Sunday, December 7, 2014

(A Partial) Movie Review: "Needful Things" [1993]

Today, we'll be looking at the 1993 feature-film adaptation of Needful Things, and rather than take the path of least resistance -- a straight-ahead review -- I'm going to opt for the "commentary track" approach.  Why I'm doing this, I do not know; it is extremely time-consuming, and runs the risk of annoying anyone who is resistant to plot summary.

But, that's what the muse (who, in my case, looks a bit like this) is commanding me to do, so who am I to ignore him?
My initial plan was to do a side-by-side comparison of the theatrical cut with the extended television cut.  I previously did a similar post about the aborted television series Golden Years, comparing its original episodic versions to the truncated home video release; and I enjoyed the way it turned out, so I wanted to follow the same format here.  However, the editing of the extended television cut of Needful Things shifts several scenes around, and also makes some major allowances to remove profanity, and those elements would make doing this as a side-by-side comparison much more difficult than it was with Golden Years.

So, instead, I'll cover the television version at the end of the post.
In any case, the write-up of the movie itself shall now proceed.  And lest you think we'll only be dealing in plot summary, rest assured that there will be plenty of the trenchant commentary you've come to expect from this blog.  Maybe even a little analysis.
I dig that poster.  I should try to locate one of those.
Before we get underway with the summarizin'/commentatin', a few words about the filmmakers seems in order:
The movie was scripted by W.D. Richter, who was a fairly prominent name during the eighties.  He'd written the remakes of both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dracula in the late seventies, and then moved on to big-star vehicles like Brubaker (Robert Redford) and All Night Long (Barbra Streisand and Gene Hackman) before taking a crack at directing with the cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension.  He also had a hand in writing Big Trouble in Little China, so he's okay in my book no matter what.
The director was Fraser C. Heston, son of Charlton.  He's only directed two further films in the intervening 21 years, which seems like a bit of a shame to me.  His work on Needful Things may not be Oscar-calibre or anything, but it's certainly competent, and that's more than can be said for some schmucks in that industry.
The producers were Jack Cummins, associate producer Gordon Mark, and executive producer Peter Yates.  Of them, I would only characterize Yates as being particularly notable; he's best known as the director of Bullitt (and, around my home, Krull), and his credit here may indicate that he was at one point attached to direct the film.
Most of the other key positions were filled out by people whose careers are sort of middling at best.  And hey, nothing wrong with that; they were/are Hollywood professionals, whereas I am a chump trying to keep his cat off his keyboard at 4:07 AM.  So when I sort of dismiss the idea of discussing them individually on grounds of non-noteworthiness, let's bear in mind the relative circumstances and remember that comparatively, I am a complete dork.
That said, the nearly-complete lack of big-time behind-the-scenes players is moderately surprising.  The movie was a Castle Rock property, by which I mean not the fictional town in which it is set, but the production company that made it.  The name had come from Rob Reiner's involvement in Stand By Me, which at that point in time was arguably the pinnacle of Stephen King on film.  Castle Rock, by 1993, had made films such as When Harry Met Sally, Misery, A Few Good Men, and In the Line of Fire.  Their track record was by no means perfect, but they had major commercial and critical hits under their belts, and much of that reputation was thanks to Stand By Me (not one of their movies, but theoretically the origin point for the company) and Misery, two of the most successful of all King adaptations.

Why, then, should Needful Things have been treated more or less as a b-movie for the company?
Impossible to say based on sheer speculation, so let's let the speculation be sufficient in its own right and instead marvel that the movie turned out as well as it did.
Which is not to say that it turned out especially well.  I enjoy the movie, personally; it has many problems, but it also has numerous virtues, and they make it impossible for me to write the film off.  As such, I expect I'll find myself defending it here at least as often as I attack it, and overall I'm of the opinion that it probably deserves a slightly better reputation than the one it has.  
With that in mind, let's get the post proper going.

The movie begins with an opening-credits sequence, consisting of marvelously ominous (yet somehow cheerful) Patrick Doyle music.  We're going to cover Doyle's score for the film in a separate post, but know this: I am a fan.

Visually, the sequence begins with shots in which we are moving over the face of waters of some sort; eventually, we see that we are near a coastline, and standing sentinel over that shore is a lighthouse:

The camera continues swooping through the land, passing over trees, hovering over the highway, and eventually approaching the grille of an oncoming car:

This image puts me in mind of several things.  First, let's all acknowledge the fact that Gaunt does not (as he does in the book) drive a Tucker Talisman.  Second, it makes me think of Joe Hill's NOS4A2, because this Mercedes looks a bit like Charlie Manx's Rolls.  Third, well . . . how could I not think of Mr. Mercedes?

The car goes past us, and cut to another stretch of the road so that we can see it speeding up the highway from another angle, stirring up a cloud of fallen leaves as it blows past us again.  In its wake, we see a sign:

This is an energetic, lovely opening sequence.  The camerawork -- which I assume was mostly achieved via helicopter -- is excellent, and having us blow into town alongside Leland Gaunt is a nice touch.  Doyle's music assists tremendously, and I'll say something which is always worth repeating: a good score is an immeasurable aid to a movie.  Many people undervalue the work film composer do; none of them write for this blog, nor ever will.

