Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Friday, August 02, 2013

Bad Movie Month goes shopping for Needful Things

Welcome once again to Bad Movie Month, that special part of the summer devoted to the best of the worst(in my opinion,anyway) and our theme this year is The Devil Made Me Do It.

 Who then better to start this party off right than our modern day master of horror Stephen King,with a look at the 1993 adaptation of his less than stellar scare fest,Needful Things. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big SK fan but you have to admit that some of his books are not up to the same high bar of horror as others.

Needful Things is set in Castle Rock, a favorite small town setting of King's, and the book's subtitle was "The Last Castle Rock Story", which gives you a hint as to how the plot of this story is heading down a direct path of self destruction.

That road to hell is laid down by a newcomer in town, Leland Gaunt(played by the brilliant Max Von Sydow) who opens up a specialty shop on Main Street where,as if by magic,those perfect items that you've always wanted are on sale but oh, how high the price can be....

The basic deal is that locals are matched up with the perfect object(a baseball card,a high school jacket or a pendant that wards off pain) and along with a very low amount of cash, the purchaser has to perform a "deed"-play a trick on someone else in town.

 The real trick is that these pranks are meant to light a match to the powder keg feuds amongst the locals,such as nasty Wilma the turkey farmer vs. poor on the verge of madness Nettie Cobb(played by Amanda Plummer in her usual wacky lady style). Sounds like a great concept, right? Well, the book was overdone enough as it was for this set-up and I even reread it before seeing this movie again, so I can honestly say that sticking close to the source material wouldn't have helped much here.

The main problem with Needful Things is the overbearing need of the director Fraser C. Heston to overstate the obvious. For example,the opening credits music is pretty "Duh-na-DUM! EVIL!" as Gaunt enters town and despite having a few good actors like Bonnie Bedelia and Ed Harris on board, the entire cast indulges in one of the worst theatrical sins out there,overacting.

Since the director happens to be the son of THE Charlton Heston, his threshold for over the top performances was probably stronger than most of us,perhaps he even developed an immunity to ham handed shouting and overwrought emoting that passes for performances(kind of like watching the graduating class of SNL's  Master Thespian put on a show) here but it's pretty hard on the rest of us.

Let me highlight a pair of scenes as an example of what I mean. Leland Gaunt sends Nettie out to play a prank on irate town selectman Dan"Buster" Keeton(J.T. Walsh) as payment for the figurine she bought to replace the one her abusive husband broke that caused her to kill him(a lot of back story,I know). While she's doing that, another fella in Castle Rock is paying for his precious purchase by going after poor Nettie's dog,the aftermath of which will appear shortly.

Nettie slips into Buster's house and proceeds to decorate the place with traffic tickets allegedly written by a local cop that he had a fight with earlier and since Buster has been a naughty boy lately,due to his gambling habit, he's bound to get extra upset over those little pink slips. Nettie's impromptu vandalism has been given the subtle background music entitled "In The Hall of the Mountain King", making her posting of tickets accusing Buster of such activities as stealing and violating his mother that more wickedly whimsical, in theory:

Right after that number, Nettie goes home to find her beloved pet dead and immediately heads off to avenge his death. As planned, she believes her old hate buddy Wilma is responsible while that charming lady thinks Nettie is to blame for wrecking her house and the two of them have a knock down fight to the finish,all set to the tune of "Ave Maria." Personally, I can see going to knives over a pet but taking someone out because of a broken microwave? Not much of a battle cry to rally around there:

Things get even gruesomer from there, as more and more folks in town chose to use their fists instead of their words,especially with guns in hand(the clergy not exempted) and soon enough, the whole town is attacking one another in the streets as stuff begins to blow up. To be fair,the bomb setting is from the book but it seems to be mainly as an excuse for more mindless destruction in both cases.

 Ed Harris plays the sheriff who stumbles upon Gaunt's plan but doesn't do much to stop it other than to make everyone cease rioting for a minute to hear his lecture on bad behavior before crazy Buster shows up strapped with explosives to blow everything up real good. One thing you can count on in this movie is that someone will go wacky and start speechifying and J.T.Walsh goes at it with enough relish for a mountain of hot dogs.

 The only saving grace in this unholy mess is Max Von Sydow,who is a great choice for any sort of bad guy roles. Granted, he waltzes through his part with lines like "Don't blame me, blame the bossa nova!" and "You're disgusting, I like that in a person" yet at least he makes an effort towards some subtlety,not much but the effort is appreciated:

Originally, this movie was supposed to be a three hour deal( TNT aired that extended version once upon a time) and some claim that the extra hour would make up for all of the loopholes in the plot but I think not.

The incredible amount of stagy acting and awkwardness in this production,such as a temptation scene between Bonnie Bedelia's diner owner suffering from arthritis and Gaunt,which forces her to wear lingerie and get all worked up when he slips a magic necklace on her, is painful enough.

Needful Things has fallen so out of the Stephen King film pantheon that you can't even find it on home video anymore( I had to watch online) and it's doubtful that even the most creatively desperate out there in Hollywood will try to remake this. It might have made for a good miniseries or a made for TV series,much like the current success of King's Under The Dome this past summer, particularly since the production values present onscreen feel like a cheesy TV movie.

So,basically, when it comes to Needful Things, it's like any deal with the devil; he gets the better end of the bargain while you're feeling as if you've sat through a small slice of hell. Tune in next week for more devilish cinematic torments,including a special Sister's Choice feature(happy birthday,sis!) and if you do wander into Needful Things, be sure to save your receipt as well as your soul:

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