supervisor – Gary Paller, Makeup Effects Supervisor – Tibor Farkas, Production Design – Douglas Higgins. Production Company – Castle Rock Entertainment/New Line Cinema.
Ed Harris (Sheriff Alan Pangborn), Max Von Sydow (Leland Gaunt), Bonnie Bedelia (Polly Chalmers), J.T. Walsh (Danforth ‘Buster’ Keeton III), Amanda Plummer (Nettie Cobb), Ray McKinnon (Deputy Norris Ridgwick), Shane Meier (Brian Rusk), Valri Bromfield (Wilma Jerzyk), W. Morgan Sheppard (Father Meehan), Duncan Fraser (Hugh Priest), Don S. Davis (Reverend Willy Rose), Frank C. Turner (Pete Jerzyk)
Leland Gaunt opens an antique and curio shop in the small town of Castle Rock, Maine. Among his stock, each of Gaunt’s customers discover something that is their most desired object or brings back precious memories. In return for selling each item, Gaunt asks that the purchaser play a small, seemingly harmless practical joke on another townsperson. However, each of the practical jokes is something that digs deep into the receiver’s dark secrets. This inflames situations to the point that every townsperson is soon ready to kill one another. Slowly, town sheriff Alan Pangborn comes to the realisation that Gaunt is The Devil.
The never-ending onslaught of Stephen King adaptations continues. Needful Things came directed by Charlton Heston’s son Fraser, who had previously made Treasure Island (1990) and the Sherlock Holmes tv movie The Crucifer of Blood (1991), and has not done much since.
The script comes from W.D. Richter, a longtime genre writer with the scripts for the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), the Frank Langella Dracula (1979), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Stealth (2005), and who has also directed the cult The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension (1984) and the cryogenic sleeper film Late for Dinner (1991).
There is not a great deal of material to work with here – Needful Things (1991) was one of Stephen King’s weakest novels. Although, in comparison to many Stephen King film adaptations, the screen version is reasonably faithful to the book. The film does blunt much of the book. Some of the characters have been dropped. Probably the worst of the changes made is in Wilma Jerzyk, the book’s most memorable character – a barnstorming portrait of a bad-tempered tyrant housewife – who in the film inexplicably becomes a psychotic turkey farmer, given an unconvincingly ranting and hysterical performance by Valri Bromfield.
Where the film makes a major mistake is in failing to give us a picture of the obsessive need customers are left with by the Needful Things. A person seeing the film without having read the book gains no insight into the obsessiveness of the recipients – rather the impression given (aided by an animated energy discharge over each object) is that the objects themselves impart some magical effect to the receiver.
Many Stephen King books are about small towns being torn apart by forces from without that play upon the buried secrets or psychotically deranged minds that the town’s facade of normalcy keeps at bay. [Indeed, a much better version of the story here was King’s teleplay for the tv mini-series Storm of the Century (1999)]. Here however, one never gets the impression, as one does with King, of a slice of true red, white and blue Americana being taken and gleefully gutted. The film’s first half is uneventful – indeed, Needful Things is probably one of the most bloodless and scareless horror films ever made.
On the plus side, the ending works far better than the book – King’s ending where Sheriff Pangborn spills open Gaunt’s case and releases the claimed souls and Gaunt reveals his true diabolic self before riding off on a flaming chariot never seemed that convincing. The film’s replacement of that with Pangborn having to fight against Gaunt’s trouble-making, his convincing people it doesn’t have to be that way and Gaunt’s departure with a sinister promise to return in the future, is much better.
Max Von Sydow gives a dignified performance as Gaunt. The muchly underrated Ed Harris is exceptional. Harris gives a performance that comes with the hot-tempered, hard-headed everyman’s reasonability. The ending where he stands up to fight against Gaunt and convinces the townspeople to back down contains some great acting.
Other Stephen King genre adaptations include:- Carrie (1976), Salem’s Lot (1979), The Shining (1980), Christine (1983), Cujo (1983), The Dead Zone (1983), Children of the Corn (1984), Firestarter (1984), Cat’s Eye (1985), Silver Bullet (1985), The Running Man (1987), Pet Sematary (1989), Graveyard Shift (1990), It (tv mini-series, 1990), Misery (1990), a segment of Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990), Sometimes They Come Back (1991), The Lawnmower Man (1992), The Dark Half (1993), The Tommyknockers (tv mini-series, 1993), The Stand (tv mini-series, 1994), The Langoliers (tv mini-series, 1995), The Mangler (1995), Thinner (1996), The Night Flier (1997), Quicksilver Highway (1997), The Shining (tv mini-series, 1997), Trucks (1997), Apt Pupil (1998), The Green Mile (1999), The Dead Zone (tv series, 2001-2), Hearts in Atlantis (2001), Carrie (tv mini-series, 2002), Dreamcatcher (2003), Riding the Bullet (2004), ‘Salem’s Lot (tv mini-series, 2004), Secret Window (2004), Desperation (tv mini-series, 2006), Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King (tv mini-series, 2006), 1408 (2007), The Mist (2007), Children of the Corn (2009), Everything’s Eventual (2009), the tv series Haven (2010-5), Bag of Bones (tv mini-series, 2011), Carrie (2013), Under the Dome (tv series, 2013-5), Big Driver (2014), A Good Marriage (2014), Mercy (2014), Cell (2016), 11.22.63 (tv mini-series, 2016), The Dark Tower (2017), Gerald’s Game (2017), It (2017), The Mist (tv series, 2017), Mr. Mercedes (tv series, 2017-9), 1922 (2017), Castle Rock (tv series, 2018-9), Doctor Sleep (2019), In the Tall Grass (2019), Pet Sematary (2019), The Outsider (tv series, 2020- ) and The Stand (tv mini-series, 2020-1). Stephen King had also written a number of original screen works with Creepshow (1982), Golden Years (tv mini-series, 1991), Sleepwalkers (1992), Storm of the Century (tv mini-series, 1999), Rose Red (tv mini-series, 2002) and the tv series Kingdom Hospital (2004), as well as adapted his own works with the screenplays for Cat’s Eye, Silver Bullet, Pet Sematary, The Stand, The Shining, Desperation, Children of the Corn 2009, A Good Marriage and Cell. King also directed one film with Maximum Overdrive (1986).