Fraser Clarke Heston
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 12 October 2009
Source MGM DVD
Categories 31 Days of Horror VI
Antique stores are inherently unsettling. They are, in a sense, mausoleums in reverse—hushed, delicate places in which the human beings are absent while their things remain. They are warehouses of the past that are devoid of chronology—a collection of mementos, almost always personal, that are brought together from across different eras and stacked alongside one another with a deep indifference towards their intrinsic values. Their histories are erased: we don’t know from where the volumes of dusty books, the small sculptures and old clothes, the vinyl records and children’s toys come. For all we know, each one is its own story of sadness, joy, life, death, and every half-degree of experience in between. And they rest in limbos for the material and no-longer-used, for the unnecessary and unwanted, for the questionable.
In other words, antique stores are us.
Take the residents of Castle Rock, Maine, for example. Our first introduction to those lowly gathered few comes in a small cafe - that customary meeting place in all small towns - where owner Polly and waitress Nettie show a newspaper advertisement to Alan Pangborn, the town sheriff. Amid the usual assortment of classified postings are ink angels astride an announcement: Needful Things, an antique store, opening soon. “You won’t believe your eyes,” the print reads, and the questions begin. Soon, we’re introduced to Brian Rusk, a truant boy who unwittingly becomes the store’s first customer; stumbling inside, he comes face to face with Leland Gaunt, the store’s towering old owner, whose accented voice - he claims to be from Akron - booms forebodingly through the dusty old building. By the end of their meeting, Brian leaves the store with an original Mickey Mantle card, signed by the slugger himself, and inscribed “to my friend Brian.” Gaunt has made his first sale.
Though, in the case of Needful Things, the relationship between customer and salesman is reversed—Gaunt makes no sale whatsoever. In fact, he can be seen as the buyer of all things and seller of none, which quickly becomes the routine. A customer enters - Nettie, perhaps, or Reverend Willie Rose, or Danforth Keeton - and find something that means more to them than anything else they own: A Hummel figurine, just like the one an abusive husband once broke; a letterman’s jacket from days of youth and glory; a chalice that evokes the Holy Grail; or a dated board game with lucky powers. And, as they ogle the object, whatever it may be, Gaunt approaches them, teases them, evokes their craving for something better, something nostalgic and long lost. He searches their souls for a price—how much are they willing to part with to own this something. It’s never an issue of money. Instead, it becomes an issue of morality, of self-control and virtue, of how much grace and integrity people are willing to leave behind for the sake of a meaningless possession. These people, each set up throughout town like artifacts on display, each with their own small stories, each soon to disregard the value of those around them for the material - the person disappears and the object remains - are the needful things of the title.
As more and more citizens of Castle Rock fall into Gaunt’s temptations, paying with both money and a vicious deed or two, people begin to turn on one another. Eventually, they also begin to die, caught in an ever-growing web of exposed resentment and full-fledged paranoia. Hugh Priest, a middle-aged alcoholic, get the letterman’s jacket in return for killing Nettie’s dog, while Brian Rusk throws apples through the windows of Pete and Wilma Jerczyk’s home as continued payment on his Mickey Mantle card. Nettie blames Wilma, Wilma blames Nettie, and both women end up dead on Wilma’s lawn, their bodies carved by knives. Hugh Priest, in turn, faces down a local bartender while Danforth Keeton, the town’s crooked mayor, focuses his deranged hostilities on anyone who crosses his path, including his wife. By the film’s climax, Castle Rock has become engulfed by chaos, all of which Gaunt oversees with a grin from the front porch of his store.
Sheriff Pangborn is the only man who isn’t fooled by Gaunt’s façade, and it takes little time for him to realize who the old man really is: Satan. Pangborn’s clear-headedness is explained at the start of the film when, after entering Needful Things, he tells Gaunt that there’s nothing in the store he wants—he already has everything he’d ever need. This would make him the perfect protagonist—a gentle man trying to do his job, to keep peace and order, while also searching for redemption from his past as a big-city cop whose demeanor garnered him unwanted attention. And yet, as we also see in the opening scenes, the filmmakers appear to be ambiguous about him, intercutting his marriage proposal to Polly with Brian’s deal-making with Gaunt—a suggestion that, in both cases, Alan and Brian have finally found something they desperately want.
It’s also possible that director Fraser Clarke Heston is providing us with a contrast between good and evil: a good man making a deal with a good woman, one sealed with a ring, and a bad man making a deal with an impressionable child, their agreement sealed with a card. It’s difficult to know for sure, considering how messy the entire production is. The editing is sloppy, while the soundtrack - by Oscar-nominated Patrick Doyle, no less - is abysmal, evoking a Danny Elfman score dropped into the lap of John Williams. The few saving graces - actors Max Von Sydow as Gaunt and J.T. Walsh as Keeton - are barely strong enough to save this film. Needful Things is often terrifying, yes, but any underlying current of horror feels like an afterthought, as though this were just another Stephen King adaptation thrown out into theatres for the sake of making lots of money off the author’s name.
There is a deep irony to all of this. Like many of the films I revere, I first saw Needful Things when I was much younger. My memories of that viewing distorted as I grew older, though a few images remain with me. Of those, the most unsettling is of Cora Rusk sleeping beside a shotgun-shell bust of Elvis Presley—her own personal obsession, which she handles as though it were a long-lost paramour. It was a haunting thing for such a young kid to see, though it acquainted me to the world in which I would grow up—a place where our relationships with objects became tantamount to our relationships with each other. On the DVD version currently available through MGM, that scene, much like so much of the original cut, is missing—slashed away, I assume, in the unending crusade for marketability. The original clocked in at almost three hours - four when shown with commercial interruptions on TV - which seems like a reasonable enough time to build suspense, to see even more lonely Castle Rock souls become bewitched by things in a store window. I am needful for that version, even if I barely remember it - even if my memories of that lost four hours should themselves be left to the past.
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