King's devil gets his due

Castle Rock found on B.C. coast

Published: Oct 19 2013, 01:01:am

Friday, August 27, 1993
NEEDFUL THINGS. Written by W.D. Richter. Based on the 1991 novel by Stephen King. Music by Patrick Doyle. Directed by Fraser Clarke Heston. Running time: 120 minutes. Restricted with the warning "some violence and very coarse language."

DON'T LET HIS urbane manner fool you. Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow) is a cheeky devil.
    "The young carpenter from Nazareth," he says in a moment of pleasant reminiscence. "I knew Him well. Promising young man. He died badly."
    Gaunt, newly arrived from Akron, Ohio, is an antique dealer. He calls his shop Needful Things.
    In a more upscale market, he might have chosen the name "Temptations." The traditional wording is more in keeping with the ambience of Castle Rock, a fishing village on the Maine coast.
    Traditional, too, is the idea of the Evil One exuding charm and sly humour as he transacts business in New England. As portrayed by the worldly von Sydow, Leland Gaunt recalls Stephen Vincent Benet's Mr. Scratch, the soul merchant in the 1937 short story The Devil and Daniel Webster.
    Mr. Gaunt is, of course, the creation of Stephen King. He raises hell in a doorstop-sized novel sold as "the last Castle Rock story," a best-seller not remembered for its comic tone.
    Wit, though, is what makes the screen version work. Drawing upon the off-Hollywood tradition of horror comedy, director Fraser Heston gives King's devil his due.
    He also sets out some ground rules. This devil can't make you do anything. "I'm not the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost," Gaunt says with airy resignation. "I'm just one lonely guy."
    What he can do is provide incentives, the needful things that make life seem better. All he asks in return is modest payment and the occasional nasty little favour.
    He works with what people give him, fanning small flames of anger, resentment, hypocrisy, fear and guilt into raging personal infernos. "You are disgusting," he tells one out-of-control client. "I like that in a man."
    The one man in town he doesn't like is Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Ed Harris). Decent and incorruptible, Pangborn is sincere when he says "I got everything I need."
    Director Heston gets everything he needs from screenwriter W.D. (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) Richter's playfully wry adaptation. Filmed in B.C.'s Gibson's Landing by his long-time friend Tony Westman, Heston's picture reminded me of Roger Corman's cheerful chillers, Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963).
    Like Corman, Heston is blessed with some solidly professional performers who know just how far to run with it. The wonderfully wrangy Amanda Plummer and a delightfully disgusting J.T. Walsh head up the list of effective supporting players.
    Harris, an actor who does instinctive, intelligent good guys as well as anybody in the business, is a worthy match for the magnificently malevolent von Sydow. Indeed, as Stephen King vehicles go, their close encounter of the theological kind is about as good as it gets.

FATHERS, SONS — Max von Sydow's not kidding about knowing that "young carpenter from Nazareth." In George Stevens's 1965 biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told, the distinguished Swedish actor appeared in the role of Jesus Christ. In that film, he was heralded by Fraser Heston's father Charlton, playing John the Baptist.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1993. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

AFTERWORD: The Heston clan has more than a passing connection with British Columbia. On May 31, 1980, Charlton Heston was here for the wedding of his only son. The ceremony, held on Stanley Park's Ferguson Point, joined Fraser Clarke Heston and Vancouver's Marilyn Pernfuss. Eighteen months later, the family was hard at work on a movie called Mother Lode, a made-in-B.C. adventure that Fraser had written and was producing. It starred and was directed by Charlton. Marilyn was the unit publicist. Fraser has directed five feature films since, two of them in B.C. (Needful Things in 1993, and Alaska in 1996). Earlier this year, the second generation Hestons celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary.

STEPHEN KING FEATURE LINKS. Carrie (1976); The Dead Zone (1983); The Shining (1980)