In the new horror movie "Needful Things," the villain isn't a possessed child or a hockey-masked monster or any other form of evil manipulated by satanic forces. Bypassing the middle-men, this one goes straight to the source — the devil himself.

Here, Mr. Scratch takes the form of a benign elderly gentleman (Max von Sydow), opening a new shop in the modest downtown area of Castle Rock, Maine. There, Mr. Leland Gaunt's "antique shop," called Needful Things, is a retail business that goes well beyond things nostalgic and classical.

He offers his customers items that they "need." Objects that touch nerves somewhere inside of them. And he asks for very little money in return. But he always asks for something extra.

Gaunt offers a personally autographed Mickey Mantle baseball card to a young boy in exchange for malicious mischief; gives a disturbed young widow (Amanda Plummer) a small figurine, urging her to declare war on a local turkey farmer who has threatened her dog; sells a magic horse-racing toy to a councilman (J.T. Walsh) who has gambled away city funds on the horses; fuels the angry competition between the Catholic priest and Baptist minister in town; and provides a healing necklace to a woman (Bonnie Bedelia) afflicted with crippling arthritis.

In each case, the object purchased satisfies a personal "need," and the extra favors Gaunt asks for manage to degrade the buyer, cause harm to others and set off a chain reaction of vindictive events that build to a crescendo.

Only the town sheriff (Ed Harris), who is originally from the big city, sees through Gaunt and ultimately realizes who he is and what he is doing.

The cast is very good and the premise is fascinating, especially when taken as a metaphor for the world today, which seems to be less tolerant and more impatient and short-tempered.

But ultimately, director Fraser C. Heston (making his big-screen debut after directing his father Charlton in the TV movies "Treasure Island," Crucifier of Blood," etc.) and screenwriter W.D. Richter ("Brubaker," "Late for Dinner") see this as the ultimate cruel "prank" comedy. And as such, they settle for a series of sadistic, mean-spirited set-pieces rather than trying to tell a story. Appropriately enough, the film climaxes with a series of huge explosions, each bigger and louder than the one before. Stronger character development might have made the film more palatable.

As it is, there are some amusing bits, bolstered by the film's greatest asset — Max von Sydow — who is having such a delicious time playing a dignified, ironic incarnation of the devil that he almost single-handedly saves the picture. Almost.

"Needful Things" is rated R for violence, profanity, vulgarity, sex and nude artwork.