The credits sequence ends, and within moments we are seeing a tentative face peeking through window blinds at a shop across the street:

This is Nettie Cobb, who is suspicious about the fact that the shop across the way still has its windows soaped over; she figures that is a sure sign that they must be hiding something.  Her boss, Polly, patiently reassures her that that is probably not the case, but Nettie isn't swayed; she says she's never going over there.

A man's face suddenly appears at the window, startling Nettie.  This is Alan Pangborn, the town's sheriff; he's come to see Polly, his girlfriend.  He plans to, within the next few minutes, have her become his fiancĂ©e.  He sits down excitedly at the counter of the restaurant (of which Polly is the proprietor; this is a change from the novel, in which she ran a sewing shop named, charmingly, You Sew And Sew) and orders a sandwich.

Polly begins asking Alan how his day is going, but the two of them are soon interrupted by Nettie, who wants to show them an advertisement for the new store:

"You won't believe your eyes!" Nettie enthuses.  "Says so right there!"

"Well, then, it must be true," Alan allows.  He's curious as to who the owner of the new store might be; Polly says nobody knows.

Before Alan can even pop the question to Polly, we cut to some kid riding his bike.  This is an odd edit, but it does occasion a nice image of the sort you occasionally find when you pause the DVD at just the right moment:

Readers of the novel will know immediately that the kid is Brian Rusk, who will end up (unwittingly) playing a large part in Nettie's death.  That makes this a rather haunting image.

For those viewing the movie without the benefit of having read the novel, however, this moment stands a good chance of playing differently.  Seeing as how the cross-fade happens immediately on the heels of Polly speculating about how the unknown owner of Needful Things is "from away," I think this edit to Brian Rusk potentially creates an expectation that the kid either IS the owner, or that he is somehow related to the owner.  This expectation is not lessened by the fact that as we see Brian for the first time, he is bicycling up a leaf-strewn street just as Gaunt's Mercedes was speeding up a leaf-strewn highway during the opening credits.

If the editing manages to give you that idea, however, it has given you the wrong idea; Gaunt and Brian have no relation whatsoever, apart from the relationship that exists between a shopkeep and a customer.  And since both Nettie and Polly will eventually become Gaunt's customers as surely as Brian does, cutting to Brian in this fashion seems like a bit of a mistake.  More sensible, methinks, if the shot had cut from Nettie's wondering face to a push-in on the as-yet-unopened Needful Things, and then cut to Brian.

Needful Things was edited by Rob Kobrin, and if you're unfamiliar with the name, that's no indication of your lack of film knowledge: Kobrin only has a handful of films to his name as editor, and of them, the most notable is probably Virtuosity, the Denzel Washington movie that helped introduce American audiences to Russell Crowe.  (Fun side-note: the poorly-reviewed Virtuosity was directed by Brett Leonard, who also helmed The Lawnmower Man.)  I don't mean to badmouth Kobrin; for the most part, his work on Needful Things is competent.  However, if you want to know what editing CAN theoretically do to hurt a movie, consider the possibility of the mixed signals sent out by the scenario I've described above.

I'd like to think that Kobrin was more interested in foreshadowing the relationship Nettie and Brian shared despite never meeting one another; if so, it resulted in an image I'm happy to add to my collection, so there's that.

Anyways, as we follow Brian we eventually end up being led to the very shop in question: Needful Things.  Brian pulls his bike up in front of the closed-up shop, and he gets off; he walks up the steps and onto the porch.  We can speculate that there must be something calling to him, somehow.  There is nothing in the soundtrack or the visuals to indicate that (if it exists at all) it is anything supernatural or otherworldly; perhaps it is just plain old curiosity.

While Brian is looking through a section of window that hasn't been entirely soaped over -- or so he thinks; we have seen a hand furtively unsoap this section from the inside -- there is the sound of a door opening, and a chime; and a door closing again.  Brian looks over, and sees:

He walks inside, and finds the shop to be empty and in a state of disarray.

Brian eventually calls out to ask if anyone is there, and of course, some is.  You might suspect this is a good moment for a jump-scare; and you'd be right.  Director Fraser C. Heston either didn't agree with us, or failed to take advantage of the moment, because what happens either doesn't count as a jump-scare, or counts as one of the least effective jump-scares in Hollywood history.

"Is anyone here?" asks Brian, a touch petulantly.

"I am here," Gaunt answers, a touch defiantly.

"AHHH!" exclaims Brian, ostensibly in fright; young actor Shane Meier verbalizes this so matter-of-factly that you suspect it may have been written that way in the screenplay.

Meier is not a bad actor elsewhere in the film; but this moment is not effective in the least.

Brian explains that he didn't break in; the door was open.  Gaunt concurs; after all, the shop is open.  He looks at Brian for a moment, and then Richter repurposes the novel's opening line: "You've been here before," Gaunt says to Brian.  "Sure you have; sure!  I never forget a face."

