Needful Things is based on the Stephen King novel by the same name, it follows events in the small town of Castle Rock. A new shop owner moves to town, offering items of great worth to the residents, but asking for a high price in return.
I would call Needful Things a good Sunday film, in that not a lot goes on so you can easily watch it while doing other things. Stephen King movie adaptations have varied between a hit and a miss, and unfortunately this falls on the side of a miss for me – whilst this film was not made for TV, it definitely has the vibe of a TV film.
Despite a quite star-studded cast (Max von Sydow, Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia) especially at the time of its release, their acting is not able to elevate this film. Needful Things is a weird concoction of mundanity and gruesomeness that fails to excite the viewer. It’s not necessarily a terrible film, it is just that you can see the story from a mile away as it heads towards you. Though there are some gruesome bits and many violent fights and deaths, there is nothing that really builds any tension. The evil character, Leland Gaunt, evokes a feel more like that of Loki the trickster from Norse mythology, than what it is later revealed he is.
Going back to the blend of mundanity and gruesomeness in Needful Things, it is this odd contrast that may be where it falls down in making a worthwhile film experience. Some of the favours Gaunt asks of the townsfolk seem childlike in their mischievousness and while others are a lot more severe and graphic. Though some lead to escalating scenarios, it creates an odd balance where it seems unclear what Gaunt is trying to achieve. And when even he himself says that he wouldn’t call it “a rousing success”, I am inclined to agree with him. It perhaps was quite affected by cuts to the length of the film, leaving a lot of the character and plot development out, so it feels rather rushed when it reaches its climax.
We see this clearly in Needful Things, with Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who makes leaps and bounds in his conclusions without a lot of evidence. Even the disbelief of those he tells his findings too are glossed over, so we never get that arc of the struggle to convince the neighbours that something sinister is afoot. In fact, this may be why it is so unimpressive. We never see the struggle of the townsfolk – they easily bow down to their baser instincts without even a little push. Most of the residents are pretty terrible people even before Gaunt comes to town, so maybe his effect was minimal at best. Unfortunately the escalation rather than being an interesting slow burn, seems to speed past rather quickly until we are wondering why the town is exploding, both figuratively and literally.
It seems that Needful Things wasn’t sure if it wanted to be a comedy or a serious affair and decided to go straight down the middle, leaving any chance of excellence far behind. Apparently the novel is not the strongest work of Stephen King, so perhaps the director Heston and scriptwriter Richter were trying to throw something new into the mix. However, I cannot overlook the ridiculousness of Wilma Jerzyk, who seemed itching for violence from the get-go and seems a parody of herself as the angry and domineering farmer wife. And she is not the only ridiculous character in Needful Things, which is a shame, as many of the other actors put in stellar performances. Max von Sydow is fantastic as the mysterious and ominous new resident, with Ed Harris making a great performance as the bewildered sheriff. J.T. Walsh as the obsessive gambler also puts on a great show for us. It is just a shame that the other characters don’t have the same depth as them, which in turn detracts from the strong performances.
If you are looking for a good slow burn mystery horror, Needful Things falls short as there are far better theatrical versions of Stephen King’s books out there.