Review : Needful Things (1993)

Needful Things is based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, published in 1991. It is the first novel Stephen King wrote after his rehabilitation from drug and alcohol addictions. The adaptation was directed by Fraser C. Heston (the son of Charlton Heston) and stars Max Von Sydow and Ed Harris.

Leland Gaunt, having recently moved to the small town of Castle Rock, is the owner of the “Needful Things” shop. The peculiar shopkeeper seems to have anything your heart desires but the price to pay is as strange as the man selling the items : a small amount of money and a deed (more specifically, a prank to be played on other town folks). It doesn’t take long for the simple pranks to take a deadly turn as everyone in town is slowly destroying each other.

Needful Things is mostly receiving negative reviews, which I completely disagree with. While not being in the top Stephen King adaptations such as Misery or Stand By Me, it is still a very good film. Some critics disliked the film because they found it not funny, not scary and depressing. Well, I would argue that the film doesn’t try to be funny, doesn’t pretend to be scary and is intended to be a bit depressing. 

The highlight of the film is evidently Max Von Sydow as The Devil (no spoilers, it is pretty clear from the beginning who the character truly is). I especially enjoyed his performance because of his mystical aura. There is also a heavy Vincent Price vibe in his portrayal of the strange shopkeeper. Ed Harris also gives a great performance as the reluctant hero and the supporting cast helps create a good ensemble to carry the story.

Stephen King readers are familiar with the writer’s tendency to set his stories in small town. And this one takes place in the most famous one of them all, featured in numerous of King’s work : Castle Rock. Heston did a very good job at creating the small town look and feel.

One might assume that a story involving the devil should have a grand scale but the strength of the film is taking the opposite route and depicting the influence of evil on the lives of normal people. After all, Leland Gaunt never does anything directly to hurt people, he simply gives them a nudge and human nature does the rest. It truly shows how everyone has violent tendencies buried inside and sometimes, it doesn’t take much for them to come out.

Critics have argued that it seemed rather pointless for the devil to waste time in a small town when it is made clear that he was no stranger to catastrophes such as WW2. Personally, I viewed his stay in Castle Rock as a recreation for him : between two major disasters, he attempts to destroy small towns to entertain himself.

Needful Things may pale in comparison to films like The Shining or The Shawshank Redemption but it is indeed one of the better Stephen King adaptations. It is a well-crafted film with great performances and an interesting story. The two-hour runtime flies by so do yourself a favor and watch Needful Things !

 

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Review : Misery (1990)

Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Misery was released in 1990 and stars Kathy Bathes and James Caan as the main characters. The novel, written by Stephen King, was published in  1987. Stephen King intended to release the novel under the Richard Bachman name but his secret identity was discovered before publication.

Paul Sheldon is the successful writer of the best-selling series, Misery. Having completed his new novel, he drives to meet with his editor. However, on the way, he gets into a severe accident. He is rescued by his self-proclaimed “number one fan”, Annie Wilkes, who nurses him back to health. Paul, unable to leave the house because of his injuries (and more injuries inflicted by the number one fan herself), is forced to write a new story while the local authorities try and find him after discovering his body is not at the scene of the car accident.

Good adaptations of Stephen King’s work are unfortunately a rare occurrence. Rob Reiner’s Misery is not among the good ones : it is among the few great ones. The film is simple and straightforward but it works impeccably. The tension is palpable and keeps increasing until the final confrontation. There are no twists or unexpected turns of events because the story doesn’t need them. 

Kathy Bathes really shines as Annie Wilkes and her Academy Award was well-deserved. Watching her go from a caring nurse to a psychopathic fanatic is scary and unsettling. It takes only one second for her to become enraged. James Can, however, is more passive and while he gives a good performance, he is no match for Kathy Bathes.

Stephen King explained that his novel is an allegory for drug addiction, which he struggled with for many years. The film definitely demonstrates the inability to escape someone (or something) who has a firm grip on an individual. But more than the underlying theme, the most interesting and compelling aspect of Misery is its characters.

