KLSC makes a deal with the devil to score Stephen King’s Needful Things on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. Max von Sydow sets up shop in the little Maine town of Castle Rock in this respectable adaptation of King’s tome. Now on 4K, the film picks up a welcome Dolby Vision restoration, but the real attraction for fans will be the superior 191-minute TV cut with a decent enough upscaled transfer. Recommended
Stephen King sure does like long stories, doesn’t he? Never one to skirt a small character’s seemingly insignificant importance or fail to chase down any rabbit hole, King’s books can be a bit difficult to adapt as feature films, or at least, not without turning them into a multi-part miniseries event. That’s where we stand with Fraser C. Heston’s1993 adaptation of Stephen King’s Needful Things. A decent enough film hit theater screens in 1993, but the longer - slightly censored - television edit is by far the superior experience.
In the little town of Castle Rock, a new shop has just opened its doors to the public. Its proprietor Leland Gaunt (Max Von Sydow) sells trinkets of all kinds for all sorts of shoppers. But specifically, he sells your deepest desires - for a price. Not strictly for cash, but for favors. Perhaps you’ll have to drop off a “gift” to the sheriff’s deputy. Maybe you’ll sling some turkey crap onto someone’s clean sheets as a prank. Whatever the task, you ultimately pay. As everyone in town gets that one thing that makes them feel whole, it steadily tears itself apart and Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Ed Harris), the one man with everything he wants, may be too late to stop the carnage about to devour the soul of his town.
The town of Castle Rock has figured prominently in Stephen King’s catalog through around a dozen short stories, novels, and novellas. Not all of them are horror stories, some are dramatic efforts, but most of them feature some sort of otherworldly force or terror inflicting itself upon the peaceful residents. Billed as “The Last Castle Rock Story” King’s Needful Things was another extensively long tome; anywhere from 680 to over 1000 pages depending on which edition you bought. Similar to stories like It or The Stand, this is a devilishly creepy story that feels big and cinematic - but is nearly impossible to bring to the big screen in a timely fashion. So I don’t fault writer W.D Richter and director Fraser C. Heston for giving it their best shot with the Theatrical Cut
For all intents and purposes, Needful Things is a solid film as the book is one of my favorite King stories. It’s one of the few of his books that I’ve gone back to multiple times and generally, I thought the movie was pretty good hitting a lot of the key beats with a great performance from Max von Sydow. And in true King form, the film has a better ending. Not much of a box office draw and met with plenty of critical scorn, the film was eventually reworked for a much longer 190-minute cut for TBS proving that an extra 70 minutes can make all the difference.
While I still don’t understand the point of starting the film with an excruciatingly long car chase sequence, the Television Cut of Needful Things is the much better version of the film. There’s still some shoe leather in this cut, a lot of padding to extend it to the length needed for a multi-night event release, but it’s pretty good. On top of getting more of Sydow’s Gaunt weaving his poisonous tentacles into the town, we also get to see more of what each upstanding citizen does to pay their “debt” to the devil. This cut has more time to breathe letting it build the suspense and terror naturally whereas the Theatrical Cut just barrels into it shortcutting a lot of the best scenes. I still enjoy the Theatrical Cut overall, but it really does feel like someone’s telling a joke as fast as possible just to get to the punchline.
Now here in the States, we finally have both cuts in one set! Watching them both virtually back to back, it’s easy to see that Fraser Heston and W.D. Richter were on the right path. The film maybe didn’t need to be over three hours long but even adding another half hour onto the original 120-minute Theatrical run time would have been felt. Max von Sydow shines in this film as the devilishly evil and often hilarious Leland Gaunt. Ed Harris does what Ed Harris does best as Pangborn and delivers a standup good guy who shouts one hell of a great speech. Bonnie Bedelia does a fine job as the arthritic Polly and Amanda Plummer is particularly devastating as innocent little Nettie. May he always rest in peace, late great character actor J.T. Walsh is incredibly entertaining as “Buster” Keaton delivering the film’s best line “I just killed my wife. Is that wrong?”
Above all, Needful Things is a fun film. Certainly not the best Stephen King adaptation, but far from the worst. It’s better the longer it gets and thanks to the great cast and a particularly moody score from Patrick Doyle, it’s a fun one to bundle up with during those chilly fall nights as the horror season sets in.
Theatrical Cut - 3/5
Television Cut - 4/5
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
KLSC bags up 1993’s Needful Things for 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with a new two-disc release. The 4K version is pressed on a Region Free BD-100 disc with a Region A BD-50 reserved for the Television Cut and the scant few extra bonus features. The discs are housed in a standard black 2-disc case. The slipcover depicts the original poster artwork with the case insert art showcasing the final poster/video artwork. The discs load to static image main menus with basic navigation options.
KLSC had a spin with Needful Things once before on Blu-ray in 2015. Saddled with the master they could get and only being able to squeeze it into a BD-25 disc, that was an alright release but not exactly a stellar example. Now with a reportedly brand new Dolby Vision HDR Master from a new 4K scan of the 35mm negative, Needful Things sees an impressive improvement over the previous release. Not perfect mind you, I still see some flaws that may be indicative of the negative, but as a whole it’s very good.
