Book & Movie Review: Needful Things by Stephen King.

Book & Movie Review: Needful Things by Stephen King.

For the second instalment of my Stephen King book club, my friends and I read Needful Things before watching the 1993 movie adaptation and once again, we discovered exactly why he is the one true King of horror.  So, what is it all about?  The book takes place in the quiet US town of Castle Rock, where a new shop called Needful Things is being opened by the town’s new and mysterious resident Leland Gaunt.  The shop sells curios and antiques which appear to be a steal but inevitably come with a heavy price.  Intriguing right?

First of all, the premise is wonderful.  I love the idea of the Devil being bored and going place to place selling cursed goodies to unsuspecting punters.  The objects in question are needfulalways relatively generic- a children’s game, a baseball card, a glass lamp or silver teapot.  These items hold no significance to anyone other than the intended victim as each item is chosen specifically based on that individuals NEED.  Whether the item reminds them of precious memories, a time they dearly wish they could return to, or offers relief for excruciating pain, the items are irresistible to the intended customer and once you buy, there are no returns.  The entire book is a damning indictment on the materialistic, possession obsessed society we now live in.  Remember when you were a kid and you would beg your mum for that toy, telling her you had to have it because you NEEDED it and she would say no, you don’t NEED it, you just WANT it?  Well, your Mother was inadvertently teaching you how to avoid the trappings of Leland Gaunt and his magical wares.  Every one of us has something we need, or at least think we do and this is preyed upon on a daily basis by corporations and companies selling us rubbish every day. Creams that will make us younger, juices that will give us energy and vitality, clothes that will make us fashionable trend setters, this is the world we live in now, surrounded by adverts and bill boards bombarding us with all these Needful Things.  Mr Gaunt and his little shop of horrors is the ultimate personification of this and it works perfectly as both horror and wry social commentary.

What the book makes clear however, is that while Gaunt may control a person’s need, he cannot control their will.  He has a whole bag of tricks to bamboozle his customers, including putting them in trances, creating elaborate dreams which feel perfectly real to terrible nightmares and warnings which feel even realer, but the customer has to willingly take the item and they have to willingly accept the payment.  We, after all, walk our own paths in life and it is up to us how we choose to do so.  This book is all about temptation.  Just as Satan tempted so many in the bible, Gaunt tempts his customers to sin in order to fulfil those perceived needs.  Some of the sins seem minor, like throwing mud on clean sheets, while others are more serious, like slashing tyres or killing a beloved bed, but all the residents of Castle Rock seem more than willing to pay and in doing so sow the seeds of their own destructions.  I love that King made sure to show that none of us are immune to such temptation, with the most devout and holy rolling Christians of the town giving in as easily as the local drunk or disgraced politician.  Each character has their own flaws, their own personal defects which Gaunt readily exploits. For the lead character Sheriff Pangborn, it is the guilt and grief that he refuses to let go off as a result of the death of his wife and child a year before.  For Polly Chalmers, it is her pride.  It is the residents who acknowledge these flaws and work to overcome them, that survive intact.

needful3For the most part, I found myself feeling little sympathy for the residents of Castle Rock.  After all, they made the choices which led to their grizzly ends and some of them frankly got what they deserved, but there are exceptions.  The young Brian Rusk is just a child and he is the first to not only fall prey to Gaunt’s charm but also the first to realise who or what Gaunt truly is.  His only sin seems to be a childish attachment, a need for a baseball card he has always coveted but being young and naive is his biggest flaw.  He is easily exploited by Gaunt and when he tries to stop, Gaunt changes tactics and uses good old-fashioned fear to control him.  Whilst he made the choices he did and did the not very nice ‘pranks’ requested as payment willingly, all for a measly baseball card, I do feel like his youth and innocence make him incapable of truly understanding the ramifications of his actions until it is far too late.  Nettie Cobb, the local ‘nut’ suffers from severe mental health issues as a result of the trauma from a past abusive relationship.  Again, because of this she seemed an innocent to me and less capable of understanding her actions fully than the other residents.  There are also peripheral characters who never entered Gaunt’s shop, who are caught up in the carnage including several state Police officers.  Unlike the rest of the town’s residents, I genuinely felt bad when they met their grizzly ends.

