“Stitching It Together”, the name of the making-of featurette included on the DVD release of horror–murder mystery Needle, reveals the film’s major flaw. The threads of its plot show at every formulaic twist and turn.
University student Ben Rutherford (Michael Dorman) receives an antique apparatus as part of the settlement of the estate of his father, who died in a car accident two years before. The machine is stolen from him, and members of Ben’s circle of friends start dying in spectacularly gory ways. The body count mounts as Ben learns the deadly nature of the device, connects it to the murders, and tries to discover the identity of the person using it to kill. All the while, Ben clashes with his brother Marcus, whom he blames for their father’s death.
Through glimpses of the apparatus in action, intercut with the demises of Ben’s chums, the function of the killing machine becomes clear. The operator pours a small amount of human blood (his or her own, evidently—we see blood being drawn from a vein with a syringe in one scene) into a decorative grate in the cabinet, followed by a small beaker’s worth of melted wax.
Next the killer places a photographic portrait in a retractable tray. After inserting the tray into the machine, the user turns a crank, and out of the cabinet emerges a wax figure, imbued with the essence of the person in the photograph. Finally, in typical voodoo fashion, the killer abuses the wax figure in ways that manifest in the victim’s own body.
Even though “Le Vaudou Mort” is helpfully lettered on the apparatus, characters in Needle have as much difficulty divining how the machine works as they do pronouncing its name. (This seems like an unfortunate deficit for a group of anthropology students.) It’s voodoo with a twist: the likeness of the victim is enough; the machine requires nothing that has come into contact with, or that has once been part of, the person’s person—the lock of hair, fingernail parings, or article of clothing usually needed to personalize a voodoo doll. And the device has conveniently anticipated today’s concern with bodily fluids, bypassing the need for blood from victims, or from sacrificial animals.
There’s something sadly impersonal about the proceedings, a fastidiousness toward physical contact that becomes a theme throughout Needle. Poor Mary (Tahyna Tozzi), besotted with Ben, does everything short of ravishing the clueless boy after he passes out from too much drink one evening. Yet the two never hook up. The only contact between consenting adults takes place off-screen between Isabel (Trilby Glover) and Kandi (Jessica Marais), whose public lipstick-swapping sessions are designed to titillate their male friends (and, one assumes, the film’s audience).
For all the killing box’s hand-made charm, the deaths it enacts have the similarity of assembly line products. In an effect that presumably indicates the binding of victim and wax figure, those about to die hear the whir, clank, and grind of Le Vaudou Mort’s works shortly before the slicing and dicing begins. This is the kind of element that gives deconstruction a bad name, by making it too easy to carry out. Needle unwittingly calls attention to its weakness: a plot that must rely on increasingly gruesome deaths to cloak its essential, mechanistic repetitiveness.
Needle only gets interesting when Ben’s archaeology professor, whom Ben has consulted about the machine, arranges a meeting with an antiquarian. After providing some explication regarding Le Vaudou Mort as “a tool for revenge”, the dealer gets down to business: “If it can be properly authenticated, my contact is willing to pay five hundred thousand dollars, no questions asked.” Here the requisite research stage of the traditional horror plot resonates with the current glut of reality television programming concerned with recovering, valuing, and selling antique artifacts. Now this is a story line I could get behind: Paranormal Pickers.