Rated R for violence and strong language
Running time: 120 min.
Release date: August 27, 1993
Imagine a shop that stocks the one item that you truly desire. Now imagine that shop is run by a man who will let you have the item and only asks for a favor in return. This is the premise of Needful Things, yet another adaptation of a Stephen King best-selling novel. The story leaves no room for surprises, as the audience is almost immediately in on the twist and just waits for the outcome. And waits......and waits.....and waits. Until finally, one is tired of waiting and just wants it to end already. Maybe with explosions accompanying the ending.
A mysterious gentleman by the name of Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow) has opened up a new shop in the small town of Castle Rock. The name of the shop is "Needful Things" and its stock consists of that one item most desired by each of the many customers that make their way through the door. For example, a teenage boy finds a vintage Mickey Mantle baseball card that just happens to be autographed with his name. One customer finds a figurine that exactly resembles the same one that was broken by her late husband years ago. Yet another finds a letterman jacket that looks like the same one he had in high school, which was the best time of his life. The items cost money, yes, but that is only half the price. The other half comes in the form of a favor, or a prank as Mr. Gaunt puts it, at the expense of another resident in town. This is the twist in the story that takes shape early on. We witness the various pranks being pulled on unsuspecting townsfolk, who in turn, put the blame on their just as unsuspecting enemies. Pretty soon, Castle Rock is ablaze with violent and bloody retribution and full-scale riots in the streets. The town sheriff, Allen Pangborn (Ed Harris), tries to hold a firm middle ground amidst all this, while at the same time, trying to piece together just who, or what, Leland Gaunt really is. The main issue with the plot is that we see prank after prank being executed, padding the running time of the film, while waiting for the final act to settle things. We already know who is behind everything, which takes a lot of the surprise out of the proceedings. By the time we get to the climax, the story has devolved into a lot of silliness and explosions. Two hours is far too long for this material, and if thirty minutes had been trimmed, this story would have been serviceable. It takes too long to set-up the climax with side stories involving uninteresting characters.
Prior to Needful Things, director Fraser C. Heston had been the man behind a TV adaptation of Treasure Island as well as a TV adaptation of the Broadway play The Crucifer of Blood. Both of those starred his father, Charlton Heston. He got his feet wet while acting as the second unit director for City Slickers, and Needful Things was his big screen debut. The production values here are almost on par with the production values of a made-for-TV film, which is not surprising considering the limited experience Heston has at this point. The pacing is way off for a film that should move a lot faster, and that is the biggest mark against it. Tony Westman's cinematography and some of the surrounding seaside scenery are nice to see, but there is very little of it. In more confident and capable hands, Needful Things is probably a quickly-paced--and better--film.
The cast is comprised of some very good actors/actresses who really try their best to get the audience invested in the story. Max von Sydow, of course, has the type of presence that just oozes villainy and here, as Gaunt, he forgoes scenery-chewing and opts for a more subtle approach, even though we know immediately that something is amiss with him. Ed Harris, as Sheriff Pangborn, is adept at this type of character; the strong, silent community leader who tries to hold everything together. Character actor extraordinaire, J.T. Walsh, plays the city accountant who gets increasingly paranoid until the seams break and he becomes an over-the-top maniac intent on blowing everyone up. Finally, Amanda Plummer made a career out of playing the wishy-washy, shy, socially-awkward female. She does it here as well, and makes the most of it rather successfully. Watching her go from that to a raving-mad, revenge-fueled time bomb was a strong piece of work. All in all, the ensemble cast was quite good. If only the screenplay and story had served them better.
Needful Things has an original idea, with the store being a front for a man (?) to create his own violent puppet show. However, there are no surprises contained within the story and the build to the climax takes far too long and the resolution is quite unsatisfying, considering everything that happened beforehand. A good, professional cast is in the film's favor but not really a saving grace for Needful Things.