The Film: 3/5
The quiet little town of Castle Rock, Maine has just seen its miniscule population increase by one. Leland Gaunt (Max Von Sydow), a worldly gentleman who claims to be originally from Akron despite his decidedly non-American accent, has moved into town to open the specialty store Needful Things. Its specialty in question is that there always seems to be something in its inventory of great interest to the citizens of Castle Rock, and Gaunt is willing to part with these items (a valuable Mickey Mantle baseball card, pornographic art pieces, an original high school letter jacket) for a ridiculously low price, but there is always a catch. In exchange for selling these priceless artifacts for far less than he could get for them elsewhere, Gaunt requests that each of his customers pull a "prank" on another. Somehow he is able to deduce that most of Castle Rock's inhabitants are harboring dark, destructive secrets, and in some cases, vicious grudges against certain fellow townsfolk that can turn into violent confrontations with just the right push. Town sheriff Alan Pangborn (Ed Harris), a former big city cop who has moved to Castle Rock in search of a less complicated existence, immediately becomes suspicious of Gaunt and his designs on the town. Once the old heated rivalries start to be resolved through vandalism and murder, the sheriff realizes that Gaunt is not at all who he claims to be and he must put an end to the madness before it claims even more lives, including that of his arthritic fiancée Polly Chalmers (Bonnie Bedelia).
Pity poor Needful Things. It's one of those middle-of-the-road Stephen King adaptations based on one of the master of modern literary horror's most uninspired offerings whose feature film rights were probably snapped up by the hungriest studio when the book was still only available in galley form. In the right hands it could have been something terrific and terrifying; instead, Castle Rock Entertainment and Columbia Pictures gave the adaptation over to a director by the name of Fraser C. Heston. You may not be familiar with his full name, but you'll certainly know his last. Fraser is the son of none other than Charlton Heston, a boy who grew up in the shadows of Hollywood greatness. Unfortunately it couldn't be found in his own blood. He wrote the scripts for two of his father's utterly forgettable late career efforts, The Mountain Men and Mother Lode (the latter of which was directed by Charlton himself) before seguing into a directing career with the made-for-cable remake of Treasure Island, which starred a young Christian Bale as Stevenson's hero Jim Hawkins. Oh, and papa Charlton was top-billed as Long John Silver. He also played Sherlock Holmes in another teleflick, 1991's The Crucifer of Blood, which Fraser directed for the cable network TNT (back in the days before they knew drama).
Do you see where I'm going with this? I'm not suggesting that Fraser Heston would never have had a career if it wasn't for his famous father. In fact, I want to shout it from the highest mountaintop. Then again, maybe Charlton realized that without his support Sonny Boy would have been forced to shoot episodes of network television for cheap in order to make his rent. Needful Things didn't have Ben-Hur anywhere in the cast and it was one of only two feature films Fraser would direct before leaving that phase of his life behind almost completely. After 1996's turgid family adventure Alaska, his only directing credit on IMDb is the 2011 documentary The Search for Michael Rockefeller, which I haven't seen before and I'm pretty sure that I'm not alone there. You might ask, "Why are you spending so much time talking about the directing career of a nobody?" In my experience I have discovered, and this is not an elusive truth, that a Stephen King film adaptation is only as good as its director. Talent, passion, and the confident ability to guide an ensemble cast are the key ingredients in making such a film work. That's why the films based on King novels made by Brian DePalma, Stanley Kubrick, Tobe Hooper, David Cronenberg, Rob Reiner, and Frank Darabont are deservedly lionized by critics and audiences, and the ones made by Fritz Kiersch, Paul Michael Glaser, and Lewis Teague aren't. Even King himself tried playing director one time to turn a lesser short story of his into a movie, and the result was the 80's trash gem Maximum Overdrive, a movie you cannot enjoy unless you refuse to take it seriously. Further examples are not necessary.
To be fair to Fraser Heston, Needful Things isn't one of King's best works. The author wrote it during one of his life's most difficult chapters, when he was attempting to get his mojo back following his rehabilitation from drug abuse and alcoholism. Its tone is all over the map, and King clearly had no idea if he wanted Needful Things to be a simple good versus evil narrative or a complex morality play about the evil that the good people are prepared to do to satisfy their own desires. He wasn't sure what kind of story it would ultimately be, so of course neither is Heston, even with ace screenwriter W.D. Richter in his corner. Richter has the kind of film credits most writers would sell their souls to obtain; in addition to the John Badham-directed Dracula that starred Frank Langella as a more romantic vision of Bram Stoker's legendary vampire count, he also wrote Philip Kaufman's classic remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter's contemporary kung fu horror-comedy masterpiece Big Trouble in Little China. He also directed the cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Although he has a few lackluster titles to his name, Richter clearly knows a little something about the difficult process of adaptation and achieving an ideal balance of tones. A film version of Needful Things required that balance, but there are times when no one involved in its making is positive on whether it's supposed to be a straightforward horror film, a violent black comedy, or a little bit of both.
