31 Days of Halloween #9: Children of the Corn (1984)

Who made it?: Fritz Kiersch (Director), George Goldsmith (Writer), Terrence Kirby, Donald P. Borchers (Producers), Angeles Entertainment Group.

Who’s in it?: Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton, R.G. Armstrong, John Franklin, Courtney Gains.

Tag-line: “An Adult Nightmare.”

IMDb rating: 5.3/10.

“My feeling is like a guy who sends his daughter off to college. You hope she’ll do well. You hope she won’t fall in with the wrong people. You hope she won’t be raped at a fraternity party, which is pretty much what happened to Children of the Corn.” 

– Stephen King, USA Today 

In the annals of King adaptations on film, Children of the Corn is pretty low on the totem pole. It has always been somewhat of a curate’s egg. Largely forgotten and always overlooked, many remember the title but struggle to recall anything resembling a plot. The original film was made for bargain basement prices and received a lukewarm reception from critics. It wasn’t until Corn reached VHS that people began to notice its unique charms. Studios were constantly looking for the next franchise starter, and King’s imagination proved to be a fertile hunting ground.

Most of the author’s best work had been tackled by the mid 80s, leading New World Pictures to Night Shift (1978), King’s compendium of macabre short stories. One of them stood out from the crowd – a bizarre tale about children in Middle-America who create their own religion, laying waste to the adult populace. The story certainly had potential, and it fell to New World to turn King’s 30 page tale into a two-hour movie.

The depiction of demonic children was certainly nothing new, with Village of the Damned (1960) and The Exorcist (1973) shattering notions of childhood innocence. This sub-genre is still going strong today. The youngsters in Children of the Corn are a creepy bunch, stripped of conscience and morality. Like The Wicker Man (1973), the antagonists believe in a faith so blindly that they are willing to kill for it – a meaty bit of subtext that is more relevant today than it was in 1984. But we shouldn’t get off the wrong foot… because this is a pretty lousy movie.

The term “cult” is overused when discussing horror pictures, but it certainly applies to both Children of the Corn’s subject matter and historical value. In most respects, it will only appeal to niche audiences who idolise everything King touches (yes, even The Langoliers). It’s a strange little piece with a singular atmosphere and dated special effects. People of a certain age will have rented this film at least once, so there is a sense of nostalgia when Children of the Corn begins. And what a beginning it is… the film never quite lives up to it.

Welcome to the small town of Gatlin, a place surrounded by farmland and little else. We watch as a group of adults sit in a coffee shop. All seems well, until the unnerving Isaac (John Franklin) fades into view. Suddenly, children launch an attack on the oldies, revealing butcher knives and scythes from under their clothes. They proceed to make mince meat out of the poor bastards. Quite the intro, no?

Three years pass. Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton) are on their way through the countryside, intending to start a new life for themselves. Naturally, their plans are cut short when they hit a boy on the road. Not that swerving would have made a difference – his throat had been slashed. This leads them into Gatlin, where the streets are deserted and senior citizens are nowhere to be found. Soon, they discover Isaac’s religious regime – a cult that worships “He Who Walks Behind the Rows,” and treat the corn fields as their playground. Any outsider will be offered as a sacrifice. Cue The Twilight Zone music.

Children of the Corn really does suffer from its lack of funding. According to Kiersch, it cost just over $1 million, half of which went into King’s bank account. The cheap production values give the film a crude finish, but I have to congratulate the director and his team for pulling off a lot with very little. Indeed, the cinematography is better than you’d expect, with several crane shots, inspired zooms and stilted camera set-ups, aided by Jonathan Elias’s startling music. From the get-go, it is clear that Kiersch is trying valiantly to make the ingredients work. He keeps the scenario simple and straightforward, with George Goldsmith’s screenplay following a conventional narrative structure. It’s a pretty creaky and predictable mixture but it gets the job done.

There’s certainly nothing new about the set-up itself. Small-town America has always been targeted by the horror picture. It may not be as grisly as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Deliverance, but there’s definitely something creepy about Gatlin, Nebraska. Luckily, the crew were given access to a whole town, allowing them to film deserted streets and buildings. The “ghost town” quality gives Children of the Corn a little punch.