Annie Wilkes is terrifying, especially when she has psychotic fits of rage. Paul Sheldon, who is trapped in his own success, must now fight to escape (literally). There are two minor characters who I absolutely love : the town sheriff and his wife. I loved their cute relationship and was surprised that the sheriff is not a simpleton (as small town authorities are often depicted). He is the only one who gets very close to finding the missing writer. 

Misery is a character-driven story which will keep you on the edge of your seat. It is an absolute classic which everyone should watch.

 

Review : Cujo (1983)

Cujo is a novel written by Stephen King which was published in 1981. Two years later, Lewis Teague brought King’s story to the big screen in an adaptation starring Dee Wallace, Daniel Hugh-Kelly and Danny Pintauro. The plot of Cujo is simple : a rabid dog terrorizes a woman and her son, trapping them into their car for two days.

The film opens with Cujo chasing a rabbit into a hole. Trying to reach his prey, the dog is bitten by rabid bats on the nose. The viewer is then introduced to the Trenton family : Donna (the frustrated wife having an affair), Vic (who works in advertisement and is often away on business trips) and their young son Tad (who is afraid there is a monster in his closet). The film focuses on the family’s daily life for the entire first half, showing us how their apparent happiness hides frustration and lies. In parallel, we see Cujo becoming sicker as time passes. This first half resembles more a made-for-TV family drama than the premise of a horror film.

Unfortunately, the slow pace really hurts the rhythm of the film, which is quite boring until the main characters finally encounter Cujo. When Donna and her son bring their car for repair at Cujo’s owners’ house, they find the location empty. The rabid dog attacks them, forcing them to stay inside the car…which, of course, refuses to start. A Saint-Bernard is hardly scary and Cujo does little more than running towards the car and barking. The sense of menace is therefore rather limited and it all quickly becomes repetitive. 

However, the performances from both Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro are stellar. I found myself wondering what the crew did to traumatize the boy as his tears and fear seem too genuine and real to be fake. That little boy will break your heart when you hear him crying of terror.

The story is extremely simplistic and so is the subtext : the mother’s isolation inside the vehicle echoes the sense of entrapment she feels in her marriage. It is a thin story, with very little scares, too much exposition and no pay-off in the end.

 

Review : The Wailing / 곡성 (2016)

The Wailing, written and directed by Na-Hong Jin, was released in 2016. It was screened at the Cannes Festival the same year, out of competition, which helped the film gain interest from the public out of its country of origin.

Mysterious and gruesome murders take place in a peaceful, rural village. Jong-Goo, a family man and somewhat incompetent police officer, hears a growing rumor in the village, blaming a strange Japanese hermit for the violent deaths. Jong-Goo confronts the Japanese man but when his daughter starts showing the same symptoms as the victims prior to their demise, he has no choice but to call a shaman for help.

Trying to explain The Wailing is a very tedious task as it is a strange film, from its story to its narrative. This is a film which requires several viewings to grasp its entire scope. I did enjoy the film upon my first viewing but it left me confused and with a lot of questions. Unlike most thrillers, the more clues are discovered, the more confused you become. At times, I found The Wailing too strange for its own good. The film is also way too long and it hurts the pace. ; it could easily have been shortened by at least thirty minutes. The narrative is sometimes confusing and I found some parts of the film difficult to follow, especially in the first act. The tone changes rather quickly. There are humorous elements in the beginning but the film then becomes an intense horror drama.

The cinematography is especially beautiful and the performances are great. I especially appreciate how the director never shows the crimes being committed. We only get to witness the violent aftermath, rendering us as helpless as the main characters. The highlight of the film is, by far, the ceremony / invocation sequence : it is an editing masterpiece. Two characters are performing two different ceremonies which are edited together to deceive the viewer into misunderstanding a particular character’s role.

