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Needful Things. 1993. Directed by Fraser C. Heston. Screenplay by W.D. Richter; based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.
Starring Max von Sydow, Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia, Amanda Plummer, J.T. Walsh, Ray McKinnon, Duncan Fraser, Valri Bromfield, Shane Meier, William Morgan Sheppard, Don S. Davis, Campbell Lane, Eric Schneider, Frank C. Turner, & Gillian Barber. New Line Cinema/Castle Rock Entertainment.
Rated 14A. 120 minutes.
As an avid reader of Stephen King I’m always happy when I can tout one of the film adaptations as worthy of his writing. With any book the movie never seems to match up in quality, though on rare occasions this happens. What an adaptation for the screen can hope for is that it preserves the spirit of the source material. Not all adaptations of King novels work out appropriately, as I’ve mentioned in my other reviews recently. At least with a good couple hours directors and writers are capable of turning a large-sized novel into something worthwhile of the author’s efforts.
Needful Things makes use of every minute out of the two hour runtime. Screenwriter W.D. Richter manages to turn a large cast of characters into interesting people within that time frame, not jamming anything down our throats. Rather the screenplay allows for so much in 120 minutes because it’s structured well, it focuses on the right elements. Doesn’t hurt that the cast is spectacular, right down to the smaller roles. Then you’ve got Ed Harris, Max Von Sydow, Bonnie Bedelia leading the ensemble with strong performances. In particular, Sydow presents us with a version of the cinematic devil that stands out amongst so many other similar depictions of that mythic character. I can’t help loving this King film when so many never hit the mark, nor are they given the proper level of production in order to achieve what potential they have inherently. There’s a little bit of cheese here or there. Maybe you dig it, maybe not. Either way, Needful Things is a devilishly fun and mysterious mix of the supernatural and personal stories of drama, crime, and all sorts of small town issues. The novel is treated well here in this uneven yet awesome fantasy that takes place in that little town of Castle Rock, Maine.
First and foremost, Max Von Sydow is great. A perpetually fantastic actor whom I always find interesting to watch. He’s well suited to play a man such as this, one whom we know little of but glean that he’s, essentially, the devil. Literally. Even the name works, Leland Gaunt. But Sydow is what gives this screen character such fearful depth. His voice, his way of dressing, how he laughs and sweetly ingratiates himself to the men and women alike in Castle Rock; only part of that is the writing. Sydow’s abilities as an actor come out quite nicely with such a classic character as the literary Satan in disguise. He makes the devil so flawlessly friendly to those around him. Really one of the best devils out of any movie, regardless of how you may feel about the rest of the film.
Part of the performance is also his look in terms of makeup and costume. For most of the film we get that elegant, suit wearing look that suits Sydow so well. In brief moments the makeup renders him into a nearly goblin-like creature, his long nails protruding, yellow and thick, his nasty teeth shining in the light of certain head movements. Plus, much more. This isn’t always outwardly visible, only in those brief shots is it clear and that makes it more unsettling.
Everyone else is mostly great, even if Sydow is the centrepiece. Harris and Bedelia are both excellent, just as their chemistry makes their characters relationship sweet and loveable. Even young Meier does well as Brian Rusk, a tough and complex role for an actor of any age. Most of all I love Amanda Plummer – the character is good enough, but she automatically makes ANY character that much better. She turns up and I’m usually ready to keep glued to the screen. She does not disappoint, and her final showdown, warring with neighbour Wilma (Valri Bromfield) is so satisfying in a morbid way that you’ll have trouble not cheering a little. Don’t worry, I did. So we’re both sick fucks. If the acting weren’t so good then it wouldn’t be this hard to resist.
Visual callback to The Exorcist, as Polly (Bedelia) walks down a set of stairs and witnesses Alan (Harris) shaking hands with Danforth (J.T. Walsh). I’d never noticed that until this last time watching. Funny how that escaped me. Right now, it stood out so evident. Not in a hokey sense, but a stellar homage to William Friedkin’s supernatural, religious horror masterpiece. The movie isn’t built on homage. Not in the slightest. Everything else is pretty well shot. It doesn’t stop at the cinematography from Tony Westman. The entire flow of the film in its writing to the directing choices and the editing is a huge reason why everything works. Alone the way most scenes are edited together is good filmmaking, but better yet are certain scenes. For instance, when Brian (Shane Meier) is tossing the baseballs, then there are the flashback moments certain residents have as they make their dirty deal with Gaunt, among others.