I’d like to say the film is really a pagan/baptist allegory, but Corn never follows-through on its loftier pretensions. The stage is set for a fascinating diatribe on religion and personal belief, but it never commits to the material like The Wicker Man. The biblical aspects are only there to provide portent and doom, not food for thought. This was a picture intended to be a cheap, mass-market thriller and no more. It’s a shame, because the potential is clearly there in a number of sequences, including the moment Vicky is tied to a corn-dressed cross. That’s about as sophisticated as Children of the Corn gets.

These fear tactics pale next to the religious commentary found in King’s work, but there are elements that succeed. Isaac’s cause is so illogical that hating him isn’t difficult. Indeed, it isn’t too hard to compare Franklin’s character to a certain German dictator, with his grasp placed firmly over the children, polluting their minds. At his side is the evil Malachai (Courtney Gains), who never balks at killing a person or two. Gains and Franklin may get into their roles with passion, but their relative inexperience makes a mockery of some of the more serious moments.

Some blood and guts may have made this boring trifle more tolerable, but Children of the Corn isn’t a movie for gorehounds. Kiersch uses many Hitchcockian techniques, believing that one’s imagination is more potent. No cuts are shown and the blood is spilled sparingly. I think Kiersch made the right decision for the material. His picture works on a psychological level, and while the themes are more successful than the eventual product, he gets points for being classy about it. He was at least aiming for something intellectual.

It’s just a shame that he didn’t show this restraint with the film’s embarrassing wrap-up. After generating some genuine tension, the director and his effects team destroy their hard work with a laughable supernatural climax. An otherworldly force is brought into this stagnating stew, personified by a P.O.V. camera and a poorly composited storm. The visual effects don’t work at all, and deliver the biggest laughs of the film. In motion picture terms the “monster” tactic was a mistake – it would have been more frightening if Isaac had made up these stories in order to gain power. The budget was too inadequate for such theatrical nonsense. No wonder Stephen King turned his back on the film and its subsequent franchise.

Ultimately, Children of the Corn is a mess of a movie blessed with a few great concepts and moments. It could have been so much more, but it resides in the category of Missed Opportunities. Someone with real vision could make this material work, but at least the 1984 incarnation led people to King’s short story… which is no bad thing. Don’t see it because of his connection – it has none of the vibrancy or imagination of the great man’s work. See it because you want a dopey, low-budget flick about killer kids. Maybe then, “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” will have his time to shine.

The Aftermath

Children of the Corn might have vanished into obscurity if it wasn’t for those pesky sequels. I haven’t seen any of them, but the franchise comprises: The Final Sacrifice (1993), Urban Harvest (1995), The Gathering (1996), Fields of Terror (1998), Isaac’s Return (1999) and Revelation (2001). Somehow, Children of the Corn managed as many sequels as the Elm Street series, but I’ve never heard anyone bring it up in conversation.

But it’s worth pointing out the names of well-known celebrities that populate the series, among them:  Charlize Theron, Naomi Watts, Eva Mendes, Nancy Allen, Stacy Keach, Karen Black, David Carradine, Fred Williamson and Michael Ironside. Almost makes me want to check them out.

At first, I thought the film might have survived the recent remake trend, but it didn’t. The SyFy Channel premiered their own version of King’s short story in 2009.

Useless Trivia

  • Gatlin was mentioned in another Stephen King story, It (1986). Hemingford Home, a neighbouring town to Gatlin, was also the location of The Stand (1978). In that novel, “He Who Walks Behind The Rows” is implied to be regular King antagonist Randall Flagg.
  • You can see a copy of Night Shift on the dashboard of Burt and Vicky’s car.
  • In the original trailer, King’s name is misspelled as “Steven.”
  • The alternate tag-line “And a child shall lead them” comes from Isaiah 11:6 in the Old Testament, which reads, “And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”


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About Dave James

Editor-in-Chief @ SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator.
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