First thing I noticed was how much cleaner fine lines appear without troublesome compression artifacts or edge enhancement. Facial features, clothing, turkeys, and Sydow’s gnarly teeth and fingernails all appear with much greater clarity. Likewise, film grain looks tighter and more cinematically appealing. Now for a couple of sequences where it appeared like the camera was dollying in for a close-up, those shots seem to have been optical zooms as the grain structure looks noisier and thicker than the adjacent shots. The most notable example is early on when Shane Meier’s Brian Rusk is being sold the baseball card. There are a couple of other instances like that where clarity can take a bit of a hit and look a little smeary, but thankfully they’re brief and the rest of the film looks genuinely very good.
The HDR grade is strong but reserved giving primaries plenty of attention without blowing out the look and appearance of the film. It's a shade or two darker than past releases which I'm fine with since it looks and feels more like fall - but I didn't feel like it was so dark you couldn't appreciate colors or bright whites. Skin tones are healthy and human-looking. Black levels are much stronger this outing delving into true deep inky blacks with excellent shadows for a stronger sense of depth and dimension. For the Theatrical Cut, this has never looked better.
The Television Cut finally comes to the States - I believe it was either France or Germany (both?) that had it on Blu-ray previously. I never imported this one so I don’t have those other releases to compare here and I hadn’t seen this cut in decades after my recorded VHS tape got eaten by a rewinder. With that, this TV cut wasn’t finished for HD broadcast, and what we see here is an upscaled 1.33:1 SD master but even then it’s a fine presentation. It looks pretty good considering all things but obviously not as sharp and clear as this new 4K and a step or two back from KLSC’s 2015 Blu-ray. There are scenes that shine beautifully, then there are scenes that look just like an upscaled VHS tape. So to that end, detail clarity can shift a bit from scene to scene and there’s also some occasional motion blurring to distract the eye. I could be wrong but I came to understand that these cuts and trims have never been restored since the mid-1990s - and may well not even exist anymore. If they’re out there, It’d be awesome to see a full restoration of everything for a truly definitive release, but that would be one damned expensive undertaking for a flick like Needful Things. As it stands, this is certainly a watchable way to enjoy the superior cut of the film.
Needful Things Theatrical Cut comes in with a pair of audio options - a DTS-HD MA 2.0 and a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix. Near as I can tell flipping between discs, the DTS-HD MA 2.0 track for this disc and the 2015 release are virtually identical. Near as I could tell between the big scenes I sampled, they didn't sound different. It was a fine track in 2015 and it works well here in 4K. Now with the addition of the 5.1 track, that’s how I spent the bulk of the time with this viewing and it’s pretty solid. I didn’t feel like the surround presence was the most aggressive track ever but some nice movement through the sides and rear channels added a little extra oomph here and there. The bigger action beats and the film’s climax riot enjoyed the most surround attention. Dialog was clear throughout without issue. Maybe not the biggest or best upgrade but decent enough if you want to try something different from the 2.0 track.
Now for the Television Cut, we get a DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix that is on par with the Theatrical Cut’s 2.0 track. I was really impressed that with the extensive amount of additional footage, there wasn’t a quality loss from the Theatrical Cut scenes. Dialog, sound effects, and the great score and music cues have plenty of impact. Like its video transfer, it’d be something if all original elements for these extras scenes could be found and restored anew, but as is, this is a strong audio mix without complaints. To readdress the dialog briefly, this version still censors that terrible awful naughty language, and while you can tell when the dubbing slips in, the word switches aren’t sloppy or something you’d find in the Alps.
Bonus features are either incredibly robust or relatively thin depending on how you define them. If you’re like me and consider the Television Cut a stand-alone bonus feature then this is a terrific assortment of extras. The Theatrical Cut carries over the excellent audio commentary with director Fraser C. Heston moderated by Scorpion’s Walt Olsen - if you haven’t heard it definitely give it a listen since few of any extra materials were ever produced for past releases. It’s also nice to hear the late great Walt Olsen’s voice again. On the newer side of extras, there’s an interesting interview with screenwriter W.D. Richter produced by Kino and Red Shirt Pictures that’s an excellent piece to dig into about adapting such a huge book for a feature-length film in a relatively short amount of time.
4K UHD Disc
I don’t think Needful Things is the greatest or best Stephen King adaptation out there, but neither is it the worst. It wasn’t a box office hit and critics savaged it, but I think that’s because the Theatrical Cut as we know it wasn’t near as good as the longer Television Cut. Now I don’t think that cut is perfect, but it’s certainly better. I think a truly great tight, tense, and scary cut of the film lives in the middle ground between the two. Some scenes in the Theatrical Cut could certainly be longer while scenes in the Television Cut could be removed altogether.
Regardless of which version you love and enjoy, you now have a great new release of Needful Things for the collection from KLSC. The Theatrical Cut shines in 4K with an often splendid Dolby Vision transfer and a pair of good audio tracks to choose from. The Television Cut is a welcome bonus feature finally letting fans of the film own it here in the States without importing or risking running their ancient recorded VHS copies. It’s a shame it could only be upscaled from the SD masters but it’s certainly a watchable and overall fun cut of the film. Toss in the great archival audio commentary and a new interview with screenwriter W.D. Richter and you have a worthwhile new release to add to your growing collection of Stephen King films on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. Recommended