Also have to mention the inclusion of classical pieces. I’m a huge fan of classical music, so it’s even better that the soundtrack here is used to such advantage. Beautiful, soul-filled pieces play over moments of wild destruction and violence. Always an interesting, effective juxtaposition.
Furthermore, in terms of writing, I find Richter does impressive work. A lot of movies insist that linear storytelling means you can’t move back and forth between moments in time. In a sense, yes. Many others prove that you can tell a linear story and also include plenty of non-linear aspects. What the screenplay here accomplishes is a linear plot that gives us 99% of the current story, then peppers in the whole cast of characters within that whole structure with their own histories. The overall story never gets bogged down because of how well the writing is adapted. Again, this is how Richter manages to fit all these characters into one two hour span without making a mess of things. The writing, the editing, the direction on Fraser C. Heston’s part, all comes together to make Needful Things a horrific bit of fantasy inside a story of intense human drama.
Another solid King adaptation. Lots of negative reviews out there. Although I’m totally in the other camp, this is a fantastic little movie. Not perfect by any means and a couple of the actors leave some to be desired. I can’t fault anybody in particular for not making the movie better. Needful Things is a good deal of fun. The story is one that could easily go epic in scope, instead King’s original novel takes that type of plot about the devil making deals with ordinary people for their souls and crafts that into a tale of corrupted innocence in a coastal town in Maine, bringing the scale down to a personal, emotional level. Sydow looms large as the Satan figure, Leland Gaunt, and everyone from Harris to Bedelia to Meier and Plummer all play their respective characters well.
I know not everyone will always feel the same. A typical story is done differently and done well with this film version. In a world of terrible movies made from Stephen King stories, let’s appreciate the ones that genuinely work. We get all the character, all the setting and the terror and the familiar macabre qualities of King, including some blood and psychosis along the way. If that can’t please you, nothing will.
The Dark Half. 1993. Directed & Written by George A. Romero; based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name.
Starring Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker, Julie Harris, Robert Joy, Kent Broadhurst, Beth Grant, Rutanya Alda, Tom Mardirosian, Larry John Meyers, Patrick Brannan, Royal Dano, Glenn Colerider, Sarah Parker, & Elizabeth Parker. Orion Pictures.
Rated R. 122 minutes.
I’ve long said that George A. Romero and Stephen King go together like coffee and pie. Is that a thing, is that what people say? Well, I like coffee and pie. A nice treat. Just like I dig some Romero and King. They’re sweet together, as sweet as horror can get. You fans know what I’m talking about. Usually people associate Romero with the zombie sub-genre, and rightfully so: he single-handedly reimagined the zombie in modern terms giving birth to a trend that’s still going on today, which will undoubtedly continue until the end of time. Yet Romero made some really good work outside of the zombie structure. Long before 1993, too. But The Dark Half is one of those King-Romero collaborations that isn’t only interesting on paper. The whole film is a dark, gorgeous joy. Previously the two powerhouses of scary shit did well working on 1982’s Creepshow. Most will say that’s their best work together. I love that one, have it on the shelf alongside this and other Romero, as well as other King. I have to say, this one is my personal favourite of the two movies. Most of all because the book is so good, and for better or worse this adaptation nails most of the important aspects right on the head. The visual style is quite what we come to expect from the master of horror in Romero. King’s story matches the darkness of the director in his story examining duality, the lure of addiction in the sense of it creating an entirely other identity in one person, a quasi-monster movie about a man’s evil side literally appearing out of thin air. This is on the top of my lists for favourite King adaptations. There’s a lot to enjoy, even if it isn’t perfect. In the second half of the film things get riveting. Romero always goes for the jugular, this is no different.
