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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.
A Late Thaw. 2015. Directed & Written by Kim Barr.
Starring Michelle Boback, Lucas Chartier-Dessert, Kathleen Fee, Helena Marie, & Ivan Peric.
Over at ChicArt Productions they’re consistently putting out interesting little short independent films. Some are great subversions of genre, others are merely great examples of the genres in which the films exist. In the past six months or more, I’ve received a lot of fun screeners from them. I’m only now just getting around to seeing each film and reviewing them. No matter how big or small a production, it’s always a major honour for me to be asked by filmmakers and their publicity teams to take a look at their work. Getting a screener is like Christmas for me!
But it’s even better when these shorts are actually solid pieces of cinema. Usually, I receive requests for horror movies, seeing as how my website is (for the most part) fairly horror-based. All the same, I find many genres wind up in my inbox.
Director-writer Kim Barr’s most recent short, A Late Thaw, is less a horror – though it contains the essence of creepiness most of the time – and more a drama-fantasy. Better yet it reminds me of contemporary Gothic Literature, honestly. You could almost say it’s one long hallucination with bits of reality peppered in. No matter how you define it – perhaps dark fantasy might work best – Barr executes an innovative little screenplay to make 14-minute film into something magical, otherworldly, and excruciatingly personal. More than that, this short examines grief, how people deal with it, when they do, and how that grief can reach out from a person’s past to either strangle or give way to their future.
The cinematography is beautiful, at times quite surreal. Very much dig the fantasy elements, as they’re woven around the story fairly well. When Tara (Helena Marie) walks through the house and the snow is falling, frost is on the doorknob, you feel in an entirely other reality. The snow-covered stairs, the hallway shrouded with foggy, blowing snow; each moment is like something out of a dream. And then soon comes the paranoia, which includes great little sound design thrown on top of everything else. The score sits perfectly beneath all the camerawork. It pulls the viewer in with an ambient sound, swelling, fading, and helps to put us in a nostalgic frame of mind while we continue to watch on, wondering what will come next: dreams, or reality. These elements come together to create a strange atmosphere; strange in a good way. Barr’s directorial choices work well alongside the cinematography to create a space that feels like one step in a different direction through this house will take you to a whole other world. Short films by nature only have a limited window to take you inside their universe. A Late Thaw immerses us into this story so easily, so quickly, that it’s a seamless transition. One minute you’re here, the next you find yourself walking through this dreamy, cloudy house, snow falling, the air thick. A remarkable aesthetic overall, which is something I’m big on. Although the story is excellent, it could’ve been only half decent an the technical work on this film would still make it highly enjoyable.
When it comes to the titular thaw, we find out Tara has been trying to move on from a previous tragedy. Only now, with the new house and all its happiness, her old grief is thawing and working its way up to, and out of, the surface. The film’s imagery with the snow and all the frostiness is so dark without needing horror. This personal drama about a woman is moving in that it explores very touchy, tragic memories. Certainly the snow and all that are partly representative of the old lover and their apparent death on a mountain, climbing somewhere; it’s as if that atmosphere has moved itself into her house, mentally and visually we see it literally. At the same time, the snow buries, it covers up and conceals. So the further things progress in the film, the more snow covered and cloudy things become, until even Tara finds her own face and eyes covered. In a way, the snow is also grief.
Further than that those memories are evoked with interesting images and writing. For instance, at first you’ll believe the wall climbing scene is something out of place. I did, and found myself questioning what exactly was the purpose – other than to look neat – to have this woman and her friend at a rockwall climbing spot. Then as the short moves by and gets closer to the end you begin understanding why Barr decided to include this moment, as it becomes totally relevant to Tara’s plot. Even better, there’s a terribly creepy scene which sees Tara sort of falling further and further into the hole of memory, calling back the climbing. This is one of my favourite moments, it is so unique that I felt the scene stick with me long after the film finished. Again, there’s no outright horror here, yet Barr lets the psychological terror seep through the drama at the center of this story to make everything edgy, uneasy, hard to predict. The imagery is so damn powerful, I had to go back and watch this a couple times after my first viewing.
Personally, this is one of my favourite short films I’ve ever seen. There are a handful or two of shorts that are just near perfect in my mind; this is one of those movies. Kim Barr is definitely talented, and it may be her work in other areas before coming into her own as director which helped shape some of her style. I’d dig a full-length feature from Barr because if this is any indication of her talent, any studio would be glad to have someone with the writing skills she possesses, along with the fact she has a knowledgeable grasp on her role as director. Keep an eye out – if you get the chance to see A Late Thaw, do it. You will not regret these 14 minutes. And maybe, like it did me, the film just might leave a mark, too.