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Needful Things
cast: Max von Sydow, Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia, Amanda Plummer, and J.T. Walsh

director: Fraser Heston

116 minutes (15) 1993
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Gary McMahon
I'll start by nailing my colours to the mast: as far as film adaptations of Stephen King's work go, there is the human drama Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption in one hand and the more traditional horror of Kubrick's The Shining in the other; everything else falls somewhere between these two works of brilliance, finding their own ground in the brawl. In terms of quality, there's been a lot of rubbish made from King's fiction... but let's not forget there have also been an awful lot of memorable scenes committed to film in his name.

The fair-to-middling Needful Things is an interesting beast. Its 'penny dreadful' story (indebted to Richard Matheson's short story The Distributor) and rather tepid direction are afforded a strange sense of nobility because of the acting talent involved in the production - experienced performers like Max von Sydow, Ed Harris, J.T. Walsh, Bonnie Bedelia and Amanda Plummer almost manage to elevate the film above its strictly pulpish roots.

Set in King's beloved fictional Maine town of Castle Rock, the plot is triggered by the opening of a new store named 'Needful Things'. Its owner, the delightfully named Leland Gaunt (Von Sydow) is a mystery; an enigmatic outsider who has come to town armed with his own agenda. We know things are going to turn out bad because this is a Stephen King story, what's interesting is how bad they will get before the end.

Gaunt's store is run on a simple premise: you may receive your heart's desire, the thing that you need most, but it will come at a price. That price, by the way, is decided by Gaunt, whose ultimate aim is chaos. Gaunt is, of course, a representation of the devil - but he's a playful devil, and the destruction he wreaks is pointlessly elaborate and, for the viewer at least, a whole lot of fun. The only thing standing in his way is Harris' unflappable sheriff Alan Pangborn (a King regular), who finds himself fighting for the soul of the town he loves.

Von Sydow has a ball with his part, delivering sardonic lines with his usual calm grace tempered with just the right amount of barely concealed glee. Harris provides strong support in a somewhat clichéd good guy role. None of the characters are developed beyond the immediate concerns of the plot, so it's difficult to care about any of them, but director Heston (who I believe is Charlton Heston's son) manages to serve up some decent set-pieces, and if I'm honest the film rarely falters from its chosen path. It's a tad monotonous and the ending is far too long, literal and anticlimactic, but along the way we are provided with enough murder, mayhem and neighbourhood violence to make the journey worthwhile.

The film is certainly no classic - it's too bland and lacks a certain something that's difficult to pin down - but it is one of the better big screen versions of King's strictly horror output, and at times (as in a ferocious battle between rival hausfraus, one wielding a knife and the other sporting a hatchet) it manages to stir itself from its lacklustre pace and become a bit of a hoot. So, I'd compare this one to Silver Bullet rather than The Dead Zone, but that simply means it's an enjoyable romp through King country.

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