Needful Things Not a Necessary Stephen King Adaptation

The 1990s saw a boom and bust field of Stephen King adaptations make their way to both the big and small screen. Hollywood delivered some classics including The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Misery. There were some middling ones including The Dark Half and Apt Pupil. And we got quite a few forgettable duds like The Lawnmower Man, Sleepwalkers, and Graveyard Shift. Lost in this busy shuffle, Needful Things was sandwiched between The Dark Half and The Shawshank Redemption with a deadweight late-August release date. In spite of its impressive cast, this King adaptation failed to impress critics and was quickly forgotten.


Not much happens in the small Maine town of Castle Rock. But when the mysterious Leland Gaunt arrives and opens an antique shop called Needful Things, things quickly change. In his shop, Gaunt proves to have a knack for finding what each townsperson treasures the most. But these prized trinkets come with a steep price. Soon the residents of Castle Rock are turning against one another. And if Sheriff Alan Pangborn can’t figure out Gaunt’s secret, his little town may burn to the ground.

Needful Things Not Scary Enough for Horror, Not Sharp Enough for Dark Satire

A lot of things are immediately wrong with Needful Things. It doesn’t help that the novel on which it was based was certainly not one of King’s better works. On one hand, the premise of a Satanic shop owner granting people’s deepest desires for a price feels familiar and limited. It’s an idea better-suited for an anthology movie or series let down by W.D. Richter’s screenplay that does nothing to re-imagine the novel. Moreover, director Fraser C. Heston (son of Charlton Heston) lets the story unfold in a lazily predictable chain that offers no mystery or surprises.

On one hand, the premise of a Satanic shop owner granting people’s deepest desires for a price feels familiar and limited.

If its story feels telegraphed from the opening scene, Heston’s direction – while technically sound – is just as pedestrian. To some extent, Needful Things suffers from an identity crisis as Heston can’t settle on a tone. At no point does Needful Things ever approach being scary or suspenseful. Even when its third act hits the climatic crescendo, Heston fails to establish much in the way of urgency or stakes. Instead, this 90s King adaptation feels like – and works better – as a dark comedy. The dialogue, performances, and Patrick Doyle’s score all feel more like dark comedy than outright horror. Yet even in this regard, Needful Things lacks any sort of sharp critique to make it full out satire.

Needful Things Benefits From a Strong Cast Having Fun With the Material

Set in King’s fictional small Maine town of Castle Rock, Needful Things populates itself with a cast of colorful characters. Another way of putting this is that Castle Rock is filled with a lot of unlikable people. Aside from Ed Harris’ Sheriff Alan Pangborn (played by Michael Rooker in The Dark Half), none of the characters is particularly sympathetic. It’s something of a problem for a story about evil corrupting the innocent. No one in Castle Rock seems all that innocent from the get-go. No fault lies with Harris who is reliable in everything he turns up in. Yet his Sheriff Pangborn more often than not feels like a background character.

…none of the characters is particularly sympathetic. It’s something of a problem for a story about evil corrupting the innocent.

In spite of the characters issues, several good performances keep Needful Things afloat. Specifically, Max von Sydow (The Exorcist) looks like he’s having an absolute blast playing the devilish shopkeeper. Every time he’s on screen, the movie feel every bit as dark and fun as you might have hoped. And J.T. Walsh’s egotistical and pathetic ‘Danforth Keeton III’ only gets more fun to watch with each subsequent appearance. Throw in another wonderfully eccentric performance from Amanda Plummer and Needful Things is at least always watchable.

Needful Things Proves to Be An Inessential King Adaptation

Needful Things doesn’t stand out amongst King’s vast library, so it’s not surprising that it’s big screen adaptation fails to make a lasting impression. To be fair to Heston, much of the problem stems from a premise that would have been more fitting of an abbreviated episode of an anthology. Even for the early 1990s, Needful Things feels somewhat quaint. But Heston fails to find any scares from the concept while also struggling to settle on a tone. All of the performances are excellent – von Sydow and Walsh are standouts – but none of the characters are sympathetic. Not a bad movie by any means, it’s just not one worth seeking out.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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