The King fan in me appreciates this moment.  The King fan in me can practically hear W.D. Richter grousing about how too many movies based on King novels do a poor job of actually capturing King's writing; he is saying he is determined to not fall into that trap, by golly, and to prove it, hey...!  Here ya go, actual lines from the beginning of the novel.

Thing is, it makes little sense to put these lines in Gaunt's mouth.  Unless one wishes to make the leap of claiming that the novel's unidentified narrator actually IS Gaunt somehow, it makes no sense whatsoever for Gaunt to say these words to Brian Rusk.  I suppose if you REALLY want to make it work, you could claim that Gaunt is knowledgeable about the multiverse, and that in a Dark Tower-esque sense Brian HAS been in that shop before.

I think that is straining awfully hard, though; and I don't think it works as an explanation.  Instead, I think Richter is engaging in a bit of fan-service designed to make King fans take note and give thanks.  I understand the impulse; but unless you have a valid story reason for doing so, then as far as I'm concerned, you're just doing the screenwriting equivalent of a rock star hollering out the name of whatever town he's playing in.  You're just fishing for applause.

It might be that I am being excessively grumpy about a fairly innocuous moment.  If that's your take, I plead guilty as charged.

Luckily, most viewers won't be as exacting as I am, and they are more likely to enjoy this scene for the simple reason that it introduces us to Max Von Sydow as Leland Gaunt.  Since I'm being excessively grumpy, I may as well admit that Von Sydow does not line up terribly well with my mental image of Gaunt from the novel.  Two faces imposed themselves on my mind while I was rereading the book: that of latter-years Paul Newman and that of current Daniel Craig.  In both cases, I suspect this is due to the fact that King places a large degree of emphasis on Gaunt's eyes.

Von Sydow is perfectly acceptable casting, though, and his performance is sufficiently effective that he manages, over the course of the movie, to become very near iconic.  Von Sydow, of course, is a remarkably good film actor, and when you hire a guy like him to play a part like this, the worst you're going to get is something fun.

As Gaunt, Von Sydow walks the thin line between satire and parody, and it is to his credit -- and probably to the credit of both his director and his editor, as well -- that he never once falls off the edge.  King has often spoken of the novel as being a work of satire.  I'm not entirely sure I agree with his assessment, but there is certainly an element of satire there at the very least; and Von Sydow is its ambassador in this movie adaptation.  It's a terrific performance.

As the scene continues, Gaunt goes to a window, cleans the soap off, and observes Wilma Jerzyck and her husband Pete arguing across the street.

After contemplating this momentarily, Gaunt moves on to asking Brian what he would like.  "What would make you happy again?" he wants to know.

"Mickey Mantle," Brian eventually says.  He's referring, of course, to the baseball card; he and his father once had a budding collection of Yankees cards.  This was before his dad split.  Gaunt allows as to how he might just have something that will make Brian very happy indeed, and off he goes to another room.

We then cut back to The Dot, and rejoin Alan and Polly in mid-conversation.  Polly is grousing about how bad her butt looks in a photo Alan has taken of her.  He -- rather ham-handedly -- asks her to marry him.  She thinks he is joking, and snarks that she'll marry him . . . as soon as he's serious about it.  He says that he is serious, and when she turns around to look at him, he's holding out an engagement ring in a jeweler's box.

"Mickey Mantle!" says Leland Gaunt enthusiastically, holding what appears to be a baseball card.  As you may have noticed, we have cut back to Needful Things to rejoin that conversation.  "Oh!" says Brian, startled again.  (This kid startles easily, and not in a compelling fashion.)

I have nothing against editing back and forth between two different scenes, but I want there to be a compelling story reason -- or a compelling thematic reason -- for doing so.  Here, there is no story reason for it of any sort.  So, it's "thematic" or bust.  What might the thematic relation between the two scenes be?  Well . . . I suppose you could make the argument that both pairs of characters are entering into contracts with one another.  If you really wanted to, you could even say that both of their arrangements are of the " 'til death do us part" variety.  (Although that's invalidated due to Brian getting off with a mere wound in the movie, as opposed to the brain-splattering fate of his prose equivalent.)

For me, though, the cutting back and forth doesn't work.  It feels haphazard and ill-considered, and I would say it is ineffective.

Regardless of my feelings on the matter, Gaunt has located what he was looking for:

A Mickey Mantle card, autographed "To My Good Friend, Brian."

Brian is agog at this, but Gaunt hands the card over for him to inspect.  As he does, a spark of electricity seems to jump from Gaunt to Brian via the card:

We cut from this to black-and-white footage of Mickey Mantle playing ball, and the implication is that Brian feels as if he has somehow been transported into the scene, and is somehow taking part in what he is seeing.  This is not unlike the scene in the novel in which Sally Ratcliff touches a splinter of wood and "imagines" herself aboard Noah's Ark.  It's a good example of the Richter and Heston taking King's story and turning it into something essentially cinematic.

It also hints toward the idea that the electricity somehow binds Brian to Gaunt, and enslaves him to Gaunt's will.

