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Arguably, Needful Things is one of the most underappreciated works of the master of horror fiction, Stephen King. Both the novel and the film appear to have failed to capture the attention of fans and critics. However, careful examination reveals what may well be one of the most intriguing horror yarns from recent years. Indeed, Needful Things boils down to a clever fable that talks about the superfluous value that we often assign to unreachable material possessions which we believe are indispensable to our happiness. Furthermore, the film version succeeds in adapting the book into the big screen.

cover art

Needful Things

Stephen King

(Penguin; US: Jun 1992)

Written in 1991, Needful Things is better known for being the last novel written by Stephen King that takes place in the imaginary town of Castle Rock, Maine. Horror fans will recall that that The Dead Zone, Cujo, and The Dark Half, all took place in this exact same locale. As a matter of fact, some characters and events from these early novels make a brief appearance in Needful Things.

As Needful Things begin, the mysterious Leeland Gaunt arrives to Castle Rock to open an appealing antiques store properly named Needful Things. In this store, everybody finds a much desired object that promised to bring eternal happiness. For instance, Brian Rusk finds a rare baseball card signed by Mickey Mantle, Ace Merrill finds the jacket he used to wear when he was young, and Nettie Cobb finds a figurine similar to the one she broke years ago. In a way, Needful Things looked forward at the allure and charm of searching eBay listings. 

Unfortunately, the catch of buying at Needful Things is that everybody has to pay a price in cash, but also perform a deed on Leeland’s behalf. The requested feats are often what appear to be harmless pranks or misdemeanors. That is, Brian Rusk is asked to throw apples at the windows of a neighbor, Ace Merrill is asked to kill a dog, and Nettie Cobb has to bedeck a neighbor’s house with traffic tickets. However, these shenanigans are not completely harmless: Leeland has a carefully designed plan aimed to the creation of internal conflicts in the small community of Castle Rock. As the story progresses, the deeds ultimately lead to violent riots and fiery explosions.

cover art

Needful Things

Director: Fraser Clarke Heston
Cast: Max von Sydow, Ed Harris

(US DVD: 27 Aug 2002)

Years before the acclaimed Crash (2004), Stephen King was able to aptly portray the fragile structures that hold the weight of our problematic social behavior. Indeed, what appears to be a simple practical joke on somebody, it has the definite potential to ultimately cause serious damage to our entire community. In Needful Things, morality and civility are showcased as weak social pillars.

Furthermore, as cleverly portrayed in Needful Things, greed and self-indulgence are two major problems that haunt our modern world. Indeed, except for the principled Sheriff Alan Pangborn, all the characters have an unfulfilled desire that makes them corrupt and dishonest. That is, one way or another, consciously or unconsciously, all of them placed a definite price on their morality and dignity. As such, Needful Things emerges as a smart analysis of our culture of obsessive consumption.

The film version of Needful Things was aptly directed by Fraser Heston (the son of the legendary Charlton Heston) in 1993. To date it remains one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King book to the big screen, a big accomplishment on itself. Unfortunately, the director’s cut ran 180 minutes, but the director was forced to edit the film down to 120-minutes. That is, about one third of the movie was edited out. Thankfully, in 1996 TBS aired the director’s cut on TV. It remains a shame, however, that even though Needful Things is currently available on DVD on its 120-minutes version, the director’s cut remains unreleased.

Even at two thirds of its intended length, Needful Things emerges as a clever film with good actors playing interesting characters. In particular, the renowned Max von Sydow plays Leland Gaunt with lots of devilish gusto. Equally notable is Ed Harris as Sheriff Alan Pangborn, Amanda Plummer as Nettie Cobb, and J.T. Walsh as the obnoxious Danforth “Buster” Keeton III.

In addition, Needful Things features one of the most sumptuous and elegant music scores in the history of horror cinema. Composed by the extraordinary Patrick Doyle, the soundtrack to Needful Things is characterized by its grim and lavish orchestral music. Not an easy feat, the uncanny choral chants in Needful Things rival those from Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen (1976).

As many other popular cultural products, Needful Things, in book and film form, has pretty much being forgotten except for the avid terror fans. As the new millennium accelerates we witness our world consumed by an international economic crisis fueled by unrestricted consumption and greed. As such, Needful Things becomes as important, relevant, and frightening as it ever was.

Marco Lanzagorta received a PhD in physics from Oxford University and has worked at prestigious research institutions in England, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico and the US. During the past 25 years, he has conducted research in physics, computer science, and neuroscience. Currently, Marco is a research physicist at a major defense research laboratory in Washington DC, and an affiliate associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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