Monday, April 16, 2012

Needful Things

Needful Things (1993) 
Crime, Drama, Horror, 120 minutes
Directed by Fraser Clarke Heston
Starring Ed Harris, Max von Sydow and Bonnie Bedelia

I first read Needful Things about 20 years ago, not long after it was published. One thing I like about Stephen King's stories is how familiar the worlds seem. Then he changes one or two small details and introduces a supernatural element. We still relate to the story because we identify so strongly with the setting he establishes. Like many of King's books, Needful Things is set in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine.

The movie is not an entirely faithful adaptation of the book, but that's partly due to the length of the original story. A few details are changed to help the story along and other elements are completely omitted. The remaining story still works well as a movie, but it could have been even better.

What would you do if The Devil lived in your town?

Leland Gaunt (von Sydow) opens a store in Castle Rock. Needful Things sells all manner of antiques and collectibles and Gaunt initially appears to be a friendly old man. His first customer is a young boy, Brian Rusk, who has a large collection of Topps baseball cards. After Gaunt asks him to wish for any item he can imagine, Brian thinks of a 1956 Mickey Mantle Topps card. When Brian closes his eyes and touches the card, he can see Mantle playing in a game from decades ago. The card is worth hundreds of dollars, but Gaunt asks for just 95c. The other part of the price is a deed.

The deeds are tricks played on other people. Brian is told to throw turkey droppings at freshly-washed sheets hanging on a neighbor's washing line. He barely knows the woman and so there's almost no chance she will find out that it was him. Gaunt uses this tactic with everyone who enters the store. He somehow has an item that each covets, whether it's sunglasses worn by Elvis Presley, a first edition of Treasure Island signed by the author, or a toy horse-racing game that accurately predicts winners of upcoming races. People are willing to perform tricks to acquire items they desperately want.

Most people don't have a clue what is going on, but Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Harris) sees what Gaunt is doing. The tricks start to become more cruel and dangerous, and some ultimately become fatal. Gaunt apparently travels from one town to the next and feeds off the evil and negative energy.

The biggest flaw in the movie adaptation is a speech designed to give the story a typical Hollywood climax. It seems out of place and unrealistic, but I understand why it was added. That aside, it's one of the best King adaptations. The acting is strong for the most part, with good performances from Amanda Plummer, Bonnie Bedelia and J. T. Walsh supporting the excellent work of Harris and von Sydow.

It's fascinating watching how a few evil deeds can impact a friendly small town. The story is simple, but it seems so plausible. 

What would you do to possess your own needful thing?


  1. Hadn't heard of this movie before but the premise sounds very interesting. I'll check it out.

  2. It's a good idea and the acting is decent. Just ignore the massive Hollywood speech near the end :)