The novel, of course, made very strong hints toward the notion that the items Gaunt sold his customers were (A) not in actuality the things he claimed them to be; and (B) were possibly just indistinct "grey things" that somehow became invested with form thanks to the belief given to them by those who purchased them (a belief which was itself made possible only via telepathic influence from Gaunt).  These are somewhat vague notions even in the novel, and attempting to transpose them whole-cloth from book to screen would have been a mistake.  Conveying Gaunt's control over his victims by means of these little jolts of electricity is an effective solution to the problem; it sort of lets us off the hook, and gives us permission to not have to think about the specifics of what is happening to these people.

Cinema often functions in a "if you can see it, you can believe it" manner, and that's how I'd characterize this moment in the film.  It works, more or less.

Gaunt wants to know how much Brian would pay for such an item, and Brian begins to tell him how much money he has.  Gaunts silences him; fair trade must never consist of the seller knowing how much money the buyer has.

We cut back to Alan and Polly now, and the two of them are in a different room, trying to reach a consensus on whether there is or isn't going to be a marriage.

Turns out there will be.

Cut (sigh) back to Needful Things, where Gaunt is slowly counting the paltry contents of Brian Rusk's pocket money.

It isn't particularly evident from this screencap (though you can see it, just barely), but there is an interesting visual element in this scene that I want to note.  Take a look above Gaunt's back, and you can see what looks a bit like smoke.  What it actually is -- I think -- is dust caught in the shafts of light that are streaming in through whatever windows are to Brian's back.

In motion, the effect looks as if smoke is emanating from Gaunt's back; even better, it looks almost as if the "smoke" is being caused by those beams of light hitting the old man.  Subtly, it almost looks as if he is a vampire who is slowly being burned by the light of day.

Depending on whether this scene was filmed practically on location or on a studio soundstage, then what we are looking at might be merely a happy accident; or, perhaps, a lovely bit of subtle camerawork.  My money is on the former, but either way, it's pretty cool.

Gaunt tells Brian that his 95¢ is not quite enough money, but it's "an intriguing offer nonetheless."  Gaunt says, "Let's call it half the price."  The other half: a harmless prank, to be played on Wilma Jerzyck.

We cut next to a close-up shot of a small notebook, which apparently contains pages of names.  The notebook is being held by hands that have long, malevolent-looking fingernails; and, of course, we will learn that the hands are those of Leland Gaunt.  He flips past a couple of pages, finds a fresh page, and writes "Castle Rock" at the top.  On the next line down, he writes "Brian Rusk."  Low, menacing music is playing on the soundtrack, and on top of that, there are sound effects of indistinct whispering.

Let's back up for a moment, because there is something here worth noting:

Gaunt is flipping past his entry for "Port Elizabeth" before the transition between scenes has even completed, so one would have to have awfully keen eyes to catch anything on that page in a real-time viewing.  Thanks to the magic of frame-by-frame advancement, however, we can see that one of the people in that South African city whom Gaunt failed to ever be able to designate in his book with a checkmark is none other than Nelson Mandela!  Good for you, sir.

There do not appear to be any similarly-amusing jokes on the entry for "Akron."

A new page started, Gaunt sits back, seemingly self-satisfied with a job well begun.

Cut to a scene of Norris Ridgewick in the police station's bathroom, talking to himself in the mirror.  Danforth Keeton comes barging in, grabs Norris by the ears, and throws him against the wall.  He's mad about a ticket he's been written for parking in a handicapped space.  Alan shows up, stops things from escalating into an all-out fight, and goes on a bit of a tirade about how he expected Castle Rock to be a bit more placid than this, compared to the big city.
This scene is successful in that all it really needs to accomplish is to show that Keeton is volatile, and that he and Norris have bad blood between them.  It checks those boxes, for sure.  On the other hand, as the scene progresses, Ed Harris becomes more and more frustrated, and Alan ends up seeming nearly as unhinged as Keeton.  This is probably not a good direction for the scene to have gone, and it creates a sort of disconnect, at least for me.
Next, we have a scene of Polly talking Nettie into visiting Needful Things with a cake as a gift.  Once there, Nettie has a run-in with Wilma Jerzyck.  Wilma doesn't like the sound of Nettie's dog barking, and she threatens to come over to Nettie's house and skin him alive.
This scene is awkwardly staged and performed.  If you've read the novel it will make sense, but if you haven't then you may be left with a confused look on your face.
Wilma leaves in a huff, and Nettie seems none the worse for the incident.  While Gaunt is showing the Jerzycks out, Nettie browses the store.  Eventually, her eye finds a Hummel figurine:
This is a lovely moment, and it's one of the best in the film.  That solitary screencap doesn't do it justice, nor does it get across just how good Amanda Plummer is here.  In fact, this section of the scene is one in which everything works, from the lighting to the shot selections to (especially) the score by Patrick Doyle.  The figurine is given prominent placement as Nettie begins looking through the room, so that we suspect it is important in some way.  Then, when her eyes find it, you can see a subtle but profound series of emotions work their way through her.  All the while, Doyle's music is serving as a gentle, lovely, yet ominous backbone.
It's a minor moment, but a very good one.
As the scene progresses, we learn a bit about why Nettie is drawn to the figurine: she once had one just like it, but it was broken by her abusive husband, George.  She ended up stabbing George to death with a meat fork, and somehow, Leland Gaunt knows all about it.
This puts me somewhat in mind of Joe Hill's novel Horns, in which his protagonist grows devil horns on his head and suddenly finds that people tell him all sorts of dark, secret truths.  In the novel Needful Things, of course, it is almost certain that Gaunt is NOT the devil, but instead some sort of trickster.  It also seems to be the case that he is able to exert telepathic influence over people, which explains how he is able to do some of what he does.  In the movie, however, I do believe we are meant to think of Gaunt not merely as a devil, but as The Devil.  As such, he seemingly knows things about people simply as a matter of course.  This is one of those situations where I think King's approach works well for the novel, and Richter's approach works well for the movie.  For movies, simpler is better, and it is certainly simpler to say that Leland Gaunt is Old Scratch than it is to hint that Leland Gaunt may be an extra-dimensional sorcerer who may have occasionally pretended to be something else.
Nettie, seemingly not at all bothered by the fact that this man to whom she just brought an apple pie seems to know about that time she murdered her husband, is transfixed with joy by the figurine.  Gaunt holds it up to her ear, and tells her that sometimes he imagines that he can hear the tiniest laughter coming from it.

