There's a new arrival in the town of Castle Rock, someone moving into the high street and setting up an antiques shop he has named "Needful Things". Nettie (Amanda Plummer), the cook at the diner across the way, feels this is an ominous development, but her co-worker Polly (Bonnie Bedelia) tells her not to worry. However, Nettie has the right idea, for the shop is being run by one Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow) and he has big plans for the town: start small, say by getting little Brian to do a favour for him in exchange for a valuable baseball card for his collection, and then we'll see how bad things get...
Or good, in the view of Mr Gaunt, because he is of course the Devil incarnate. This was an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, which it would be kind to say is not always a mark of quality in a film, and it did look as if writer W.D. Richter (better known in cult circles for directing The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the Eighth Dimension) let a novel full of subplots get away from him. Fortunately there was a decent cast to hold it all together under Fraser C. Heston's solid direction, including a few actors, such as von Sydow, who had a similar cult appeal to the writer.
It is essentially a tale of escalating grudges turning to violence, notable for the lack of supernatural elements: Gaunt doesn't cast spells or incantations but lets the community's simmering ill feeling work against itself and towards his goal of mayhem. There may the odd spark of electricity when the coveted objects of the title are handed over, but that's about it. This is why it's such a pessimistic premise for a film, as if to say that if you rub enough people up the wrong way they will turn to seething hatred and eventually violence - perhaps even murder.
Luckily there's a man who sees through this subterfuge, and he is the town sheriff Alan Pangborn (Ed Harris). He is the only character who takes no needful thing from the shop owner, he simply wants to be married to Polly and live happily ever after. Others take a valuable first edition book, a clockwork horse racing game, a pendant, suggesting that just about everyone has their price when it comes to joining the dark side and turning against neighbours. The tasks Gaunt sets them include slinging mud at clean sheets on the washing line, pasting parking tickets around a victim's home or slashing tires, seemingly trivial on their own, but leading to, say, a meat cleaver fight between two of the ladies of the town.
The original novel doesn't really get going until its final act, but the movie version doesn't have the apocalyptic splendour of the text's finale, so two large explosions are about all you get. It also doesn't have that scene where two characters fire guns at each other simultaneously and the bullets collide in mid-air, which surely would have been great for the screen for novelty value alone. But you can still have twisted fun with Needful Things if you, as the film does, take Gaunt's side in looking down on these venal folks; besides, they're played by a selection of reliable character actors and it was always enjoyable to see J.T. Walsh chew the scenery. And there's a tapestry here of pettiness and bad behaviour that renders a bigger picture, warning of how easily it could all break down if we don't take a calm step back every once and a while. Music by Patrick Doyle.