Movie Review: ‘Needful Things’

I rarely ever buy home media versions of movies based on Stephen King novels or stories – especially if (a) I’ve never read the original story or (b) watched the movies themselves – either in a movie theater or (more likely) on TV.

There are several reasons why I don’t “blind buy” Blu-rays or DVDs derived from the works of one of my favorite writers, but the three main reasons are:

  • Horror movies are not my favorite genre
  • Not every Stephen King novel or story gets a watchable adaptation
  • Needful Things

Back in 1991, Viking published what King said at the time was the last story he’d ever set in Castle Rock, the small town in Maine where so many other of his novels (Cujo, The Dead Zone, The Dark Half) and short stories (Granma, Nona) take place.[1] It was King’s first new novel since his time in rehab for alcohol and drug abuse, and it tells the story of an antiques store owned by a mysterious newcomer named Leland Gault. Like most of King’s stories set in small towns in Maine, Needful Things explores the seamy side of rural America and mixes it with the “Master of Horror’s” trademark blend of realism and the supernatural forces.

Now, I never got around to reading Needful Things; I meant to, especially after I received King’s Four Past Midnight, his second collection of novellas (the first one being Diff’rent Seasons) as a Christmas present in 1990. In that anthology, King includes The Sun Dog, a sort-of prequel to Needful Things about a 15-year-old boy, his Sun 660 Polaroid camera, and a mysterious, potentially deadly black dog.[2]

Like most of King’s novels, Needful Things was a best-seller, and eventually New Line Cinema and Castle Rock Entertainment bought the film rights. Producer Jack Cummins (Down Periscope, Highlander II: The Quickening) then hired Charlton Heston’s son, Fraser, to direct the 1993 film adaptation and cast Max Von Sydow, Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia, Amanda Plummer, and J.T. Walsh as – respectively – Leland Gault and four of the hapless residents of Castle Rock, Maine.

And considering how unpleasant this film is to watch, I wish Hollywood had pretended that this novel didn’t exist.

(C) 1993 Castle Rock Entertainment/New Line Cinema/Columbia Pictures

Alan: You know, guys, I moved here and I thought, Great! I’m outta the big city and I’m finally in a place where everybody isn’t gonna be crawling up everybody’s asshole every day! A place where maybe my biggest nightmare is gonna be getting some goddamn cat out of a tree! But forget that! EVERYBODY IS INSANE, EVERYWHERE!

When we first see  Leland Gault, he seems to be a charming and elegant European gentleman. He also always seems to have items that his prospective customers must have – a rare 1950s era Mickey Mantle baseball card for 12-year-old Brian Rusk (Shane Meier)…a porcelain figurine for baker Nettie Cobb (Plummer)…and an ancient amulet that can cure her arthritis for Polly Chalmers (Bedelia).

But as in King’s vampire novel Salem’s Lot, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Beneath Gault’s witty and urbane persona, something wicked this way comes.

At first, the various denizens of Castle Rock are merely curious about the shop and its owner. After all, most small towns are home to second-hand and curio stores like Needful Things. But this being a Stephen King story (adapted here by W.D. Richter), the outward peacefulness of Castle Rock is merely cover for a potentially explosive mix of corruption, envy, lust, long-simmering rivalries, unspoken desires, and murderous feuds.

All hell breaks loose – literally – soon after Gault sells a Mickey Mantle baseball card to ardent fan Brian. The card, which comes with a personalized autograph, is in mint condition and would probably go for hundreds of dollars. But no, Gault sells it to Brian for a piddling sum – and an odd request to play “a prank” on someone.

This amazing bargain is not without a heavy price, however. As the slow-paced first act of Needful Things reveals, Gault is not simply an itinerant shopkeeper from Akron, Ohio – he’s a powerful demonic force that knows all the rivalries, hatreds, and hidden desires of Castle Rock’s inhabitants.  Soon, as more customers come into Needful Things and find their “must-have” items, Gault’s not-so-playful pranks triggers off a wave of violence and mayhem that threatens to tear Castle Rock apart.

Leland: I’ve always enjoyed ladies who take great pride in themselves.

Although Richter and Heston give Max Von Sydow plenty of scenes where viewers watch an actor who played Jesus Christ (in The Greatest Story Ever Told) take the role of the Devil, Needful Things is a mediocre movie. In addition to its plodding pace, it is mean-spirited, monotonous, and not much fun to watch.

Yes, Von Sydow gets most of the film’s best lines, including a dark-humored reference to Jesus (“The young carpenter from Nazareth? I know him well. Promising young man. He died badly.”), and he turns in a decent performance.

But director Heston and screenwriter Richter can’t bring King’s novel to life on the same level as Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) or Rob Reiner (Misery, Stand by Me). Like most of the bad adaptations of King’s literary works, Needful Things focuses on the parts that evoke gut reaction – such as the murderous feud between two townswomen, or Leland’s seduction of Polly – at the expense of character development. 

With the exception of Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Harris), there are no likeable characters for the audience to care about – everyone in Castle Rock seems to deserve whatever Leland Gault has in store for them.

In retrospect, Needful Things could have fared better as a multi-part TV miniseries along the lines of ABC’s Stephen King’s IT or The Stand. The film often feels as though it had been carved out from a longer, more ambitious project, with some of its characters and subplots relegated to the cutting room floor for the sake of a shorter running time. It’s also a typical 1990s horror movie – full of sound and furious explosions, signifying nothing.

I am a Constant Reader of King’s novels and short stories, and I own quite a few Blu-rays and DVDs with movies or TV miniseries based on his works. I bought Needful Things a few years ago because (a) I hadn’t read the novel and (b) I like Max von Sydow.

But considering how bleak and unpleasant this film is, I wish I hadn’t.

[1] Since then, King has written several other tales set in Castle Rock, so Needful Things wasn’t the “last Castle Rock story” after all.

[2] I never got around to reading The Sun Dog; I must confess that the only one of the four novellas I read from beginning to end was The Langoliers.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

3 thoughts on “Movie Review: ‘Needful Things’

    1. First, it’s difficult to adapt literary works WELL. Not impossible, mind you. There are quite a few great King-based films and/or TV miniseries out there.

      Second, not every director is savvy enough to find the core of a King (or Tom Clancy, or Ernest Hemingway) story and stay true to the source while making it fresh for a movie or TV audience. The proof? The recent IT duology is better than the ABC miniseries from 1990, though the latter is “more faithful” to the novel.

      Frasier Heston is no Frank Darabont!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. My big beef with King is his endings. I flip pages and flip pages and then feel like he forgot something. Movies are even more so because they seem to focus on bangs and boobs.

    I happen to really enjoy gore-less horror, especially if there’s some humor thrown in. Atmosphere is everything. I just finished a horror podcast I was going to review, but it was such a downer, I can’t bring myself to do it. Times like this, I wish I drank more than an occasional beer.

    Liked by 1 person

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