I have to admit that having read of this horror film I approached it
with some trepidation - Stephen King's work is not very familiar to me.
I know his reputation, and I have meant to read him, but I have a large
number of other books to read before I can make room for King. Probably
the leading horror and Gothic novelist/short story writer of our time
(the man who is the modern literary heir to Charles Brockden Brown,
Edgar Allen Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and Lovecraft), it has become a common
comment that his best work is between the covers of his books and not
on celluloid. Most of the comments on NEEDFUL THINGS follow this - a
general feeling that it is a let-down of sorts.
Yet I finally acquired a DVD of the film today, and it turned out that
it is a really good film. Moreover, the horror has it's amusements. If
I may suggest this to the readers, when you watch this film do what Max
Von Sydow does in several scenes: watch it with a glass of fine old
brandy or wine, or even a nice slice of apple pie (with or without Von
Sydow's favorite - cheddar cheese), and try not to take it too
seriously. Yes, the scene where the dog is found skinned (fake dead dog
as it is) is not pleasant to view, but around it are some amusing bits.
It's the practical jokes that Leland Gaunt (Von Sydow's pseudonym - he
is the Devil, and is playing the Devil correctly as the Devil is the
best of correct gentlemen) plays that amuses us, even as they spread
his brand of evil throughout the town of Castle Rock. They are not
harmless jokes, but meant to torment his victims at each other's hands.
But they include scenes like Brian Rusk (Shane Meier) breaking the
windows and smashing the kitchen of the home of Wilma Jercyk (Valeri
Bromfield) as though he is pitching for the Yankees in the World
Series. They include a self-important, crooked businessman like Danford
Keaton (J. T. Walsh) getting involved for a whole afternoon with an
antique horse racing game (supposedly it will give him a winning series
of horses for the track), and insulting his wife in the process when
she innocently suggests he go out for some honey based donuts. They
include the neurotic Nettie Cobb(Amanda Plummer) putting up accusatory
papers around Keaton's living room and kitchen, while Keaton is busy,
and then just barely getting out without being seen by him when he
reads the same papers. Even Von Sydow gets into the fun of the horror -
he goes into ecstasy thinking of the chaos he created in front of his
fireplace while listening to "Ave Maria". His taste in music is fine -
but the Devil enjoying "Ave Maria"?
Basically the chaos in the town is created when the Devil gives the
luckless, self-centered townspeople what they want at his new store (a
type of antique - collectibles shop called "Needful Things") and they
have to do little pranks to help pay for their acquisitions. Brian
sells himself for an autographed Topps 1955 Mickey Mantle card (I think
he should have held out for the really rare 1910 or so Honus Wagner
card that is worth about $100,000.00 if you find it). Nettie, whose
abusive husband smashed her china collection seven years before, gets a
second copy of her favorite statue. Polly Chalmers (Bonnie Bedelia) has
arthritis, and gets an ancient Egyptian necklace that helps her
condition improve. But then they have to do one evil after another
after another. Sometimes one sympathizes with them (Brian is too young
to fully understand what he let himself in for, and Polly really
suffers from arthritis). But with people like the selfish,
self-important Keaton one sympathizes more with others (like his wife)
There is increased violence in the film, and the death of Nettie's dog
is the start of it. The next act is possibly the best recalled moment
of the film. It is rare (really rare) for two women characters to kill
each other in a movie. In the classic western JOHNNY GUITAR, Mercedes
McCambridge was shot and killed in a showdown with Joan Crawford, but
our sympathy was with Joan not Mercedes. In NEEDFUL THINGS Nettie and
Wilma slaughter each other: Nettie believing Wilma has killed her dog
(Wilma didn't) and Wilma believing Nettie first smeared Turkey
excrement on her washing, and then smashed up her home (Nettie didn't).
It makes the whole more believable that Nettie is considered a mental
case who murdered her abusive husband, and Wilma is a violent, mental
case as well. They are combustible types about to be mixed together.
The scene (it takes all of three minutes) is well done actually -
Nettie showing up holding a bread knife behind her back to face Wilma
in Wilma's home. Wilma has grabbed a cleaver. I read some descriptions
of the sequence that don't go into the details, but basically the
battle is a bloody one, with Nettie getting first blood (thrusting her
knife into Wilma's belly), but Wilma swinging her cleaver and cutting
Nettie across her chest. Both drop their weapons, and end up with each
others, chasing each other to the second floor, and bleeding heavily.
They end up falling out of the window with Nettie burying her cleaver
in Wilma's face while Wilma pushes her knife into Nettie's chest (and
it comes out her back). They are both killed, but they probably would
have bled to death anyway.
The violence continues to escalate after that, though nothing as
startling in it's violent confrontation. At the end the town is almost
blown up. But at the end Mr. Von Sydow leaves town intact. Stephen King
knows that the Devil may be thwarted, but evil always survives.