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VHS Files: Needful Things (and thoughts on what makes a good Stephen King movie)

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While cleaning out my father-in-laws apartment, we came upon over 2000 VHS store bought videotapes. I grabbed a few tapes, and I’ll be watching them (on VHS) from time to time, letting you know what I thought.


Before I get into the nuts and bolts of Needful Things, I want to take a look at the previews that were on this tape.  Nowadays, on DVD, it is so easy to just hit the “Menu” button and you can skip over all the trailers that are placed before the main event.

 Not so in the VHS era.  The best you could do was to fast-forward through, watching them cruise by in high speed.  I actually decided to watch all the previews (not to mention the omnipresent FBI warning) to see what was on the cultural zeitgeist at the time of Needful Things.

 The first preview was for City Slickers II:  The Legend of Curley’s Gold.  I remember when this was an anticipated movie.  I really liked the first one (although I haven’t seen it in over a decade- does it hold up?), and people thought Billy Crystal had found his franchise.  Watching the preview now, with the benefit of hindsight, I should have been able to see the dark clouds of a shit sequel, as they are all there on parade in the preview.  You get Crystal jogging down the street with a full grown Norman (the calf he birthed in the original).  You get Jack Palance returning, despite having died in #1.  And you don’t get the late, great Bruno Kirby in the credits; instead, Jon Lovitz replaces him.  Now I love me some Lovitz, but the fact that Kirby refused to be in the movie should have told audiences something.  That, and it is subtitled “The Legend of Curley’s Gold.”

Here is Lovitz pontificating on The Godfather.  Funny?  Hmmm…

 The second preview was for North, a movie Roger Ebert calls one of the worst he has ever seen.  This was more of a teaser than a full preview, so there is no real way of telling the quality of the movie it was representing.  Still, knowing what we know now, the fact that two crap movies precede Needful Things should have told me something.

 There were two previews for movies new to VHS as well.  Malice, starring Alec Baldwin as a sinister doctor with a God Complex was the first.  Do you want to know how I know he has a God Complex?  Well…

 Still, Baldwin knocks scenes like those out of the park.  I remember seeing this at the Thunderbird Theater at University of Illinois, and coming out of it with not much more than a shrug. Still, its interesting remembering a time when Alec Baldwin was running in the drama game rather than the comedic virtuoso he has since turned into.

 Finally, the last VHS preview was for a Lance Henriksen/Ally Sheedy horror movie called Man’s Best Friend.  As you can guess from the title, it’s about a genetically altered Newfie that can eat a cat in one bite.  It also attacks mailmen and generally goes berserk on mankind.  I have seen this.  It wasn’t bad.

 Now… Needful Things.  I don’t want to spend too much time on this, mainly because it was so mediocre on every level.  It had good actors- the three leads were Ed Harris, Max Von Sydow, and Bonnie Bedelia (which one do you think was the bad guy?).  The plot involves no less than Satan himself arriving in the form of a shop owner who can “give you anything you want…” but at a terrible cost.

 But the terrible costs don’t seem like such a big deal to me.  He has one kid go throw mud on a cranky lady’s laundry in exchange for a priceless Mickey Mantle baseball card.  He has another lady sneak into a guy’s house and write nasty messages on post-it notes and hang them up all around his place.

 Now… remember, this is Satan.  Lucifer.  Old Scratch.  Seem kind of benign, especially coming off of some great movie Satans, such as Jack Nicholson (Witches of Eastwick), Al Pacino (The Devil’s Advocate), and Robert DeNiro (Angel Heart).  I would expect more from the devil than mild pranks and bon mots such as “If it’s too hot in here, just say so.  I have a tendency to…turn up the heat.”  I swear, Von Sydow broke the fourth wall and said that last line directly to the camera.

Here is one of the “scary” action scenes- the result of Satan’s evil planning.

So Ed Harris catches on, convinces the town, blah blah blah.  This is a boring, boring movie.  Don’t see it.  At least the late J.T. Walsh seemed to know he was in a giant turd judging by his performance.  As the town embezzler, Walsh goes big with his character.  Real, real big.

 And therein lies the problem with most movies based on Stephen King novels. It is so easy to focus on the monsters, ghosts, or whatever and forget about the characters.  And don’t get me wrong- King can write some fairly broad stereotypes in his books.  But he always tries to place these supernatural events smack-dab in the middle of recognizable America.  And that means characters that are believable.

 Translating these characters to the big screen isn’t easy.  According to Wikipedia, 45 movies have been made from his material.  I have seen quite a few, and most of them are just terrible.  Even when King himself was given the reins to adapt his own material, he biffed and delivered Maximum Overdrive (from Night Shift’s “Trucks”).

