Slashing Wit

They're having a devil of a time up in tiny Castle Rock, Maine. Ever since the arrival of sinister old Leland Gaunt and his quaint little antique shop, the town's been going to hell. Literally.

At first Sheriff Pangborn, a former homicide detective from Pittsburgh who moved to Castle Rock to enjoy the slower pace and hospitality of small-town life, can't put his finger on the cause. For no apparent reason good kids are sloshing turkey guano on their neighbors' clean laundry, priests are slashing tires, and Baptist preachers are planting bribes on the sheriff's desk. Even Pangborn's noble fiancee, Polly, has acquired a nasty new attitude to match the odd-looking necklace Gaunt has given her to cure the arthritis in her hands.

By the time the mean-spirited pranks have escalated into deadly meat-cleaver-versus-butcher-knife battles, Pangborn has narrowed down the source of the malice to the beguiling shopkeeper. The only question remaining is whether the lawman can save the town from itself before the malevolent stranger's influence has destroyed it.

Misery loves company; it was, in many ways, the cinematic forerunner of this Needful Things. Misery, the 1990 suspense film starring Kathy Bates and James Caan, was one of the better cinematic adaptions of a Stephen King novel. Character-driven and spiked with warped humor, Misery was a cut above the usual slasher movie. This new film, another King novel adapted for the big screen and produced by Misery-makers Castle Rock Entertainment, is even better.

The two releases have a lot in common, beginning with inspired casting. Kathy Bates's performance as the unhinged romance-novel fan in Misery garnered her an Academy Award. Bates isn't in this new film, but Max von Sydow's turn as the outwardly affable antique store proprietor with the heart of brimstone is equally masterful. You expect top-drawer dramatic acting from von Sydow, who rose to international prominence as Ingmar Bergman's leading man in 1957's classic The Seventh Seal and whose distinguished career spans four decades and appearances in over 80 films. The surprise here is von Sydow's gift for dry humor, not to mention King's (or was it screenwriter W.D. Richter's?) ability to write it.

Needful Things is actually funnier than it is scary. King might be developing a whole new category of cinema here -- the comedy of terrors. When Reverend Rose unwittingly asks the prince of darkness his religious affiliation, Gaunt replies, "You might say I'm nondenominational." As the evildoer's place of business fills with curious townsfolk shortly after opening, Gaunt, scarcely able to conceal his glee, whispers to himself, "I didn't think we had room for one more soul in here." Later he hands an angry drunk a sawed-off shotgun with a reassuring, "Don't worry. Guns don't kill people. People kill people." In the wrong hands, they're the kind of lines that could elicit groans from even the least discriminating audience. But not to worry A von Sydow's pitch is perfect. He delivers every bon mot with just the right combination of sardonic smirk and mischievous twinkle. The old pro is having fun and it's damn contagious.

While von Sydow's Gaunt is a master manipulator and a wicked tempter, he doesn't resort to mere superhuman powers of Hollywood Satans to carry out his evil deeds. He welcomes customers into his store, shows them the one gift that will capture their fancy like nothing else in the world, and then asks not for money but for "a small favor" as remuneration. Their own greed turns them into monsters willing to pay any price to get what they want. By avoiding the trap of making Gaunt a supernatural brute, and by allowing his customers to drive their own bargains and seal their own fates, Needful Things ensures that its characters' plights feel all the more real. King's restraint is admirable.

Ed Harris's Sheriff Pangborn is a suitable good guy imbued with all the common horror-movie hero qualities. He's stoic, rational, a bit of a plodder, and suspicious by nature. Although he's not nearly as colorful or compelling as his Mephistophelian adversary, Pangborn is one of those stand-up guys you can't help rooting for in movies like this. As he has throughout his career, Harris proves himself more than capable but less than scintillating in the role.

Needful Things takes a while to build up a head of steam -- the action unfolds slowly, and a great deal of attention is paid to secondary character development. But you get the sense from the outset that first-time feature film director Fraser C. Heston (son of that C. Heston) knows where he's going. It's not the kind of overwhelming directorial debut that invites comparisons to Hitchcock (or even De Palma), but it's solid filmmaking, and that's fit enough for this King outing.

 
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