Heston assembled a great ensemble cast for his film, but with the exception of stars Max Von Sydow and Ed Harris they are either wasted or left to their own devices to salvage decent performances from the tepid material. The great Von Sydow owns his every scene and at the end manages to literally drive off with the entire movie. He's a cacklingly demented delight as the monstrous Leland Gaunt, a role that allows him to employ his authentic European charisma and deep, authoritative voice with great effect. Twenty years after he battled Satan for the soul of a young girl in a Georgetown house in The Exorcist, the actor finally gets to play Ol' Scratch in the flesh. Watching Von Sydow as Gaunt seduce each citizen of Castle Rock who chances into his store into selling what remains of their soul for a mere trinket is one of the film's enduring highlights after more than two decades since its theatrical release. Harris has the right commanding presence to play Sheriff Pangborn (previously played by Michael Rooker in another King adaptation, The Dark Half, which was released in the same year as Needful Things despite being filmed two years earlier) and the character is flawed enough to function as a relatable moral center.
In sharp contrast to Von Sydow's more subtle approach to urbane is the late J.T. Walsh as corrupt local selectman, boat salesman, and failed gambler Danforth "Buster" Keeton III. Keeton is an archetypal vulgar blowhard familiar to fans of Stephen King's novels, too pathetic and depraved to ever be heroic but too cowardly to be a villain. Walsh's over-the-top performance makes the character such a cartoon that all he's missing is a thick, greasy mustache and a nasty laugh to match Keeton's foul-tempered disposition. Bonnie Bedelia fares somewhat better as the sheriff's lady love Polly, a decent human being who falls prey to Gaunt's charms because of the arthritis that has left her in constant agony. Smaller but no less notable turns from Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction), Ray McKinnon (Deadwood), Frank C. Turner (The Fly II), and Canadian comedy vet Valri Bromfield add to the film's virtues. W. Morgan Sheppard (Star Trek) and Don S. Davis (Twin Peaks) are both a hoot as Castle Rock's rival holy men, a bitterly restrained Catholic priest and a self-righteous Baptist minister respectively.
Heston's direction might not elevate Needful Things into anything great or work to distract from the flaws inherent in the source material, but thankfully it doesn't call attention to itself either. With the assistance of editor Rob Kobrin (Virtuosity), he does a fine job of carefully building the tension in the film's first hour before letting it all come crashing down in the second. In order to do this, he had to concentrate the narrative focus on several of the supporting characters and their escalating feuds and almost completely sideline his leading man. Pangborn barely figures into the first and second acts of the story, and by allowing Gaunt's dealings with the Castle Rock townsfolk to take center stage, Heston undermines the sheriff's status as the de facto hero and reduces the character to a cipher barely resembling anything human. Once Harris is permitted back into the film, he does just fine matched against Von Sydow's silken menace, but unfortunately the actor's moment in the spotlight is a desperate monologue delivered at top volume with his eyes looking as if they might explode from their sockets at any moment. What should have been Harris' finest hour in Needful Things becomes one of the movie's most unintentionally hilarious beats. William Shatner could have made that final speech a laugh riot for a more appropriate reason. Heston's original cut of Needful Things ran to almost three hours and he was forced to excise nearly an hour of plot and character material for the theatrical release version, and it really shows. The truncated edit can't do proper justice to the story's sizable cast of characters and their various subplots.
The stable cinematography by Tony Westman reflects his background in documentaries and television programming and serves Heston's film just fine, but it also lacks energy and imagination. Luckily composer Patrick Doyle (Thor) is there to save the day with a playfully spooky orchestral score that deserves a better movie. The production design work of Douglas Higgins (The Butterfly Effect) achieves a lived-in quality and makes wonderful use of the filming locations in British Columbia in bringing the town of Castle Rock to plausible life. It has a reality that feels refreshing to gaze upon while everything else about Needful Things breaks down - and hardly on purpose - into the stuff of which the best horror spoofs are constructed.
I wasn't expecting Kino Lorber to deliver us, the Blu-ray devoted, a reference-quality upgrade of Needful Things from previous VHS and DVD releases, but even those low expectations could not possibly be met. Westman's workmanlike cinematography isn't granted a noticeable improvement in the 1080p high-definition transfer presented on this disc, but its screamingly obvious blandness is made even more apparent by being upconverted from a better-than-average source print. The amount of grain is consistent throughout the transfer and the muted color reproduction is solid, but the sharpness level in the fine picture details is altered depending on the scene. Black levels also shift in a highly distracting manner considering that most of the film takes place at night. At least the transfer is framed in the film's original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, so there is no loss of visual information. The lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 reproduces the original Dolby stereo soundtrack with balanced volume levels, a lack of overlap in the mix, and no trace of distortion or damage. The dialogue at times tends to be mixed lower than the other elements of the sound mix. English subtitles have also been included.
The only supplements are a serviceable commentary with director Heston that could have used an additional participant or more to keep things from getting stale and boring and the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes). Kino Lorber did not see fit to include the fabled hour of deleted scenes that were cut from the theatrical release but later restored for the version of Needful Things that aired on cable. If they weren't going to restore and release Heston's complete director's cut, the least they could have done was put that cut footage on this Blu-ray as a bonus feature.
Needful Things, both novel and subsequent film adaptation, deservedly belong on the middle echelon of Stephen King's literary and cinematic legacies. At a truncated running time of 120 minutes, Fraser Heston's best-known feature directorial effort is alternately too much and too little of a good thing. When it works, it's a creepy and fun flick, but that's only part of the time. I'm pretty sure it has its fans and they will mostly be satisfied by the decent transfer and director's commentary provided by Kino Lorber for this Blu-ray. Everyone else will likely rather give The Shining or The Dead Zone another watch instead and skip this altogether. I wouldn't blame them.