 I have picked what I consider to be the ten best movies based on Stephen King novels, novellas, and short stories.  Ten.  Out of 45.  Still, each of these is worth your time, but they all have one thing in common:  You want the characters in them to do well in their face-offs against haunted hotels, crazy stalkers, and evil prison wardens.

 In descending order:

 10.  Cat’s Eye:  Three short films based on stuff from Night Shift and elsewhere.  The one that gets all the notice is the one with the little goblin attacking Drew Barrymore.  But I like the other two better, especially the one with James Woods trying very unorthodox methods to quit smoking.

 9.  Christine:  This was the first King novel I ever read, and one of my favorites.  Again, what I remember most is the relationship between the narrator (Dennis) and his memories of his dork friend, Arnie.  By the way, shit goes real bad for Arnie, but you kinda expect that in a book/movie about a killer car.

 8.  The Mist:  From the short story of the same name from Skeleton Crew.  As horrific as the stuff going on outside the grocery store was, the most compelling stuff was the interaction between the people inside.  Is there a more vile character recently than Marcia Gay Harden’s religious zealot?  Also, the most bleak ending of any movie ever.

 7.  Misery:  I do love me this book.  The movie is pretty good, too, although I never imagined James Caan as Paul Sheldon.  But Kathy Bates nailed Annie Wilkes.  It’s basically a two-person show (it could even be a play), and they really do play off one another very well. 

 6.  The Green Mile:  I read these as the serialized chapters in which they were released.  It was a pretty cool way to release a book, methinks.  The movie was really good, too.  Directed by the best King adaptor of them all, Frank Darabont (also did The Mist and The Shawshank Redemption).  The characters are all well developed as would be expected from a cast headed by Tom Hanks.  And it gives you what is probably the first and last time Michael Clarke Duncan will be Oscar nominated.  Long live Mr. Jingles!

 5.  Carrie:  As good as the climax of this is (prom + pig’s blood + unstable telekinetic= mayhem), the best parts of this movie are watching the cruelty of teenage girls that lead Carrie White to lose her shit.  Damn, they are just vicious in this movie.

 4.  The Dead Zone:  Possibly my favorite Christopher Walken movie.  How many other movies attempt to have Walken play an average joe?  This movie asks some big questions (“What would you do?” is a question you’ll ask after its over), and has one of the creepiest sequences in any horror movie ever.  I’m looking at you, serial killer Frank Dodd.

 3.  The Shining:  Of course.  Stephen King hates this adaptation, but when you hand the wheel over to Stanley Kubrick, you have to expect that it will go in some “off the beaten path” directions.  Yeah, it doesn’t really resemble the book all that much, but the movie is about as untouchable as a horror movie gets. I don’t need to say anything more, because you’ve seen it.  You know.

For all the press the creepy twin girls and the blood elevator gets, for my money the most creepy scene in the movie is this one:

 2.  Stand By Me:  From Rob Reiner, the second best adaptor of King novels (he also did Misery).  From Different Seasons, this is one of the most “un-King like” movies of them all.  And this one is all about character- a coming of age story about four friends who go on an adventure and learn a ‘lil something about themselves.  Sounds cheesy, and I guess it is.  But it is just about a perfect translation of that story (“The Body”), and a perfect little movie besides.  I don’t know many people who don’t like this movie.

 1.  The Shawshank Redemption:  And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like this movie.  It is so good in so many different ways.  Characters?  Two of the best, in Andy DuFresne and his prison pal Red.  Their relationship spans decades, and Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins really makes you feel it.  Plot?  I don’t know about you, but there was a huge sense of satisfaction in watching Red make it to that beach in Mexico to find Andy serenely working on an old boat.  The machinations of the plot that gets him there all unfold like clockwork.  This is a great movie, King or no.  (One note- this novella, called “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” is also from Different Seasons.  They adapted one more novella from it as well- “Apt Pupil.”  It’s a really good book, one you should pick up).


3 responses »

  1. Jennifer Frahm

    I didn’t know you were such an amazing critic (and wordsmith). I’m someone who is notorious for being terrible at choosing movies–I’m printing your list for future reference.

  2. Honestly, I am speechless. The Shawshank Redemption is fantastic. I’am not too old film fanatic, in fact, this film came out the same yearI was very young, and thence I am more accustomed films with fabulous special effects, edge-of-your-seat action, et cetera. This film has none of that, and nonetheless, it attracts me very much . The way Frank Darabont uses the narration of Red to drive on the story, the beauty of the film music used (note the mouth harp used merely before Red finding the letter close to the end). The whole movie, from start to finish, from actions to sound, is a beacon of hope, judgment, and repurchase. The cast is perfect, Morgan Freeman(Red) really brings about a fresh feel to the story, and that is exactly what the film is, what a movie should be. Highly recommended for every film fan.

  3. I am very thankful to this topic because it really gives up to date information –“


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