Stephen King’s name seems to bring an audience to even the poorest adaptations of his work, which should provide some comfort to the filmmakers here. Nearly choking on its tongue-in-cheek approach, this darkly comic pic proves a sadistic, mean-spirited, overlong exercise that should have a devilish time sustaining any box office fire once the King-induced spark wears off.
Fraser C. Heston (yes, Charlton’s son) certainly had the plate set for his feature directing debut, working from a script by W.D. Richter (“The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai”) based on a King bestseller about the Devil opening a curio shop in a seemingly benign small town.
Set appropriately in King’s fictitious Castle Rock, Maine, the story has similarities to everything from the “Friday the 13th” TV series to Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” which also involved dark forces seducing simple townsfolk through granting their deepest desires.
In this case, fatherly looking Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow) is the proprietor of “Needful Things,” a new shop providing objects to the residents in exchange for each doing him “a favor”– successfully using those prankish deeds to prey on petty jealousies and set the good people of Castle Rock homicidally at each other’s throats.
Only the town sheriff (Ed Harris) seems to realize that something is rotten in the state of Maine, while even his fiancee (Bonnie Bedelia) falls under Gaunt’s promise-fulfilling spell.
Moviegoers aren’t likely to be similarly spellbound, as Heston employs a too-slow buildup to an explosion of mayhem that incorporates gruesome violence with awkward attempts at dark humor.
In fact, Heston and Richter can’t seem to make their minds up what genre the film wants to be. When Gaunt calls someone a “wussy,” for example, it’s obvious they’re trying to play “Things” both ways by courting a high-school mentality as well as a more discriminating palate. That brand of comedy doesn’t play well alongside the horror, however, except perhaps among the most undemanding of those pubescent minds.
The actors suffer from the same schizophrenia, with Harris playing things perfectly straight as the sheriff while many other performers (among them J.T. Walsh as an embezzling town elder) are cartoonishly over-the-top.
Von Sydow emerges as the pic’s least-needy asset with his toothy embodiment of Old Ned, impishly humming “My Favorite Things” or swaying to strains of “Ave Maria” while almost tangibly absorbing the carnage. From “The Greatest Story Ever Told” to this, it can now be said that the Swedish actor’s film career has run the full gamut.
Aside from the familiar elements of the story, certain tech contributions are equally derivative, particularly Patrick Doyle’s heavy-handed “Omen”-like score. Special effects are understated but for the most part effective.
Interestingly, the best recent adaptations of King’s work have been for television, as ABC miniseries like “It” and “The Tommyknockers” have been able to more fully develop characters and milk the suspense.
Castle Rock, in fact, probably scored the last major King feature with “Misery.” Still, “Needful Things’ ” dark shopkeeper seems to sum up this latest effort when, surveying his latest handiwork, he acknowledges, “I would hardly call it a rousing success.”