By now, we’ve come to expect certain things in movies adapted from Stephen King novels: brooding misanthropy, a pound or two of viscera, and — perhaps most horrifying of all — Hollywood actors delivering their lines with bad Maine accents. Needful Things delivers on said expectations, no more, no less.
The plot isn’t the author’s most original; specifically, it recalls Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (which was made into an underrated 1983 film). In both stories, a stranger appears in a small town, plays upon the many thwarted hopes of the locals, and, one by one, offers them a deal: their dreams fulfilled in exchange for their souls. Could this stranger be…Satan?
Needful Things answers with a hearty yes, which makes up in honest pulp what it loses in subtlety. The casting has juice too, with Ed Harris (heroic town sheriff), Bonnie Bedelia (plucky diner proprietor), J.T. Walsh (craven town selectman), and Amanda Plummer (town oddball — what else?), all gnashing their teeth as if they believed this folderol. Only Max von Sydow falls short as demonic Leland Gaunt, proprietor of the Needful Things curio shop; the filmmakers give him impressively desiccated teeth but also too many bloo-ha-ha lines like ”Is it hot in here? I have a tendency to turn up the heat.”
The film is at its dank best when it plugs into King’s jaundiced view of humanity. In the town of Castle Rock, everybody carries a grudge against somebody else behind their cheery Pepperidge Farm smiles. It’s Gaunt’s sadistic game to play his victims off against each other, slowly building an elaborate daisy-chain of malice (too slowly — by the time the town explodes in an orgy of murder and looting, we’re checking our watches). By focusing on the average person’s capacity for petty evil, director Fraser C. Heston takes the film into slightly deeper territory, but what’s the message? That we’re all jerks? Too sour for entertainment and too myopic for art, Needful Things is itself a curio: crafted with care but devoid of value. C-