As Gaunt hands her the figurine, there is a spark of electricity, and we see what we assume to be a representation of Nettie reliving some of the abuse doled out to her by George, including the shattering of her figurines.  This is reminiscent of earlier, when we saw Brian experience Mickey Mantle playing ball.
Nettie is upset by this, and begins to leave.  Before she goes, she mentions Danforth "Buster" Keeton being a customer.  Gaunt suggests that somebody might need to play a trick on Buster, and Nettie seems concerned; her husband, after all, played a lot of tricks on her.  Gaunt suggests it might be fun to play one on somebody else for a change, and he assures her that nobody would ever know it had been her who did it.
We cut abruptly away from this scene to Brian, again on his bike, this time arriving at the Jerzyck's turkey farm.  He enters a turkey pen and begins scooping mud and shit into a bucket.
Cut back to Needful Things, where the door chime chimes and announces the entry of Alan Pangborn.  This, of course, is a major departure from the novel, in which Gaunt continually managed to evade meeting the sheriff.  However, it's a sensible change.  After all, if the movie's version of Gaunt is THE Devil, then what does he have to fear from Ed Harris?  Not much.  He need not fear anybody, one suspects, and that is certainly how Von Sydow plays the role.  Contrast this with the novel, in which King hints that Gaunt is powerful but not by any means all-powerful; Pangborn unwittingly channels a grand cosmic force referred to in King's work as "the White" as a means of combating Gaunt's darker power.  The novel maybe even hints that the White has consciously intervened for some reason of its/their own, and has merely acted through Alan.
With all of that omitted from the movie, it would, I think, have become incredibly cumbersome to try to keep Gaunt and Pangborn from meeting.  So Richter made a wise decision, and put the two of them together in several scenes, thereby giving their relationship a more actively adversarial one.  This, then, is another case in which I like what the novel does, but also like what the movie does differently.
"So, what can I sell you?" Gaunt asks Alan convivially.  
"Oh," muses Alan, "nothing; I've got everything I need."
It's clear from Gaunt's reaction that he doesn't quite know how to process the idea of somebody who doesn't need anything.  Von Sydow plays the moment for laughs, and does so marvelously; it would have been very easy -- especially in the hands of a novice director -- for Von Sydow to go over the top into camp mode with this role, and the fact that he doesn't deserves kudos.  Of course, it's no surprise; heck, Von Sydow managed to seem relatively restrained and naturalistic even in Flash Gordon, and this is no challenge at all compared to that.
Gaunt seems to know he's got a challenge on his hands, so he settles for offering Alan a piece of Nettie's pie.  We then cut back to the Jerzyck farm, where Brian is having a grand old time flinging poo-laced mud at Wilma's sheets:
Cut back to Needful Things, where Alan and Gaunt are sharing some pie and engaging in some uncomfortable banter about how Alan once hit a guy too hard while on the force in Pittsburgh.  "I reckon he needed some killing," Gaunt says with a twinkle in his eye.
Proving either that coincidences happen or that I am prone to read into things, I found myself considering this moment between Alan and Gaunt only a few hours after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson.  My feelings on that matter are not germane to a discussion of Needful Things, of course, and this is not the venue for discussion of that topic.  The timing struck me, is all; and given that timing, I can't help but consider the fact that the movie version of Alan Pangborn is a man who has accidentally killed somebody in the line of duty.
Regardless of that, the scene is played well by both actors, and the dialogue is good, but nothing of consequence happens here.  It feels as if the scene has been cut short, somehow, and that we've exited before the scene was allowed to play itself out fully.  There are several scenes that feel that way in this movie, and while the extended television cut clears some of that up, it by no means clears up all of it.  Whether this is strictly a screenplay problem or whether the editing is also a factor, I do not know.
Whoever is to blame, we exit the scene and transition to shots of a church spire framed against a darkened, foreboding sky:
This is Castle Rock's Catholic church, and we pan down to see this:

Readers of the novel know what viewers of the movies will later find out: that is Reverend Rose of the local Baptist Church who is placing anti-gambling signage.  The tension between Baptists and Catholics over the prospective Casino Nite is a notable subplot in the novel, but it's not entirely successful there, and it's not entirely successful here, either.  Richter has given it a somewhat more prominent role in the movie, which makes sense, given that the change of Gaunt to a less secular monster and more of a literal Devil increases the theological import of the story.
But does it feel a bit as if Richter missed out on an opportunity to make this element even more foregrounded?  For one thing, we spend virtually no time with the Baptists in the movie, whereas we certainly do in the novel.  For another thing, it seems like we could easily have used the Catholic/Baptist tension as a means of exploring the tension between other characters.  It could easily have been used as an explanation for the source of the feud between Wilma and Nettie, for example.
It may be that this was further than Richter wanted to go with the religious content, and it's certainly true that movie studios can quickly get cold feet about a project when the plot and themes threaten to put them in hot water with religious organizations.  However, if that was the case, why include the subplot at all?  It just feels like it could, and should, have been more in the movie.
After a brief encounter between Rev. Rose and Alan, we cut to the inside of the church, where Father Meehan tells Alan about an offensive letter he has received.  This is the "mackerel-snapper" letter from the novel, which is fine; but it's Father Brigham in the novel, whereas here it's Father Meehan.

What's that all about?  An educated guess: for some reason, they could get legal clearance on a Reverend named Brigham.  Okay, I guess; but if that's a problem, shouldn't it be a problem for the novel, too?  Does this mean that if some movie slips up at some point and names a character "Bryant Burnette," I can sue them and earn enough money in one fell swoop to become a professional blowhard/blogger?  If so, let's hope that movie gets made soon, and that the character with my name is a pederast with a Klan membership, crabs, and a penchant for intravenous drug use.  (The worse it looks, the more I make, I think.  Right?)

That's W. Morgan Sheppard as Father Brigham Meehan.  He's got all sorts of credits to his name, including various Star Treks and Kingdom Hospital (he's the narrator), but I always think of him as the Soul Hunter from the first season of Babylon 5.  And if you look in the background, you see Eddie Warburton, whose janitorial services have been held over from the novel, but relocated from the sheriff's office to the church.  Warburton has literally nothing to do in this movie, even in the extended cut.  He's played by Dee Jay Jackson, who has 128 credits to his name, most of them with names like "Cab Driver," "Dockworker," "Security Guard," and "Poker Buddy."  He's been at it since 1987, though, and in his role as Bus Driver during the 2014 version of Godzilla, he actually got to play one of the best, most heroic moments of a pretty good movie.  So here's to you, Dee Jay Jackson!

Readers of the novel will know that this letter -- from "the Concerned Baptist Men of Castle Rock" -- is actually a prank perpetrated upon the Catholics.  The movie does not seem to be going that route; there is zero indication that this was a prank, unless you want to hypothesize that Eddie Warburton is responsible.  You're welcome to do so, but you will have zero evidence in the movie to support that reading.  Based on what the movie tells us, the letter was sent, and that's all we know; if we've no familiarity with the novel, we would have no reason whatsoever to think that anyone other than the Concerned etc. sent that missive to Father Meehan.

See what I mean about the screenplay not quite managing to commit to the idea of religious strife in Castle County?  This subplot won't go very far in the movie, and that being the case, I am again forced to wonder: why include it at all?  To satisfy readers of the novel?  If so, surely it can't have worked, given how utterly different a direction the subplot takes in the book.

Cut from the Catholic Church to the Jerzyck farm, where Pete and Wilma have arrived home with their turkey feed.  "I feel like turkey tonight," Wilma proclaims.  "You feel like turkey every night, Wilma," says Peter in a long-suffering tone.  Wilma pays him no mind, but hoists a bag of feed onto her shoulder and sets off a-walkin'.

I like the staging of this scene quite a bit.  It's a simple thing, but effective: Wilma has the feed bag positioned on her shoulder in a way that feels very natural for the character, but it also serves as an impediment to her peripheral vision, so that this happens:

Face-first into turkey-mudded sheets.  Ick!

"Mud!" she hollers.  "Mud and shit!  Goddam turkey shit!"  We'll come back to this moment later in the post, and I'll let you know what replacement-language the extended television cut uses to avoid Wilma's profanities.

Wilma assumes that her sheets have been profaned by Nettie, so she calls her at The Dot and tells her a heap of trouble is heading her way.  "You won't see me comin'!" she says.  Check it out:

I cannot help but think of this:

It's probably a coincidence.  But then again, maybe not.  Pete looks a bit like the Mandarin, doesn't he?

