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MOVIE REVIEW : Villainy Controls ‘Needful Things’ : The film adaptation of Stephen King’s bestseller delivers ideas as well as jolts, and a juicy satanic turn by Max Von Sydow, even as it muffles the story’s main point.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Needful Things” (citywide), the new film of Stephen King’s bestseller about a demonic gift-shop owner reducing a New England town to bloody chaos, is a movie about the horror of answered prayers, the dangers of getting what you want. It’s not like the usual horror thriller. It has ideas as well as jolts, themes as well as special effects, characters as well as gore. But, as adapted by writer W. D. Richter and director Fraser Heston, these “Things” seem disappointingly diminished, squeezed and stuffed into a box too small.

There’s one large compensation: the hair-raisingly suave, murderously genial performance of Max Von Sydow as satanic Leland Gaunt, proprietor of the odd green-awninged emporium Needful Things. Bergman mainstay Von Sydow plays Gaunt perfectly: a man whose Old World manners belie his stated origins--Akron, Ohio--and whose propensity for finding his customers’ deepest desires and then converting their gratitude into enslavement and malice (pulling “pranks” on their neighbors), gradually brings the town of Castle Rock to a boiling point.

Von Sydow carries the movie. So powerful is his presence that the film seems deflated when he’s off screen--despite good jobs by the other actors. Chief among them: Ed Harris as long-suffering Sheriff Alan Pangborn, Bonnie Bedelia as his arthritic inamorata Polly Chalmers, Amanda Plummer as poor lonely Nettie Cobb and J. T. Walsh as the insufferable local politico Danforth (Buster) Keeton.

But the fact that Von Sydow dominates “Needful Things” so easily indicates part of what’s gone wrong.

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The book was one of King’s wildest and most elaborate: a spectacular bloody kaleidoscope of a story, 760 pages of escalating small-town scandals and lunatic horror, culminating in one paroxysm after another. King billed the novel as “The Last Castle Rock Story"--a picture of small-town Armageddon--but the movie, with its reduced cast and contracted carnage and topography, seems just another “Bad Day at Castle Rock.” No one who enjoyed the book is likely to be satisfied with this movie. And people who see only the movie probably won’t think the book is worth bothering with.

It’s less an adaptation than a digest. Richter, cleverly scissoring those 760 pages into the standard two-hour movie format, has lost much of what made the book work: its amplitude, its bewildering plethora of crisscrossing characters, schemes and devilish pranks. Probably “Needful Things” shouldn’t have been made into a theatrical feature at all. It would have worked better as a TV miniseries, something King, who makes continual references to “Twin Peaks” in the novel, may have imagined himself.

Gaunt dominates because the sense of the town has been muffled. And the main point of the story--that by hooking and then depraving all his customers, Gaunt the Devil is able to unravel the whole town--is muffled as well.

Heston--who has directed his father, Charlton, on TV in “Treasure Island” and produced or written several of his films--is stronger here on performance than visual style. There’s no weak acting, but the movie has a murky, musty, twisted-up look--Gothic Aesthetic Americana--when it probably should resemble Castle Rock itself: bright, sunny, childlike and open, Ray Bradbury land, with the darkness concealed in corners--and in Gaunt’s shop.

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To a degree, “Needful Things” is King’s parable about the ‘80s Age of Greed. Written in 1991, the book takes potshots at Bush and Quayle, and it’s no accident that the craziest of the townspeople--a horse-playing, embezzling selectman--is named Danforth. Greed, religious bigotry and sexual scandal turn Castle Rock into hell on Earth, manipulated by the smiling, suave businessman who just believes in fair trade.

But what about the suave businessmen who believe in two-hour pictures? Ultimately, the movie-ized “Needful Things” (rated R for violence and strong language), like Leland Gaunt, has something to offer. Something we’ll like--just not enough.

‘Needful Things’

Max Von Sydow: Leland Gaunt

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Ed Harris: Sheriff Alan Pangborn

Bonnie Bedelia: Polly Chalmers

Amanda Plummer: Nettie Cobb

A Castle Rock Entertainment/New Line Cinema presentation of a Fraser Heston film, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Heston. Producer Jack Cummins. Executive producer Peter Yates. Screenplay by W. D. Richter. Cinematographer Tony Westman. Editor Rob Kobrin. Costumes Monique Prudhomme. Music Patrick Doyle. Production design Douglas Higgins. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

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MPAA-rated R (for violence and strong language).


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