There are a lot of characters involved in this book, a whole town’s worth, so it can be a little confusing at first trying to keep the names and storylines straight but it is definitely worth persevering.  King paints the perfect picture of small-town life, the kind of place where everyone makes a point of knowing each other’s business but where secrets still dwell.  The characters are fleshed out and often you will find yourself recognising the characters from your own home town. Whilst some of the characters are incredibly sympathetic and you find yourself genuinely attached to them and upset by their fates, the young Brian Rusk and Nettie being the two that broke my heart, for the most part I didn’t feel overly invested in the other characters and I think this is due to the sheer number of them being introduced.  Also, King seems to have a bit of an obsession with children and animals dying in horrible ways and several pets are executed in this particular tome.  You have been warned.  The book has a great pace, slowly and steadily building to that big, final crescendo. Some of the book club found it a little slow in parts, but I think that the fact that King takes his time with the reader at first, gradually increasing the pace and action, makes it a far more gripping read and resulted in me being unable to put it down for the last quarter of the book.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and I thoroughly recommend it- definite five stars from me!

Now to the movie…If I am honest, I didn’t have very high expectations for this film.  I needful2have seen a lot of the earlier King adaptations and the movies tend to, well, suck (see my review of the original adaptation for Pet Semetary for a prime example).  I was especially wary of how the movie would edit such a massive novel into a viewable length whilst also maintaining the integrity of the story.  I was also concerned about how certain parts of the book would appear in film format, for example the spider like parasite which is inside Polly’s necklace is perfect horror written down, but on film it would probably come off as silly rather than scary.  Remember the Pennywise spider at the end of the original IT adaptation?  Exactly.  But the writer of the screenplay not only did a good job or whittling down such a heavy read, they were also smart enough to change certain aspects of the story to suit a movie’s format.  The ending of the book was my biggest concern.  In the novel, Sheriff Pangborn is an amateur magician, performing tricks, sleight of hand and shadow puppet shows throughout (it sounds weird if you haven’t read it, but it does make sense in the book).  He realises that Gaunt’s powers come from need and that he uses that need to create illusions and make the impossible real, like objects that transport their owners when touched.  He turns the tables by using Gaunt’s own techniques against him. Gaunt NEEDS his bag, which is now stuffed full of the resident’s souls, so Pangborn performs tricks and puppet shows which become real and alive, just like the forgeries sold by Gaunt.  On paper, this is a great ending.  It is wonderfully ironic and karmic that Gaunt is defeated using his own methods and it makes for a really interesting read. On film though, I don’t see how this could ever work.  Shadow puppets and fake spring snakes attacking the devil on screen would start to resemble some weird sketch show and it definitely wouldn’t be scary.  The film smartly changes the ending entirely, with the town’s residents becoming aware of what they are doing, of the ramifications of their actions and decisions and admitting they were wrong.  They atone and Gaunt is driven out of Castle Rock.  I also like that the fate of Brian Rusk is changed.  A young child killing himself on screen would likely turn a lot of viewers off and I personally prefer a version where he is changed, but alive.  Some changes don’t make a lot of sense to me however, like why the prim and well to do Wilma Jerzyck of the novel becomes a scruffy red neck turkey farmer in the film, but overall director Fraser Heston successfully translates the books core themes and story and I would definitely enjoy it even without reading the novel it’s based on.  Also, on a side note, I now have a huge crush on Ed Harris.

For our next instalment of the King Club we will be reading and watching The Shining.  Why not join us?  Keep an eye on my Instagram to see when we will be watching the film so you can watch along with us and don’t forget to subscribe to my blog to keep up to date with all the latest posts!