My brain has just concocted a scenario in which Pete Jezyck -- devastated (but also strangely emboldened) by Wilma's death -- abandons his life as a rural turkey farmer, then moves to England, adopts a new life as an actor named Trevor Slattery, and ends up masquerading as the notorious terrorist Mandarin.  Which means that Leland Gaunt is probably Loki in disguise, hiding from Thor to avoid an ass-whoopin.

Well, a nerd can dream, can't he?

A nerd certainly can dream; but what this particular nerd can't seem to manage to do is: finish this dadgum post.  I've been limping along, trying to find time to work on it, and just failing, failing, failing.
So, what we're going to do is this: give up.

The fact of the matter is, I'm struggling finding time for my blogging right now.  I'd love to blame that on work; and, to some extent, I could get away with a finger-pointing of that nature.  But that'd only be somewhat true.  The fact is, I'm just not feeling it these days.  Why is that?  Beats me.  My King fandom hasn't diminished, that's for sure.  However, my energy for writing about my King fandom appears to be at something of a standstill.
Rather than spend more time worrying about it, I'm going to simply take a step back for a while, let the blog get a bit of sleep, and come back to it when . . . well, for lack of a better phrase, when I feel like it.
Unfortunately, the short-term fallout of that means that this post about the movie version of Needful Things is going to remain unfinished.  And that bums me out; I think there is a real need for there to be a post about this movie that takes the extended cut into consideration.  As always, I'm not sure I'm the right person to write it; but (again, as always) I'm happy to pretend to be that person and then let the actuality work itself out.
Sadly, it's not to be, at least not for now.  I hope to come back to this and finish it one of these days.
Hiatus commences in 5...


  1. It's a great analysis (I think the film's underappreciated, too). I'll miss the posts, which are always great, thoughtful, fun reading, but you take the time to refresh that you need. Best wishes.

    1. Thanks! I doubt I'll be away very long -- just need to recharge the batteries somewhat.

      Have you ever seen the television cut of "Needful Things"?

    2. I don't think so--I've seen it on TV, but I think it was on Encore, which likely would have aired it as a film. It's been a few years, though. I should rewatch it.

    3. The long version is well worth seeing (if you can find it, which is easier said than done). Brian's mother has a much larger role, and there is a lot more confrontation between Alan and Gaunt. It's problematic in some ways, but it's a real shame that isn't available commercially, and any fan of the movie would be bound to get a kick out of it.

  2. I may have had Max Von Sydow in mind when I read the book, I’m not sure. I was delighted by his casting, myself, but I can totally relate/sympathize with having someone else in mind while reading a book and then not quite gelling for the on-screen depiction.

    That is pretty cool about the Port Elizabeth entry. Good catch. I see a “Van Der Beek” fell victim to Gaunt’s machinations. Which immediately makes me want to see a Dawson’s Creek episode where Gaunt opens a shop in Capeside. Ah, to have that Ur-Kindle.

    That Pete/Mandarin visual continuity really cracks me up. Again, my kingdom for an Ur-Kindle, just to punch that in the search box and see what comes up…

    You just need a breather to re-charge. I’m sure you’ll be back in the saddle before you know it.

    And hey, Happy Holidays, sir! To you and all the Truth Inside the Lie readers. Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

    1. Mr. Jingles!

      Imagine if this movie had been a huge hit -- I bet there would have been a push for franchisedom in which Gaunt visits a new town every movie, eith varying degrees of success.

      I'd be down for that.

  3. Sorry for having to catch up, Holiday/Family related work detail.

    In terms of how the film shows Gaunt's illusions, I can see at least several other ways (some pretty elaborate) as to how they could have pulled that off. If that scene were being shot today I'll bet they would have digitized the whole background morphing into a 30s baseball stadium as Gaunt hands over the card. Or they could have maybe dressed the set so that one half was Needful Things shop, the other stadium. In terms of how the film portrays those illusions I'm more interested in how it relates to aspects of the Kingverse.

    Specifically, while I think it's fair to call Gaunt's tricks illusions, I'm still wondering if it isn't right, in the wake of N0S402, and Hill's related additions to his dad's work, whether or not this counts as an Inscape (I just find that whole concept fascinating for some reason).

    I'm aware of the possible objection that in the film Gaunt is being portrayed as the actual devil, however I don't know. I think it could go either way with the film, but for me the idea that I'm watching (albeit retroactively) one of the few examples of an Inscape in actual King family related work kind of interesting. The idea here being suggested that Gaunt is able to plant visions in his victim's heads.

    As for the Faith angle, I can't help but think that the original goal of both screenwriter and director may have been to go more all out with that element. Like maybe they were going to have it become more and more of an element in the story as events went on until it reached a fever pitch, and then the studio got cold feet (memories of Life of Brian or Last Temptation?) and order everyone to tone it down. That's just one thought anyway.


    1. I don't think I would count what's going on here as an inscape, personally, but it's an interesting idea, and it would certainly make things more interesting.

      I agree that it seems likely the movie was initially going to have a more pronounced faith-versus-faith angle. It just feels correct, doesn't it?

