Wednesday 18 January 2023

Prime Time: Needful Things (1993)

I went for my first proper holiday overseas when I was about 16-17, finally experiencing proper sunshine in the glorious land of Los Christianos in Tenerife. And that first proper holiday overseas meant that I picked my first chunky book that I decided would be perfect to read by the swimming pool. And that book was Needful Things, another Stephen King tale set in Castle Rock, Maine. It was a very enjoyable read.

Then the book was made into a movie, which I always thought for many years was a TV movie (but it did have a theatrical release in the USA), and I was young and naive enough to be optimistic about it.

Watching it now . . . my goodwill towards the story, and goodwill towards many of the cast members, means I still like it more than some other King-based tales (I will never understand all of the love that gets heaped on Storm Of The Century), but I know it’s not actually a good film.

Max von Sydow plays Leland Gaunt, a newcomer to the town of Castle Rock, and the owner of a new store named “Needful Things”. The store seems to have just what people what most, and the prices are affordable. A specific cash amount . . . and a small prank. But Gaunt knows how to make things snowball, with pranks being used to turn people against one another, leading to bickering, fighting, and potentially deadly consequences. Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Ed Harris) is initially confused by the way his friends and neighbours so quickly turn into bloodthirsty maniacs, but he soon starts to realise who is at the heart of a dark and wide-reaching web. He wants to save the town, but he also wants to save the woman he loves (Bonnie Bedelia).

Adapted into screenplay form by W. D. Richter (who has a filmography with titles ranging from the likes of 1978’s classic The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers to the not-so-modern-classic Stealth), Needful Things doesn’t have a premise that works half as well when moved from page to screen. Not that anyone wanting to make money from Stephen King tales has ever been put off by that idea. It’s a hurdle that Richter cannot overcome though, sadly, and nothing is helped by Fraser C. Heston’s pedestrian direction, which makes my memory of this as a TV movie all the more understandable. Nothing here feels particularly cinematic or exciting, despite the best efforts of the cast, and it all just fizzles along to a climax that presents a damp squib when it should be a full firework display.

Von Sydow is a great fit for the role of Leland Gaunt, an elderly man who can deliver a physical shake-up of someone as easily as he can deliver a charm offensive. Gaunt has more fun as those around him become more miserable, and Von Sydow almost always pitches his performance perfectly, despite an odd moment that has him a bit too close and personal with Bedelia’s character. Harris is an excellent Pangborn, a very reliable and stoic figure who fortunately avoids being seduced by the allure of anything that Gaunt has for sale. Bedelia is a bit wasted in her role, sadly, although her character plays a vital part in the unfolding chain of events, and Amanda Plummer is fun to watch, delivering another prime mid-90s bit of Plummer madness. J. T. Walsh is the standout though, playing the kind of shady and sweaty businessman that appears in so many Stephen King stories, a role elevated here by the kind of performance you can rely on from J. T. Walsh. And it’s also worth mentioning Shane Meier, who plays young Brian Rusk, the first customer in Needful Things, and the first person asked to play a little prank in service of Gaunt’s grand plan.

I still like Needful Things. I have that strong attachment to the source material, the premise is a great one, and many of the supporting cast members have one or two moments to shine. I doubt many others will view it as I do though. Part of me knows that it’s not good, a bigger part of me knows that I will never actively dislike it. It feels like a story that has joined me on a journey, as I moved from a voracious reader to more of a cinephile, and that attachment certainly skews my rating slightly.


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