John Bruni reviews Needful Things

Needful Things 120 min., 1993
Written by W.D. Richter
Directed by Fraser C. Heston
Language: English
My rating: ★★★


* * *

(Warning. This review contains spoilers. Tread with caution if you haven’t seen this movie.)

I remember going to see NEEDFUL THINGS in the theater. I couldn’t see how Hollywood could make a good movie out of that awesome book. It was impossible. Sure enough, I was right. At the time I considered it absolute garbage. Fast forward a few years, and TBS is showing the extended cut of the movie. I thought, hey. With more time they could fit more stuff into the movie. It had to be better, right?

Wrong. This version is an even bigger mess. It makes the theatrical version (which has grown slightly on me) look like a tightly plotted film.

Forgive me. This cut has never been officially released. I reviewed this thing off a VHS recording I made about twenty years ago. The listed time above is an estimation on IMDB. The quality, obviously, wasn’t great. I’m not going to comment on that kind of thing. It can’t be helped.

(On a side note, I just realized this is the second review of an Ed Harris movie in which I refer to myself. I don’t usually do that. Maybe I should just start doing that for Ed Harris movies.)

Director Fraser C. Heston fucks up from scene one. While I did enjoy the majestic sweep of the opening—kind of like a gleeful version of THE SHINING’s opening—the first scene pissed me off. Thankfully it was cut for theaters. Anyway, Ed Harris as Alan Pangborn is helping Norris Ridgewick (Ray McKinnon in his finest performance in a Stephen King movie) with his broken down car. And then a creepy car comes out of nowhere and crashes into them. This leads to a fucking car chase! No. That’s not right. It makes no sense. There is no point to it. It’s certainly not in the book. Maybe it’s right for a different movie, but not this one. It’s kind of like hearing a dick joke from Stephen Hawking. The only reason I can think of for this scene to exist is so we can meet the hero, Pangborn, sooner. Sorry, Heston. I can wait for that.

We also get treated to a peek at gossipy small town New England long before the actual story starts. It’s cute and quaint, but it slows down the story. It was cut from the theatrical version. Rightfully so. In fact, just about everything they cut from the extended version was the right stuff to cut. Good job, guys.

But the extended cut. Whoo-boy. It’s insane how fucked up it is. It’s impossible to get a time frame for events. It looks like it’s the end of the day in one scene, but then it’s rush hour in the next, and it’s all treated like it’s the same day. One character is over here, and in the next moment, that same character is somewhere else, doing something completely unrelated, when they’re supposed to still be in the original place. The order of scenes in the theatrical version is also rearranged, adding to the chaos of the extended version.

Want more proof? In the theatrical version a character buys a first edition copy of TREASURE ISLAND signed by Robert Louis Stevenson. For some ungodly reason it is later switched to THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain. No shit. In the theatrical version it’s dubbed over, so you can clearly see him saying HUCK FINN, but you hear TREASURE ISLAND. They didn’t bother to fix this for the extended version.

There were a few good things about the extended version, though. There are a lot of characters in both movies, and the smaller roles don’t get a lot to do in the theatrical cut. In this one they get to explore their stories a bit more. One side story that was fun was Cora Rusk and her love of Elvis. Her needful thing was a bust of the King with a pair of his sunglasses. She serenades it. She wears the glasses. She, uh, sleeps with it. In one scene she makes out with it. I know why they cut it, but it’s just such a bizarre touch that I couldn’t help but like it.

Buster Keeton is being audited by the IRS. This is a great side story, and it is mentioned in the theatrical version, but it doesn’t go deep as it does here. There’s a great scene in which he tries to bribe Pangborn, and to watch Harris and JT Walsh go at it is really fun.

Enough about the differences. Let’s talk about how awesome every actor is in this. McKinnon plays Norris like King intended: he upped the Barney Fife-ishness dial all the way. Amanda Plummer plays Nettie Cobb insanely well. Vulnerable. Scared. And absolutely crazy. JT Walsh plays Buster as an endlessly persecuted, angry, self-entitled asshole with a gambling problem. He’s always sweaty and ranting. It’s great. William Morgan Sheppard is great as the Irish Catholic priest who is always battling with Don S. Davis, the Baptist reverend. There’s an awkward scene between the two of them as they’re each reading, simultaneously, last rites to two women who just murdered each other. Frank C. Turner is hilarious as Pete Jerzyck. His reactions to everything are so casual, blasé. Just about every line of dialogue he gets is, “Ayuh.” Duncan Fraser plays Hugh Priest exactly as I envisioned from the book: drunk, angry and missing the good ol’ days when he mattered.

And then there’s Lochlyn Munro as John LaPointe. I gotta say, I’ve seen this guy for years in movies, and I could swear his real name is Chip. Google him. He just looks like a Chip. I refuse to believe his name is Lochlyn.

But the best performances come from Harris, Max von Sydow and Bonnie Bedelia. Harris is one of those actors who always does a great job, and this is no exception. He’s a regular guy who gets tough when he needs to be. In an early scene he has to step between Buster and Norris. He talks about how he thought moving here from the big city would be relaxing, that he wouldn’t have to deal with crazy people anymore. That the worst of his job would be getting cats out of trees, but no. “Everyone is insane everywhere!” There’s another scene where Father Meehan is reading to him a threatening letter he received from the Baptists. It’s just so funny that Pangborn can’t help but laugh. He apologizes for it, but it’s clear he’s not taking this seriously. Then there are the scenes where he’s with Polly, and he actually gets bashful and shy. It’s a nice touch to a great character. And then there’s the greatest scene in the movie. I’ll get to that later.