The Wailing is a dark, vicious tale which shows people’s inability to distinguish good from evil in the grimmest and strangest way. Hard to follow at times due to the wide range of spiritual references, from shamans to Christianity, The Wailing is not a film you watch, it is a film you experience. Though a shorter version would have been better, The Wailing will haunt you long after the credits roll.

Review : Ringu / リング (1998)

Ringu, directed by Hideo Nakata, was released in 1998 and catapulted Japanese Horror (now know as J-Horror) on the international scene.

The film opens with two teenage girls discussing a videotape one of them saw. The legend says anyone who watches this tape will die seven days later. It just so happens that it has been  a week since the girl and three of her friends watched the cursed tape. The next day, all four teenagers are found dead, under mysterious circumstances. Reiko, a reporter whose niece is one of the victims, decides to investigate these strange deaths. During her research, she finds the tape and watches it. The phone rings and Reiko’s seven days begin. She must unravel the mystery of the cursed tape to save herself, helped in her quest by her ex-husband.

The opening sequence works perfectly at establishing the essence of Ringu. The premise of the film is brilliant in every way : a tape, one of the most common items found in the house,  is the object through which terror is unleashed. Ringu (as well as Pulse) established the link between technology and horror, a subject which is more than relevant in today’s society. Thankfully, Ringu is a product of the 1990’s ! I cannot imagine Ringu having the same impact if the VHS was replaced by a digital file (it sure didn’t work in Rings, in my opinion).

The film is very quiet and slow-paced. It takes its time to set up the characters and develop its story. The general atmosphere is unnerving throughout the entire film. The director made the smart choice of not showing much, making you paranoid and scrutinizing the screen. Ambiance and sound rather than jump scares are what make Ringu such a creepy experience. There is a constant sense of dread and the low lights and cold colors convey a sort of sadness.

The only flaw of Ringu is the character of Ryuji (the ex-husband) who knows too much about everything. He almost ruins the mystery by solving it with such ease. You are left a bit frustrated when he reveals everything. But what permanently ruined his character for me was his psychic abilities. I thought it was completely out-of-place and an absolutely unnecessary addition to the plot.

Ringu is a very important film in cinema history and it introduced a wider audience to Japanese horror films. With no gore or jump scares but a spooky vibe that you feel  even in slower parts, the film gets under your skin. I also recommend the remake which I have a new appreciation for since watching the original.

Review : I Saw The Devil / 악마를 보았다 (2010)

Directed by Kim Jee-Woon and released in 2010, I Saw The Devil is an intense revenge story which doesn’t follow the conventional path of the genre.

On a freezing, snowy night, a young woman, daughter of a retired police chief and pregnant fiancée of elite special agent Soo-hyun, is brutally murdered by a psychopath. Obsessed with revenge, Soo-hyun decides to track down the murderer, even if doing so means becoming a monster himself. And when he finds Kyung-chul, turning him in to the authorities is the last thing on his mind.

What strikes you first with this film is the elaborate camera work. From the choice of angles to perfectly framed shots, there are numerous mesmerizing scenes which contrast with the brutality of what is happening on screen thus emphasizing the absurdity of the characters’ actions. The beauty of the scenes depicting gruesome murders is also a clever way of provoking repulsion and terror.

The violence is raw and realistic which renders the film more terrifying than any over-the-top gorefest. The sound of the weapons hitting the victims is especially unbearable. Kim Jee-Won is a master at showing horror in the most unsettling way imaginable.

The title of the film refers more to the main character than the villain (who is nothing more than a twisted, perverted, gross psychopath). His thirst for revenge leads him on a dark path, making the devil inside emerge. I Saw The Devil brilliantly shows the purposelessness of revenge as our main character leaves a trail of collateral damage and loses his moral compass as he avenges his lost love. Lee Byun-Hung’s performance is intense and very subtle as he has only a few lines but still conveys so much emotion and internal struggle.