 

 

 

Pet Semetary (1989) vs Pet Semetary (2019): Movie review showdown.

Pet Semetary (1989) vs Pet Semetary (2019): Movie review showdown.

**Needless to say there are spoilers in this article so steer clear until you’ve watched the new film.**

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As I mentioned in my last post, my book review of Pet Semetary by Stephen King, my friends and I decided to make a little Stephen King book club. Every month or so, we would read one of his books and watch the screen adaptations because, yes, we are massive nerds and yes, we love horror. So we started with this one because a brand new adaptation just hit the big screens and it felt like fate. So we read the book and every one of us loved it, read my previous post for the full review. So far so good. Now, we were going to watch the two adaptations. One from 1989 starring Dale Midkiff and Star Trek Next generation’s Denise Crosby, before venturing to the cinema to see the new release starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz and the beloved John Lithgow. They are both based on the same book so they won’t be that dissimilar, right? WRONG! The two films were worlds apart in both quality, performance and horror, so I thought I should write a review, comparing the two films to both the original book and each other. So here we have it, the ultimate showdown…who are you routing for?

Age before beauty, so let’s start with the 1989 adaptation. I had seen this once as a child, many, many moons ago (I won’t say how long because I don’t want to reveal just how old I am) but truthfully I barely remembered it. Not the best sign I suppose, but at least it meant I was going into it with no preconceptions. I can forgive 80s horror movies for their terrible special effects because they give me nostalgic vibes and sometimes, the way the directors and creators have got around issues with budget and technological constraints can sometimes produce what is often scarier and more tense than the all out CGI we have today. What I cannot forgive is terrible acting. Every single actor in this movie, with the exception of Brad Greenquist who played the ill fated Pascow, was beyond wooden. Honestly, it was like they weren’t even trying. The worst culprits were by far the main characters Louis Creed, played by Dale Midkiff and his wife Rachel, played by Denise Crosby. I’m not sure if they were just phoning it in for the pay cheque or they are honestly just terrible for the roles, but either way it was like watching shop mannequins fumble their way through.

Not a great start, right? But maybe, the script was good? Nope, not particularly. Look, I get that this is a big old book to squeeze into a ninety minute movie, so of course not everything will make it in there but what I have learned over the years is that you can practically throw the original book away as long as the movie captures the books vibe and atmosphere (see Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House for the perfect example of this) but unfortunately this adaptation captured neither. One of the biggest issues with this film may actually be that it stuck TOO CLOSELY to the original book, choosing to go down the same murderous, psycho toddler route. There are two major problems with this: 1) Anyone can overpower a toddler, even a supernatural one and 2) Toddler’s aren’t scary, they are in fact adorable and the one chosen to play Gage in this film, actor Miko Hughes, is particularly cute. No matter how much he attempts to scowl and growl, I find myself cooing and awing at every shot of his chubby cheeks and wide eyes. A scalpel has never been as sweet as when it is being held aloft by this child’s chubby hand. The lesson here is, what works in a book doesn’t necessarily translate well to screen. The movie’s exposition is also ridiculously rushed so it feels like a poor adaptation rather than a movie in its own right. Lesson number two, if you can’t fit it all in Lord of the Rings epic trilogy style, then learn to edit.

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One of the other things that really bothered me was the set, specifically the forest beyond the deadfall. In the book, a dark, otherworldly, misty forest is described whereas this film gives us a very pleasant national park perfect for a Boy Scout’s nature trail. It just all felt rather half assed to be honest. But it did get a few things right. As mentioned, the actor playing Pascow, Brad Greenquist, puts on a great performance as the warning spirit and despite the bad guy being the cutest sweetie pie ever, the bit where he slices clean through Judd’s Achilles heel was painful to watch even with 1980s special effects. Overall though, this film fell flat and in my opinion is only really worth watching for nostalgia purposes.