Von Sydow plays Leland Gaunt, an antiques dealer who is new to town. He says he’s from Akron, OH, despite the obvious British accent. Oh yeah, and he’s the devil. His store is full of things that people have wanted their entire lives, and he sells to them . . . for a fee. The monetary cost is always paltry, but he asks for a favor, and that’s where things get crazy. Von Sydow plays him with demented glee. He’s menacing and cunning. You can sense the evil wafting off of him. And when he’s alone, he has wretched teeth and devilishly long fingernails. He has a habit of holding his hands together, just like Bela Lugosi in WHITE ZOMBIE, when he’s trying to get people to do things he wants them to do. And then there’s this lovely little speech: “The young carpenter from Nazareth? I knew him well. Promising young man. He died badly.”

Bedelia plays Polly Chalmers, the owner of a diner who has awful arthritis. She’s insistent on doing things on her own, and she’s Pangborn’s fiancée. She does a great job of showing a strong small town woman, but the best thing she does in this movie happens later. Her needful thing is an ancient Egyptian amulet that cures her arthritis just so long as she wears it against her skin. When she realizes how evil Gaunt is, she takes it off, and you can hear her bones crackling as her hands get gnarled up. There is a look on her face that will give you goosebumps. It’s a horrible sensation that will go through you. It’s equal parts pain and fear. She knows how bad it’s going to get, and it shows on her face as it gets just that bad and worse. It’s so bad that she lets Gaunt put the amulet back on her, knowing everything she knows.

Now, there’s a reason I chose this movie to review this month, and that I’m posting it so close to Election Day. It’s because of the ending. Everyone has gone crazy. They hate those who have wronged them. They’re running mad through the streets of Castle Rock, killing each other and blowing shit up. That’s mostly because Gaunt started selling them guns. As he says himself, “When I started out I was just a peddler moving across the blind face of a distant land. Moving, always moving. Always gone. And in the end I’d always offer weapons. And they’d always take them.”

It culminates when Father Meehan and Rev. Rose are squaring off against each other, ready to fight to the death. Pangborn points his gun at them, demanding that they stop. They won’t; they’re dead set against killing each other. Finally Pangborn empties his gun into the air, screaming. And he delivers a wonderful speech that should be etched into the minds of everyone who goes out into the world to vote in this election. As Gaunt sits calmly on his porch, smoking, Pangborn tells the town about how Gaunt came here to destroy them. He runs on hate. He’s used it to turn them against each other with their hatred and their greed and their prejudice. And Harris puts his all into this speech. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.

Well. Does that remind you of someone, America? I swear, I feel like Ed Harris at the end of this movie. I want to grab you all and scream in your faces about how these asshole politicians are manipulating you with your own views.

There’s a lot of other great stuff in this movie. Nettie vs. Wilma (poor Raider!). Norris vs. Buster (NA-NA-NA-NA-NAAAAAH-NA!). Hugh vs. Henry (should have fixed that juke box, dude). Buster vs. Myrtle (hey, these things happen). Buster vs. Gaunt (shouldn’t have called him Buster). And so on. One thing I was hoping for from the extended version was the appearance of Kiefer Sutherland reprising his role as Ace Merrill per the book, but ah well. The movie was very different from the book, anyway.

The thing to remember is that this is a comedy. Once you realize this and make peace with it, you can recognize yourself. We all want things. We’re greedy. We’re selfish. I believe that someone could do what Gaunt did in this movie. People would go for it. Then again, my view of the human race has always been pessimistic.

Think of it as Ray Bradbury writing THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. Demented is the proper word to describe this movie. It is very dark and very funny. I’ll give you one last thought, and it’s from Leland Gaunt himself. This is just after Buster sacrificed himself to blow up Gaunt. That didn’t work out so well, of course.

Gaunt drags himself out of the ruins of his shop, dusting himself off. He sees Pangborn and Polly staring at him. Gaunt says, “You know, there are days I really hate this job. This is not my best work, not by a long shot. Oh sure, a few murders and a couple of rather lovely explosions. I would hardly call it a rousing success, but what the hell? I’ll be back. In the meantime you and Polly, you are two terrific kids, and you’ll marry her. Trust me. She’s a lovely girl, Alan. You’ll have a wonderful family. Oh, by the way, give my regards to your grandson. Bob will be his name. International trade, his game. I’ll see him in Jakarta, 2053. August 14th. Ten am. A nice sunny day. We’ll make headlines.”

“Terrific?” “Trust me?” He’ll be back even when he loses?! File under O for “oh fuck.” Caution: You are now leaving the Twilight Zone . . .

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About John Bruni

John Bruni is the author of AND JESUS CAME BACK (Rooster Republic), DONG OF FRANKENSTEIN (New Kink), POOR BASTARDS AND RICH FUCKS and TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE (StrangeHouse) and STRIP (Riot Forge). His short work has appeared in anthologies like A HACKED-UP HOLIDAY MASSACRE (Pill Hill), ZOMBIE! ZOMBIE! BRAIN BANG! (StrangeHouse) and the critically acclaimed VILE THINGS (Comet). He edited STRANGE SEX 3 for StrangeHouse, and he was the editor and publisher of TABARD INN: TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE. Find out more at and
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  1. Pingback: My thoughts on NEEDFUL THINGS | Tabard Inn: Tales of Questionable Taste

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