Out of the almost 20-plus Stephen King film adaptations thus far, you can honestly count the “good” ones on the fingers of one hand. And that's after a tragic Cuisinart accident. So it comes as a welcome surprise to realize that this new King film (the third thus far by Rob Reiner's Castle Rock production company) is -- collective sigh of relief -- genuinely entertaining, albeit in a weasely, “Sunday Afternoon Ain't Got Nothin' Better To Do” sort of way. Max von Sydow has a field day as demonic shop owner Leland Gaunt, a Hawthornesque curio store (the titular Needful Things)
proprietor who blows into the small Maine town of Castle Rock one crisp fall day and immediately begins setting the townspeople against one another like so many human dominos. Once the town's long-standing petty grudges and arguments are stoked to the point of bloodletting, this pithy, witty devil sits back and soaks it all in. (Confronted by blustering local sheriff Alan Pangborn [Harris], von Sydow replies, in his best Brechtian flip, “Don't blame me... blame the Bossa Nova.”) Harris (The Abyss)
is likewise excellent, using his balding, good-natured, all-American looks and demeanor to flesh out what might have otherwise been a sadly underwritten role. Really, all the supporting characters are well done, though you may be wondering where character development has gone to these days: from the moment the film opens, things are happening,
and it's almost as if you'd stepped into the middle of a movie that has already been unspooling for a half-hour or more. Nevertheless, von Sydow owns this film, and it is to his credit that he pulls it all off with such underhanded panache (he is, after all, playing the Devil). Genius is
at a premium these days, you know... Needful Things
is hardly a cinema milestone -- it's a bit too episodic in chronicling the downfall of the town, and some of King's best
bits are glossed over in favor of some of King's worst
bits, but all things considered, it's still a hell of a good ride.