So what of the new film? This film demonstrates in glorious HD how an adaptation should be done. First of all, the actors are great providing believable performances throughout. I’m a massive fan of Jason Clarke, particularly after his performance in the thoroughly recommended Winchester, and he does a great job of playing Louis perfectly depicting his grief. This movie was also smart enough to ditch the whole killer toddler thing instead having the Creed’s older child Ellie die and be brought back. Whilst toddlers are adorable and cannot possibly be considered scary (with the possible exception of my daughter when she is hangry) older children can make creepy little villains…think Samara in The Ring, Children of the Corn or The Omen. The actress playing Ellie, Jete Laurence makes a very convincing little psychopath and provides that much needed horror to the movie. Whilst it isn’t the scariest film I’ve ever seen, it’s pretty well done, with great sets, convincing special effects (without going overboard with CGI as so many modern films tend to do) and great actors.

I particularly loved this movie’s nods

to the previous adaptation, with the truck driver who kills Ellie being distracted by a text from Sheena (the original truck driver is singing along to Sheena is a punk rocker by The Ramones), with Gage running to the road just as he does in the book and the original adaption as a red herring for Ellie’s death and finally, with that Achilles heel moment mentioned above, except in this version Judd kicks the bed away with no psycho child to be found underneath only to be sliced and diced as he descends the stairs. This self referencing is something Stephen King does throughout his own books, with winks and nods to other stories and novels peppered throughout. This movie perfectly captured this on screen. In fact, at one point Ellie explains to Jud who Winston Churchill is and he exclaims he knows well who he is- the actor John Lithgow plays Churchill in Netflix’s The Crown. Again, that little wink to the audience is exactly the type of thing King himself would do.

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This adaptation completely strays from the book in some ways, some good, others not so good. In this adaptation, Louis tries to offload the now psychotic family cat Church by driving him into the middle of nowhere and abandoning him. Of course, he finds his way home and when the very happy and relieved Ellie runs to him, being struck down in the process, it only goes to increase Louis’ feeling of guilt and fault at her death. If he hadn’t tried to get rid of Church, perhaps this wouldn’t have happened. I also love that, unlike the book, the cat is fully feral in the new adaptation. His issues as described in the book, his odd zombielike motions, his smell of earth and rot and the fact that he causes unease and general discomfort wherever he goes, is not necessarily easy to translate onto the big screen whereas a cat clawing and snarling works well. The ending is dramatically changed from the book and original movie and this is one I had a bit of a problem with. In this ending, Ellie kills Rachel and drags her to the semetary. She then returns and kills Louis, then proceeds to drag him to the semetary, before the entire now evil, regenerated family complete with psycho cat, now walk towards Gage after burning down Jud’s house. I assume Gage will be next on the hit list, or maybe they’ll wait until he is older, who knows. I wasn’t a fan of this ending. I much prefer the ending of the book, and subsequently the original adaption, with Louis killing his zombie child after he has killed Rachel, before taking Rachel to the semetary and bringing her back to life. It ends with her simply dragging her dirt covered feet inside and saying, “Darling” leaving it up to ourselves to decide what happens to Louis and his remaining child. I understand that the writer of this new adaptation wanted a new ending in order to surprise audiences who are well familiar with the original ones as well as satisfy those new to Stephen King’s work, but sadly it just didn’t pull it off for me. Personally, I would have had Louis kill Ellie, then flee with Gage only to have Rachel stumble out of the forest and stare after them, again leaving it up to the viewer to imagine what is coming next. But that’s just me.

Overall though, the new film is thoroughly entertaining and an enjoyable watch for any horror fan whether you like Stephen King or not. I would recommend it to any horror fan.

But these are just my opinions- what did you think of the old and new adaptations? How would you have ended the new film? Comment and let me know and don’t forget to subscribe so you can keep up to date with all my latest posts.