However, I found one element of the film to be rather unnecessary as it doesn’t add anything to the plot. The killer already appears as a gruesome monster with no humanity so adding another sub-plot didn’t work in the favor of the story. Furthermore, the film is a bit too long, with a running time of 140+ minutes. It drags in the middle but the rhythm picks up again in the third act for the most intense 45 minutes of footage I have seen in a long time. This sequence had me glued to the screen, my body tensed and my mind 100% immersed in the film.

I Saw The Devil is not for the faint of heart. Full of tension and suspense, its extreme violence is never pointless and always serves the story. This film should be recommended to any horror enthusiast who wants an original revenge story with beautiful cinematography.

Review : Train To Busan / 부산행 (2016)

Train To Busan is a Korean horror film directed by Yeon Sang-Ho and released in the summer of 2016. It hit the world by surprise and its success reached far beyond Korean borders.

Seok-Woo is a fund manager in Seoul. Separated from his wife, he lives with his mother and daughter Soo-An. Seok-Woo is a workhaolic who doesn’t pay uch attention to his daughter. For her birthday, Soo-An asks to go see her mother in Busan. Seok-Woo has no other choice but to accompany her from Seoul to Busan. As they board the train, an infection spreads like wildfire turning the passengers into flesh-hungry zombies. They, along with a group of survivors, must fight for their lives, as Seok-Woo comes to realize what matters the most in life.

Train To Busan is a breath of fresh air in a genre that has become a low-budget farce. The attention given to crafting the excellent action scenes does not deprive the film of a fundamental aspect : character development. While a bit stereotypical, the main characters are worth caring about. Seok-Woo is entirely focused on his career and  emotionally neglects his daughter, believing that providing for her and buying her expensive gifts is enough. However, while an evidently flawed character, he is depicted in such a balanced way that he doesn’t come across as a bad father. He is just a confused parent who doesn’t understand what his child needs most (his attention, not his wealth). The other father of the film (a passenger travelling with his pregnant wife) is also a loveable character and the complete opposite of Seok-Woo thus creating interesting interactions between the two.

The performances are stellar, from the main cast to the extras. Gong Yoo carries the film and gives a touching performance. Soo-An Kim is also impressive, especially given her young age. She is never overracting as it is often the case with child actors. Her interations with Gong Yoo made them absolutely believable as father and daughter. The extras portraying the zombies don’t go unnoticed either. They are ferocious and their body contorsions increase their scary nature. They’re among the best zombies I have seen on screen in a long time.

The majority of the film takes place on the train (with a few scenes in train stations). This location could have presented limitations for the action sequences but Yeon Sang-Ho cleverly uses every inch of the train to deliver complex, intense and well-constructed action scenes. One of the most impressive scenes consists in Seok-Woo, Sang-Hwa and Yong-Guk (the young baseball player) making their way through zombie-infected train cars to reunite with their loved ones. The scene brilliantly balances exciting action and breath-holding thrills. All the action scenes are excellent, thrilling and intense and the third act really shines in its scope, delivering epic sequences.

The social commentary effectively enhances the message of the film but is slightly too manichaean. There is no grey area and the film portrays the rich and powerful as corrupt and only achieving a high level of success by crushing others. The best example is the hateful CEO (designed for one purpose only : being hated) who has no redeeming qualities, is selfish and evil and spends the film endangering others.

Our main character, however, is the one who goes on a moral journey. By the third act, he finally understands what matters most and watching him evolve throughout the film is very endearing.

Finally, I disagree with the critics who claimed some plot elements are purely tear-jerking tools and manipulative drama. On the contrary, I found those scenes not only well-balanced but also necessary to highlight the tragedy of what is happening.

From the opening sequence to the end credits, your eyes will be glued to the screen. Train To Busan modernized a saturated genre and might just be the best zombie film of the past ten years !