    2. Here's just a funny thought, but would Needful Things have made sense as a John Hughes film?

      Here's what I mean. Most of Hughes' films fall into to two categories, 80s Teen Dramedy or National Lampoon inspired farces centering around people driving each other crazy, often with both modes overlapping sometimes (Uncle Buck, Home Alone, Ferris Beuller...Beuller?....Beuller?). The darkest film Hughes made seems to be an Ed O'Neill film called "Dutch". I think it may be that film which made wonder if Hughes might have been the perfect writer/director for a property like Needful.

      It just seems like all the classic Hughes tropes are in place. You got a group of people slowly driving each other crazy, you ideals versus real life, even a bit of class conflict, and of course a bit of dark humor. It just sounds like the great unmade Hughes opportunity!

      ....I'll go take my meds now.


    3. Hmm. That's a very interesting idea. I'd love to visit the level of the Tower where it happened!

  4. Seeing the intro pictures up there makes it even more feel like Twin Peaks. Especially with the town sign, but actually pretty much the whole introduction of the town. Little more to add here, except from hope that you will find back your motivation soon.


  5. On a side note, just to let you know: I posted in our long-term discussion (you know in which topic, right?), but the posts are not visible to me anymore after leaving and going back to that entry. If you can't see them either let me know here, and we'll see how\where we can continue it instead.


    1. It's a strange problem, no doubt about it. But I've had it on posts other than this one, so I don't see any reason to abandon this venue for another one, because I don't think it'd help.

      Hopefully it will sort itself out!

    2. Oops -- left that comment on the wrong post! I'll redo it in the correct one.

    3. Well, I can't see ANY of your comments in the Dark Tower topic anymore. Including the new one you are refering to. But I see both of your new comments here. Same goes for all of my own comments posted after December 4th (here and there). So it does certainly make a difference for me. :)
      I only see them there after posting something, which means I'm always first ignoring what you write. (And can't check where I left off.) Also, if somebody wants to follow your recommandation to check out our discussion he/she will probably not see anything posted after December 4th, either.


    4. That is really weird.

      I've been having issues at one of my other blogs, too, though. Blogger just gets buggy with the comments.

      It's odd and frustrating, but I always do my best to remember that they charge me $0.00 for hosting this content. So all in all, they still get a massive thumbs-up from me.

      It bums me out that you're having such problems with it, though! I wish I knew of a way to fix it.

  6. Hi! I know you're on break, but I just wanted to let you know I miss reading your blog posts! You're a great writer. :)

    1. Thanks! That means a lot.

      I'll be back at some point. Hiatuses don't last forever.

  7. Yes you are a great writer! And your posts take a lot of work. Letting you know the effort is definitely appreciated.

    Look forward to your return!

    1. Lou, coming from you, that's a terrific compliment. Much appreciated!

      By the way, just in case any of you are interested in what I've been working on during my "hiatus," let me point you toward my James Bond blog:

      Wherein I have this doofy ratings system for the movies, which is mainly just an excuse to collect screencaps from the films. But I'm determined to finish working my way through the movies before "Spectre" comes out in November, and putting The Truth Inside The Lie on hold for a while is pretty much the only way to get the job done.

      No slight intended, Mr. King. I still love ya!

  8. Off-topic, but now that it's been confirmed that a Tales from the Darkside reboot is going ahead with Joe Hill writing the first episode and serving as executive producer, what do you think the chances are that Stephen King will eventually write an episode or two?

    1. Oh, I would think that the chances of that happening would be quite good. I hope Joe will hire his brother to do something, too; Owen could use more exposure.

    2. Wait, they're rebooting TFTDS? Now that...could be awesome, especially with Hill initially involved. Does anyone know which network will carry it?


    3. Assuming it ever airs, it'll be on the CW. Not exactly known as a top-flight network, but their profile is on the upswing thanks to "Arrow" and "The Flash."

      I hope it goes well!

  9. I'm still hoping/planning to finish this post at some point in the not-too-distant future, but I figured it was worth adding a comment real quick to inform anyone who might be paying attention that:

    "Needful Things" apparently came out on Blu-ray this summer! It's the theatrical cut only, which is a bit of a shame; however, there is a new commentary track by director Fraser C. Heston, which is cool. I have not listened to it yet, but will do so whenever I finally get around to resuming work on this post.

  10. Excellent review so far...

    It's funny, this might have the best cast of ANY King movie, yet it doesn't rise much above average. It needed a more experienced director, a bigger budget, more character development... some elusive spark. You stopped the review before the ending... I'm curious if, like me, you prefer it to the novel's.

    Also, I love Max Von Sydow in this, but what if Fraser Heston had cast his dad as Gaunt? Might have worked.

    1. I really need to finish this review someday. I wouldn't say I prefer the movie's ending to the novel's, exactly; but I think it probably worked better on film that it would have if they'd tried to do what the novel did.

      Chuck Heston as Leland Gaunt...? Sign me up for that. A younger version of him would've made a great Pangborn, too.