ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 27, 1993
By Steve Newton
“Hollywood North” has been quite a hotbed for horror films in the past few years. But whether it’s a direct-to-video gorefest (The Resurrected), theatrically released slasher entry (Friday the 13th Part 8: Jason Takes Manhattan), or big-budget TV miniseries (Stephen King’s IT), there has been nothing truly impressive among the bunch.
With the $10-million psycho-thriller Exquisite Tenderness now in production in a closed-down wing of Riverview Hospital, and acclaimed director Martin (Apartment Zero) Donovan’s killer-teacher show, The Substitute, set for U.S. cable release this fall, this dismal record could change. Unfortunately, Needful Things won’t be the film to enhance Vancouver’s reputation as a viable “Horrorwood North”.
Directed by Fraser Heston (Charlton’s son), Needful Things is based on the sizable Stephen King novel of 1991, and therein lies its downfall. Not that some fine movies haven’t been made from King’s shorter novels (The Dead Zone, Carrie, Misery), but when you try to film a work that is bursting with as many characters and intricate character conflicts as Needful Things, trouble looms. The novel relied on how engrossed the reader got with the various small-town characters who are turned against each other by the devil, but that involvement just doesn’t carry over in the celluloid version. By the end of the film, I couldn’t have cared less if the town’s entire population had been dragged down to Lucifer’s fiery abode.
Gibsons, B.C., doubles as Castle Rock, the coastal Maine burg to which Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow) moves and where he opens his Needful Things curiosity shop. Before long, almost everyone in town, it seems, visits the shop, and, under the spell of the satanic shopkeeper, finds the thing they need to satisfy their lust for power, glory, riches, etc. Whether it is a personally autographed Mickey Mantle card for young baseball fanatic Brian Rusk (Shane Meier), a magical horse-race game that predicts real winners for desperate gambler Danforth Keeton (J.T. Walsh), or an ancient locket that provides instant relief for arthritis sufferer Polly Chalmers (Bonnie Bedelia), each item comes with a stipulation that the purchaser pull a small prank on one of their neighbours.
But the wee pranks—like tossing turkey shit on the clean sheets of psychotic farmer Wilma Jerzyk (Valerie Bromfield) or pasting police citations all over paranoid embezzler Keeton’s house—are just the thing to send the town’s already half-mad populace over the edge and into a series of vengeful killing sprees.
As greed-ridden yacht salesman Keeton (“Don’t you ever call me Buster!”), Walsh gives a memorable, over-the-top performance, and his character’s relationship with the sarcastic Gaunt—“You’re disgusting, Dan; I like that in a man”—provides most of the film’s comic relief. Von Sydow’s understated role as the schemin’ demon is effective at times, but also pretty boring, since almost all he does is talk and hand out the shop’s evil inventory. And top-billed Ed Harris—a fine actor in his own right—is totally wasted as the baffled Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who lumbers from one grisly encounter to another, his stereotypically dim deputy (Ray McKinnon) in tow.
After watching Harris scratch his head and look confused for 80 minutes, it isn’t fun to sit through the sheriff’s climactic lecture/speech, during which he explains to the rioting townsfolk—the rubble of their ruined city all around them—just exactly what their problem is. We are told that the upright cop once “hit a man too hard” while on duty in another town, but the fact that Pangborn moved to Castle Rock to start a new life hardly justifies him being the only guy in town without a “needful thing”.
Does the love-struck lawman’s impending marriage to café owner Chalmers make him immune or something?
At any rate, Pangborn’s oratory wins the people over to the side of good just in time, and the devil leaves town in his big black car, never to be seen again. Or at least not until Needful Things 2: Beelzebub’s Back.