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The F*cking Black Sheep: Needful Things (1993)

08.16.2018by: Jake Dee

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!

NEEDFUL THINGS (1993)

DIRECTED BY FRASER C. HESTON

Hey now, how many of you are abreast of the news that Hulu recently renewed Stephen King’s Castle Rock for a second season? Pretty badass, right!

Of course, we all know Castle Rock to be the fictional town in Maine that Stephen King has set many of his horror tales in, and his pal Rob Reiner (STAND BY ME, MISERY) even lent his production company the same namesake. Indeed, King first began setting stories in Castle Rock with THE DEAD ZONE in 1983, and continued with CUJO, STAND BY ME, THE DARK HALF, and NEEDFUL THINGS. Ah, let’s stop right there. With NEEDFUL THINGS. Stephen King movies can be broken into three categories: upper-tier (CARRIE, THE SHINING, CREEPSHOW, STAND BY ME, SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, etc.); lower-tier (TOMMYKNOCKERS, BAG OF BONES, THINNER, pretty much every Mick Garris appropriation); and mid-tier, where the vast majority of his titles rest comfortably (CAT’S EYE, SILVER BULLET, CUJO, on and on).

And it’s in this more-than-mediocre-mid-tier where most of King’s film adaptations get overlooked. And yeah, all this is a roundabout way of saying NEEDFUL THINGS is one such film that has not only been grossly unheralded over the years; it was even overshadowed the year it was released by King’s THE DARK HALF. This bastard was a literal Black Sheep within its own insulated King family. Shite’s egregious. What’s more galling is how the movie has remained unfairly maligned over the past two and a half decades. As NEEDFUL THINGS celebrates its 25th birthday later this month (August 27th), we’ve got more than a piteous pile of love for this unjustly kicked-aside Black Sheep. Let us tell you why below!

I personally have always dug the hell out of NEEDFUL THINGS, and remember felicitously scoring the DVD at a discount store some 15 years ago. It isn’t even that the movie is all that scary, or upsetting even, but somehow, through its A-list cast and lulling sleepy-town setting, just as the devilish Leland Guant (the great Max Von Sydow) holds a hypnotic sway over the unwitting denizens of Castle Rock, so too does NEEDFUL THINGS leave me in a state of inexplicable entrancement. I’m drawn in every f*cking time! But let’s backtrack to the premise, which actually owes a modicum of inspiration from the 1974 British horror anthology, FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE. As for NEEDFUL THINGS, it revolves around Leland Gaunt, the cryptic proprietor of Needful Things, a sprawling curiosity shop in the quaint town of Castle Rock.

The shop has everything anyone can wish for, but not without a steep price. By granting the locals any item they can desirously conjure, Gaunt is paid with a little piece of their soul. Thing is, Gaunt does not do so with bodily possession in mind, oh no, this mustachioed Mephistophelean menace is more intent on sewing discord among the friendly townsfolk. He gets the people of Castle Rock to turn on each other in order to avoid implication when the town destroys itself. It’s a coolly diverted variation on the Satanic theme, and could not have been anchored by a better performance or actor cast than Max Van Sydow…a man who’s charmingly disarming and just as equally evil.

The top-notch cast also includes Ed Harris as Sheriff Alan Pangborn (played by Scott Glenn in the new Castle Rock series), one of the greatest American actors of the past three decades, J.T. Walsh as the show-stealing Danforth Keeton (Don’t call me Buster!) whose vein-popping apoplexy reaches such extreme heights you’re not sure whether to laugh at the guy or give him a damn hug (I miss Walsh, one of the all time best American character actors…ask Billy Bob about it). Amanda Plummer and her usually creepy self’s onboard as well, just as Bonnie Bedelia (as Polly, not Holly, a la DIE HARD), Ray McKinnon, Don S. Davis and Frank C. Turner all are. With a lesser cast, the movie would not work as well as it does, particularly when considering the director, Fraser C. Heston (yes, Chuck Heston’s son), had only made two TV movies prior.

And while I’ve always been drawn to the sleepy, small-town atmosphere of NEEDFUL THINGS, there are a few outright stints of horrific violence that have left a dent over the years. First, seeing Nettie (Plummer) find her gorily flayed pooch hanging from up above always sends a shock down the spine. WTF is that! Or how about that gnarly meat-cleaver-butcher-knife fight between Nettie and Wilma (Valri Bromfield) which ends in a glorious double-impalement? Good stuff! So too is the scene when young Brian Rusk lifts a .45 to his own temple, while Sheriff Pangborn tries to talk him off the ledge, so to speak. It takes balls to have a kid die in a horror movie, but to have him willingly take his own life? Brazen! Of course, a late throwaway line would suggest Brian survived the gunshot and is recovering in the hospital. Less brazen, admittedly, but the scene where Brian pulls the trigger is still nothing nice.

 

Saving the best for last, let’s talk about old Danforth. This sleazy letch is not only pilfering funds from the town treasury, he seems to be going the absolute craziest of all of the townsfolk. He not only verbally assaults everyone in town, he lethally bashes his wife’s head in with a steel hammer. Undeterred, ole Danny boy gets a hold of some sticks of dynamite, straps them to his body, and threatens to blow Castle Rock and its innocents to smithereens. Yet, thanks to a genuinely compelling monologue by Sheriff Pangborn, he dissuades Danforth from targeting the townsfolk and instead redirect his ire towards Gaunt. Fans of the novel know the book ended much differently, and involved a toy jack-in-the-box snake that used to belong to Pangborn’s son (his wife and child die in the novel) to defeat Leland. In the movie, the honor goes to Danforth, who realizes Pangborn is telling the truth about the Luciferian Leland and uses the dynamite to blow his crusty ass up for good. Shite’s fire!

Now, I know a lot of complaints about NEEDFUL THINGS have to do with its overlong runtime, and to an extent, I kind of agree. But ardent fans of the flick know TNT put out a three hour version in the 90s called MORE NEEDFUL THINGS, which restored over an hour of deleted footage to the original. That feels even longer, but gives you an idea how the producers, which made a deal with Heston to film enough footage for a two-part miniseries, felt they needed to honor the length of the book by shooting a wealth of material. Unfortunately, due to some legalese bullshite, the three hour version was never properly released on VHS or DVD. I know Castle Rock the series will cover similar territory, but if there was ever a Stephen King book that could work very well as a TV show or an IT-style miniseries, it is NEEDFUL THINGS. I know I’d watch that shite, how about you!?

Again, for the last 25 years NEEDFUL THINGS has been tucked away among the many mid-to-upper-tier King adaptations that people too easily tend to cast aside or glance past. I much prefer it to its 1993 kin, THE DARK HALF, and would even go as far as to say it features some of the best performances of any King flick. Von Sydow and Walsh absolutely own this shite, with Ed Harris putting in another solid turn as well. Between the acting, the hypnotic setting and the devil’s wicked brand of evildoing, NEEDFUL THINGS calls for far better reception than the F*cking Black Sheep treatment its gotten in the past.

STREAM NEEDFUL THINGS HERE

GET NEEDFUL THINGS ON DVD HERE

GET NEEDFUL THINGS ON BLU-RAY HERE

Extra Tidbit: Michael Rooker played Sheriff Pangborn in THE DARK HALF.
Source: AITH

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