Love the idea of duality. We’ve seen it many times before in literature, most famously in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. What’s most interesting about the King novel and this adaptation is how we look at the dual identities of George Stark v. Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton v. Timothy Hutton). This is a parallel of several things. Of course on the surface there’s the idea of literally mirroring King and his own pseudonym, Richard Bachman. This whole film can act as a metaphor about how King and his feelings of the success involved with Bachman’s writing, in that it became this whole other entity that needed to be dealt with, and King’s wild imagination concocts this whole story. On a deeper level there’s the fact King wrote The Dark Half right before going sober. His own feelings of the drugs and the booze taking over, the addiction becoming an entire entity all of its own, his need to rein in control as himself and be a sober man going forward, these are the biggest drive for the ultimate differences between Thad and George.
The whole visual difference between Hutton as Thad and George is awesome. When I read the book I really got such a feeling of uncanny terror when imagining the two versions of this one man. Particularly later on when things get very intense, the practical makeup effects used make the divide between Stark and Beaumont bigger. Added to all that there’s Hutton. Now apparently he was a horror to work with, even quitting the production at one point. Can’t say he doesn’t play the part to near perfection. He has the feeling of a writer torn in two from the start, not sure whether to keep riding on the success of a part of his identity which clearly causes trouble in his real day-to-day life. Then as we get further into the plot Hutton’s able to seamlessly transition from just a writer in distress to a man having one devastating existential crisis.
Something I’m very interested in personally is the Eastern belief in the concept of tulpa. Essentially, this is the concept that the mind is so powerful that it can will something into existence through pure thought. Further than that there’s often the idea that collectively, enough people might be able to will something into existence due to the amount of people expending mental energy on conjuring it up. Such is the case today with phenomenons like Slender Man and others. Certain occult thinkers might suggest these entities can become real, of flesh and blood, if enough people believe in them and will it so. In a way, George Stark is such a tulpa. Thad has not only thought him up, he’s effectively become a real person in that Beaumont hands his work over to the pseudonym, making him a part of the world. Then there’s the fact Thad had a malformed twin in his skull as a boy, this plays into more ideas about duality and further almost twists this into a monster movie – horrific images in the mind conjured up concerning a leftover bit of brain, bits of human matter not fully formed, waking up and growing into a whole man, wreaking havoc on a town in Maine. King, adapted well by Romero, takes a wild look at what happens if a murderous, hateful, vengeance seeking guy like Stark were to be willed into existence. There’s an equal part of camp much as there’s depth to the story. It’s all great, though there is quite a good helping of a sort of 1950s-style. There’s nothing wrong with that. Mostly it comes in the form of Stark who is appropriately a sort of typical 50s gangster with a razor blade, a slick-haired, leather jacket wearing, kinda Elvis copy. He’s no West Side Story sort, he’s much more dangerous than that. Along with his creepiness comes an awesomely throwback sense of camp that adds a dark humour to many of the kill scenes. All in all, the way King’s story and characters bring out the idea of the tulpa is lots of fun. Romero does his best to make that work and does a bang up job.
I can forgive a movie’s mistakes if most everything is compelling enough. King wrote a great novel, one to which I found myself glued until the last page turned and that back cover slapped shut. The Dark Half is in good hands with Romero. His directorial choices match his capabilities as a writer, each side complimenting the other. More than that I think he does well with adapting King. Not everyone can fit a novel of his into one screenplay properly, though I’m inclined to feel as if Romero does just that. Rather than make this into a half-assed attempt at jamming every little idea King had in the novel into the script, Romero opts to choose the best material, condense it, then make sure the lead character and his story gets brought out powerfully. The adapted screenplay works, and Timothy Hutton sells the Thad Beaumont character, in turn doing a fantastic job with George Stark in a highly opposing role; all the duality rests on him here, he carries that responsibility nicely. Throw in some nice effects, a couple nasty horror kills and blood to boot, this keeps things on the level for those genre fans out there. I forget how good this movie is then each time I put it on I remember, so quickly. If you’ve not seen it and call yourself a King fan, or one of Romero’s legion, then get on it, now. This is better than many will try and tell you.