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  • Stefan Riedlinger

Needful Things - Patrick Doyle - Soundtrack Review

"Needful Things" is one of Stephen King’s best novels. Even though King is not one of my favourite authors, I have read a few of his books, for example "It", "Needful Things", "Pet Sematary", "The Stand", "11/22/63" (King’s best love story) and "Under the Dome" (my latest read). Of these, "Needful Things" is my favourite.

The movie

I watched "Needful Things" (1993) after I bought the CD of Patrick Doyle’s music. I was immediately fascinated by the main title and wanted to see the movie that inspired the composer to produce such a great soundtrack. Here is the trailer:

I do not generally like reading King’s books, but I am also not a big fan of a Big Mac, and the author described his books in an interview long ago as “Big Macs”. For me, King’s books are often too long and too boring at the beginning, but these slow parts when King is developing the concept of the horror later are essential. The author wants his readers first to develop a relationship with the characters. Therefore, you feel touched when the horror faces them.

When reading "Pet Sematary", I began to like the family and was shocked when the animal died. Because of the relationship, the family developed with the cat, it is understandable why the family keeps him even though his personality changed after they buried it in the pet cemetery.

Most directors make the mistake of cutting these slower parts and just concentrating on the action, but that is the wrong approach. King’s books are so successful precisely because of this particular way of developing the story: the later violence depends on aspects developed in the preceding parts, and the fate of the characters touches you because you understand their feelings. A great scene to explain this approach is in the novel "Needful Things" when Leland Gaunt, who might be Satan himself, attacks Polly Chalmers, Sheriff Alan Pangborn’s lover. Polly suffers from very painful arthritis, and Gaunt who has a cure for her pain attacks her verbally in an insulting manner when he offers her the cure. To receive this cure, she has to do something for him, a mean little favour, but if she does not do it, she will continue suffering. This scene is very well developed, and we begin to hate Gaunt because he is using Polly’s suffering for his sadistic plans.

Most King movies are not convincing because the directors have not been able to let the audience develop an emotional connection with the characters. A few King movies have done it differently, such as David Cronenberg’s "Dead Zone" (1983), for me still the best King movie with an excellent cast, "The Green Mile" (1999) with Tom Hanks, "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994, what a great movie!) and finally "Needful Things". This book was the first novel King wrote after his rehabilitation from drugs and alcohol, and it features perhaps the most convincing antagonist in a Stephen King novel.

Leland Gaunt is a charming elderly gentleman who opens a small shop in a typical small town. It seems that Gaunt is ideally suited to any customer, but Gaunt asks his customers to do him a favour by doing some nasty things. What Gaunt, well aware of the conflicts between people, asks them to do slowly escalates until the whole town is eventually caught up in madness and violence. It is a fantastic idea!

"Needful Things", directed by Charlton Heston’s son Fraser, features Max von Sydow as Gaunt, Ed Harris as the policeman and Bonnie Bedelia, who also played Bruce Willis’s wife in the first two Die Hard movies. I even like the final scene better than the last scene in the book, particularly the last sentences of Gaunt, such a mean guy.

The music

The CD consists of 17 tracks, two of which are classical songs (the famous Ave Maria by Franz Schubert and Peer Gynt composed by Edward Grieg). In the liner notes, Heston explained that he wanted to work with Doyle after listening to the opening tracks of "Dead Again", also the first soundtrack by Doyle I listened to.

The composer explained in the liner notes that the music should reflect the “dark, ancient and evil qualities in Leland Gaunt, but that at the same time it should also capture his sardonic wit, good taste and charm.” Doyle developed the idea of using a choir when Gaunt’s store explodes as the climax of the movie. He then thought it would be a great idea to have a more complex score with more vocals involved, and thought of a requiem mass.

With the main title "The Arrival", one of the best tracks, Doyle introduces his haunting main theme. The instrumentation with the dominant string section at the beginning sounds unusual at first. I was immediately caught by this opening and like the track even more when the choir joins in.

Overall the soundtrack is a little repetitive, and Doyle needs most of the music to build up suspense, but there are a few very nice tracks such as Needful Things (great use of the piano which is playing the main theme), Brian’s Deed (“running strings” in the first seconds) and The Devil’s Here (the use of the choir is reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s The Omen).

My favourite track is "Art and the Minister", a short one with a beautiful use of the famous Dies Irae theme. Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) is a Latin hymn attributed to the 13th century and best known for its use in the Roman Catholic requiem mass for the dead or as a funeral march. The Dies Irae poem describes the Day of Judgment when the brave souls will be saved and the bad souls are sent into eternal flames.

There is a fine Dies Irae poem written by Ambrose Bierce:

Day of Satan's painful duty!

Earth shall vanish, hot and sooty;

So says Virtue, so says Beauty.

Ah! what terror shall be shaping

When the Judge the truth's undraping—

Cats from every bag escaping!

Now the trumpet's invocation

Calls the dead to condemnation;

All receive an invitation.

Death and Nature now are quaking,

And the late lamented, waking,

In their breezy shrouds are shaking. […]

In "Art and the Minister", Doyle uses the choir for a crucial scene and the piece is highly enjoyable. The choir is excellent here, in combination with pizzicato strings and a clarinet playing at the beginning before the rhythm gets faster, and the choir becomes more dominant and erupts after a few seconds. I immediately fell in love with this track when I heard it for the first time, and it is one of the tracks I have listened to so many times over the years that I have stopped counting. Here is the track:

There is also a funny story associated with it. When I was living and working in Shanghai for three years, I took a train ride from Nanjing to Shanghai and listened to this track. A young Chinese woman was sitting next to me and perhaps she could hear the louder parts of the track even though I was wearing my headphones. When I stopped listening, she asked me what kind of music this was. She was amazed that someone was listening to this kind of music and not to a well-known pop song. We then had a chat about the movie and the composer. At the next station, she got off and I continued my journey. I did not even know her name and forgot to introduce myself.

Just "Blow Them Away" is the track for the surprising showdown. Screenplay author W.D. Richter (who also wrote the screenplay for John Badham’s "Dracula") changed the final scenes to a new ending. End Titles brings the CD to a wonderful ending. For me Needful Things is one of the best soundtracks by Patrick Doyle and highly enjoyable. A must-have in my opinion!

Here you can listen to "The Arrival".

Copyright © Stefan Riedlinger, 2015, all rights reserved. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Stefan Riedlinger.

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