Needful Things (1993)

JUNE 19, 2008


It’s ironic that nearly all of the Stephen King books I have read have actually NOT been turned into films, when it seems like just about everything he has written has been adapted. Of the 20 (give or take) full length novels I have read, only five have been films: Shining, Green Mile, Dead Zone, It, and Dreamcatcher. I don’t know why it works out that way, but worth noting, I guess.

Anyway, Needful Things is one of those unread novels (I own them all I think), so I don’t know how close the film is to the book, but all I know for sure is: the film suffers greatly from not being able to decide whether it wants to be a pitch dark comedic tale, or a gory supernatural thriller. I am sure that the book doesn’t have this problem.

Then again, maybe the movie originally didn’t either. As I discovered afterwards, over an hour was hacked out of the film (it occasionally airs on cable in its long version, apparently), something the DVD’s only extra also gives away (the trailer, half of which is not in the film). It’s pretty evident in the film as well; most notably, a blond woman who keeps appearing in scenes without saying anything. She’s too noticeable to just assume she is an extra (and she’s sort of famous – it’s Lisa Blount, the hot broad from Prince of Darkness), but it’s not until the very end of the film where its casually mentioned that she is in fact the mother of the resident teenager character. Obviously her role was once far more significant.

And speaking of the kid – this story takes place in Maine and the kid is a Yankees fan? What the fuck kind of bullshit is that? Since King wrote it, any Yankee fan should be a horrible villain, not an innocent kid. I assume this was a boneheaded move on the scriptwriter’s part.

Another critical flaw is that Ed Harris, the film’s star, disappears for about a half hour. There are two problems with this. One, Ed Harris is one of the greatest actors of all time and thus should be in the film as much as possible, and two, after initially proposing to his girlfriend (Bonnie Bedelia, of “Whatever happened to Bonnie Bedelia?” fame), we never see them together again until the film’s 2nd act climax, in which they fight about whether or not Max Von Sydow is evil. Kind of hard to really get attached to the main character’s storyline when it’s presented almost as an afterthought.

The film’s lone bright spot is, of course, the late great JT Walsh. Apart from being the only one in the film who seems to get that this is supposed to be funny (in a dark twisted way), he’s simply a delight in every one of his scenes, and just makes me miss him even more. At the time it was one of his biggest roles to date, and probably helped get him the even meatier roles in films like Breakdown and Pleasantville (which were among his last films, as he passed shortly after completing work on Pleasantville). It’s not easy to stick out when you’re playing all your scenes with Ed Harris and Max Von Sydow, but he managed effortlessly.

Harris, of course, is playing Sheriff Pangborn, who also appeared in the same year’s Dark Half (where he was played by Michael Rooker). That has to be the only time in cinematic history where two actors played the same unique character (not counting generic characters like “The Devil” or “Dracula”) in a single year. It’s certainly the only time two great actors were completely wasted playing the same unique character in a single year*.

If memory serves, this film was the very first Hollywood feature to be edited digitally. Surprisingly, it doesn’t really show. One might think that the easy access to wipes and fades would result in a Lucas-esque flurry of moronic scene transitions, but nope. A few standard fades and I think one wipe. Nice restraint!

What say you?


  1. oh my fucking g-d!!!

    i had no idea that j.t. walsh had died.

    no wonder i've been seeing my love for films die out...

  2. Dude, I'm trying to figure out which books did you read and are not on film yet, the only ones I can think about would be the Dark Tower series (7 of them), Eyes Of the Dragon, Bag of bones, Cell, Insomnia ,Gerald's Game,Rage,Road Work,Buick 8, how are my guesses??

    ON the film; It kinda followed the book but cuted a lot of characters due time limitations, one is the Blonde you mentioned, she gets some sunglasses previously worn by Elvis (the ones she's wearing when Allan makes the final speech)other important one is Ace Merril, both the movie and the book are great in my opinion, and the film gave a creepier ending, since Mr. Gaunt turns out to be the Devil himself, and makes a prophecy about world war 3, in the book it's just some Magical evil dwarf that goes away and we learn that he starts his business (and havok) in a new town.

    The book it was known as the Last Tale Of Castle Rock since the town was the set for several Stephen King Stories, and it did tied a lot of loose ends between the characters readers knew for several books, from the villain Ace Merril (the bad guy portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland in Stand By Me) to Allan the sheriff, and we learn why he's single (as you see in the movie) when he was married and with son in the Dark Half.

    Sorry to post all this, but it seemed my chance shine, now I'll go back to my dark corner...

  3. hahah pretty close... cell, buick 8, colorado kid, DT 1-7, insomnia, regulators, bag of bones, girl who loved tom gordon, and talisman. rage and roadwork i have read as well but i wasnt counting those since they were 'novellas' (likewise, long walk, which is my favorite of his works).

  4. JT Walsh elevated every movie he was in, even Misery, where he was only in it for like a minute as a sheriff. Very sad he's gone.

    I don't remember much about Needful Things except one part where everyone's killing each other and turning on their friends, and Ed Harris shoots his pistol and goes "This shit stops NOW!!!" And everyone stops and listens...I just remember laughing and knowing at that point the movie was pretty terrible.

  5. I think you did a fine job of nailing this movie's failings, but I think you undersold some of it's strengths. For one, Max Von Sydow's performance was utterly grin inducing. What a perfect role for him. Speaking of grin inducing, watching all of these people fall for the devil's snares was an absolute joy. The pranks which he orchestrated were very fun to watch. And that knife fight between Amanda Plummer and the husky farmer chick was spectacular. The skinned dog in the closet gag made me jump out of my seat. Effective shocks like that are pretty rare.

    Now, I'm glad you brought up J.T. Walsh. Man, he was perfectly cast. Mike, I had the same reaction to Ed Harris' diatribe. Total gushy puke. Thank God J.T. Walsh interrupted and completely mocked him. Movie goers were robbed of this guy way too early. The god whom allowed that death to occur needs a good usurping.

    Now, I don't usually mention house explosions, but this was truly spectacular.


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