It has to be said that in all honesty the endlessly vast array of Stephen King adaptations to hit both big and small screen over the years, in terms of horror at least, have made for a largely shoddy bunch. If one were to group them all together for assessment only Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), Tobe Hooper’s flesh-crawling television adaptation of Salem’s Lot (1979) and Stanley Kubrik’s classic (if somewhat loose) take on The Shining (1980) would really qualify for the “classic” tag.
Outside of this mighty trio, easily one of the most enduring and popular horror films adapted from a King novel or story would have to be Fritz Kiersch's Children Of The Corn. Adapted from a short story which originally appeared in Penthouse magazine and can be found in King’s excellent Night Shift short story collection anthology, Children Of The Corn upon its original theatrical release was largely panned by critics and performed disappointingly at the US box-office recouping a modest $14,6000,000 off of its estimated $3,000,000 budget, a figure considered a letdown at the time compared to the decidedly more lucrative financial returns generated by other King adaptations. Perhaps it is also worth noting at this point that Stephen King positively loathed the film.
However, Children Of The Corn would become one of the first and foremost examples of a film which enjoyed a hugely successful second life through the burgeoning viewing medium of home video. Children Of The Corn would indeed become a hugely popular title on video, striking a chord with an audience who had not caught it on its initial, disappointing theatrical run. Indeed, the film eventually garnered enough of a cult following and generate enough profit through video rentals to justify a somewhat belated sequel in 1993 Children Of The Corn II: The Final Sacrifice and when that too proved popular on video (following a limited theatrical run) a full on horror franchise was born. As of the time of writing there has been a grand total of seven films in the series, marking the astonishing ascension of Children Of The Corn from a poorly reviewed, box-office failure to a minor cultural phenomenon.
Children Of The Corn takes place in and around the tiny bible belt community of Gatlin, Nebraska. Gatlin is an unremarkable, religiously inclined community in the heartland of America, that is until one fateful Sunday afternoon when the towns children, led by evil child preacher Isaac and his sadistic henchman Malachai brutally massacre every single adult in town. With their parents and elders all dead the children of Gatlin, under Isaac’s leadership, form their own religious sect out if the cornfields paying worship and blood sacrifice to “He Who Walks Behind The Rows” – a mysterious deity said to inhabit the vast expanses of corn.
Into this nightmare venture a young doctor named Burt and his girlfriend Vicky, who whilst driving along the lonely rural highways near Gatlin, run down a young child who staggers out unexpectedly into the middle of the road, his throat having been savagely cut by an unseen assailant only moments before. Burt and Vicky decide to report the boys murder to the authorities but soon become hopelessly lost in the areas maze of roads which all look identical due to the endless expanses of corn which surround them on all sides.
The cruel hand of fate eventually guides the unwitting couple to Gatlin, where they are soon set upon by the demonic children. When Vicky is captured by Malachai and his cronies, Burt is forced into action. He himself narrowly avoids capture and strikes up a desperate alliance with an orphaned boy named Job and his apparently psychic sister Sarah – two children who while not members of Isaac’s cult have been spared death due to Sarah’s clairvoyant gift. With their assistance Burt prepares for nightfall and a confrontation not only with the crazed adolescents who inhabit Gatlin, but also the mysterious “He Who Walks Behind The Rows”.
Although its sizeable, ardent fan base would suggest Children Of The Corn to be a legitimate genre classic, this is not really the case. Children Of The Corn as with Joel Schumacher’s comparable teenybopper “horror” favourite The Lost Boys (1987) struck a chord with predominantly teen audiences who seemingly get a big kick out of seeing their own age group depicted as either fanatical killers and vampires. Meanwhile, in contrast there is a tendency amongst die hard horror fans to heap scorn upon this film, mainly due to the proliferation of crap sequels it eventually spawned and also it would seem, because of its popularity with an audience whom, for the most part, do not possess any real developed interest in the horror genre.
Given fair, balanced judgement however, Children Of The Corn really turns out to be a film of two distinct halves, the first one being considerably good and the latter, by contrast, proving to be depressingly poor. Indeed, for the first fifty minutes or so, Fritz Kiersch directs the proceedings with an assured hand. Right from the outset Children Of The Corn grabs the viewer by the throat with its famous opening coffee shop massacre scene in which the adult population of Gatlin are savagely murdered by their own offspring. This is an effective, startling and surprisingly brutal spectacle (for a mainstream horror film of its time at least) as adults choke on poison, throats are bloodily slit and the coffee shops unfortunate proprietor’s hand is sadistically fed into a meat slicer.
Having set an ominous tone with this barnstorming opener the film then slows down considerably, but maintains a steadily generated sense of foreboding as Burt and Vicky venture closer and closer to Gatlin and its terrible secret. The couple’s highway collision with the staggering form of the dying boy Joseph is a terrifically engineered jolt and a genuine air of apprehension is generated as the couple become hopelessly lost in the corn-surrounded roads which all strangely seem to lead towards Gatlin. Another ongoing touch that proves effective is young Sarah’s clairvoyance, which is conveyed through her obsessive habit of drawing childish looking but curiously macabre crayon drawings, which eerily foreshadow future events, often violent in nature. Additionally Jonathan Elias contributes an effective if somewhat repetitive and derivative score, which makes appropriate and sometimes chilling use of a children’s choir.
Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton make a good effort in the lead roles as Burt and Vicky and have a convincing chemistry as a screen couple, no doubt stemming from the fact that they were at one time an item, having been briefly wed (they married in 1979 but divorced in 1980). R.G Armstrong (B-list cinema’s master of the cantankerous) crops up briefly and is typically gruff and bullish as a gas station owner who knows more about Gatlin than he lets on and eventually winds up paying for it. The real stars of the show however, are John Franklin and Courtney Gains who both give surprisingly assured if one-dimensional performances as Isaac and Malachai respectively. As Isaac the distinctive, creepy-looking Franklin (who looks far younger than his years due to his suffering from a form of Growth Hormone Deficiency) exudes a chilling, understated air of devout menace. By contrast the ginger-mopped Gains, despite being a dead ringer for Megadeth front man Dave Mustaine, makes a very strong impression, nicely conveying the sadistic relish Malachai takes in carrying out his duties as the cults resident executioner. Not only are their characters nicely defined, the ongoing internal conflict between the two is also well realised as Isaac’s skewed sense of religious duty and unwavering spiritual devotion to “He Who Walks Behind The Rows” eventually sets him at odds with Malachai’s more simplistic and blatant bloodlust. Unfortunately, neither young actor would go on to anything significant afterwards although Franklin later suffered the indignity of being turned into a human hairball for his role as “Cousin IT” in the big budget silver screen adaptation The Addams Family (1991) and its sequel Addams Family Values (1993).
It is a pity that having gone to such pains to develop and maintain suspense that Kiersch and company then seem to go all out to destroy the film in its second half. Regrettably once Burt and Vicky finally succeed in blundering their way into Gatlin the film quickly begins to flounder horribly. Vicky is quickly captured and spends most of her remaining screen time tied to a giant corn crucifix screaming hysterically. Meanwhile an inordinate amount of screen time is given over to endless, maddeningly repetitive scenes of Burt being chased around the town by a horde of screaming kids who seem to have stepped out of a Mark Twain novel. It soon becomes apparent that Kiersch has already played his hand by this point and has nothing else worthwhile up his sleeve to offer. Revealing the Gatlin children to be homicidal religious nuts from the outset may well be a solid attention grabbing device, but the lack of any traditional suspense it brings with it sure does hurt the film in the long run. Indeed, by the time Burt and Vicky arrive in Gatlin, Children Of The Corn has no new surprises to offer and proceeds to rapidly lose whatever semblance interest it had generated up to that point.
The makers seem to be aware of this too and therefore in a desperate flight of folly shift the emphasis away from the killer kiddies almost entirely and instead move it onto a series of silly grandstand special effects set-pieces, which are not only stupid, lame and illogical but also far beyond the films relatively tight budgetary limitations. For its last half hour Children Of The Corn subscribes firmly to the all too familiar philosophy of chucking everything at the camera and hoping some of it sticks, although predictably none of it actually does. Firstly we have the death and resurrection of Isaac which is B-movie tackiness at its most laughable – the supposedly undead Isaac actually looks more like he has just been egged and floured. Following that we veer off into a brief bit of ludicrous, holier-than-thou religious pretension as Burt gives the devilish kids a pious, impromptu sermon about the true nature of religion. Unbelievably this is enough to make every single one of the children instantly recant their evil ways! Are we really to believe that children who had enough faith in “He Who Walks Behind The Rows” to kill every single adult in town (including their own parents) would all be instantly cured of their homicidal insanity by a few impassioned words from a complete stranger? To top it all off we then have the eventual appearance of “He Who Walks Behind The Rows” as an unseen entity burrowing beneath the soil of the cornfield. This looks goofy, pathetic and ridiculous and has been often compared by some crueller critics to the burrowing high jinx of that troublesome gopher in the hit golfing comedy Caddyshack. Actually It must be said that there is a similarity! After having finally expended the budget with a big but oddly anti-climactic explosion Kiersch and his cronies really do have nowhere else to go and the film doesn’t so much conclude as just fizzle out and come to a weirdly abrupt halt as the end credits begin to roll.
For all its failings Children Of The Corn is not overall a dreadful film by any means. Given that screenwriter George Goldsmith had the daunting task of turning a twenty page short story that wouldn't amount to a thirty minute short into a full ninety plus minute screenplay the finished results could actually have proved a good deal worse to be fair. Lets face it, any film that spawns six sequels (even if they are all rubbish) must have something going in its favour and while no classic by any stretch of the imagination Children Of The Corn has its moments and also has a curious tendency to stick in the mind of its viewers, as evidenced by its big cult following. The first fifty minutes are actually that of a fairly decent horror picture with a fine, apprehensive build up and memorably etched chief villains. A pity then that the desperate, inane concluding scenes born out of desperation as opposed to invention relegate this from a rather good modern horror film to a rather silly, inconsistent one. Perhaps if the makers had bit the bullet and followed the more gruesome and fatalistic conclusion of King’s original short story the result would have been more satisfying? This is merely speculation however, and as it stands Children Of The Corn, although not a complete washout, even its sillier moments are not without some unintentional amusement, is and will remain a missed opportunity.
All in all Children Of The Corn for me personally is a film I'll always have a bit of a soft spot for as it was one of the first horror films I ever saw on video as a young teenager and thus played a big part in forming my love for the genre. However, watching it again here and now, I just can't bring myself to give it a recommendation in good conscience.
Let's just say it's nowhere near as bad as some of its own sequels and leave it at that.
Children Of The Corn is currently available on UK DVD courtesy of Anchor Bay UK/Starz in an excellent Special Edition which features a nice looking 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen print of the film and a host of extras including a documentary on the film and a fairly lively audio commentary featuring director Fritz Kiersch, producer Terrence Kirby and actors John Franklin and Courtney Gains. The Anchor Bay UK release is available as a stand-alone release or a part of a 3-disc box set which includes this and the first two sequels Children Of The Corn II: The Final Sacrifice and Children Of The Corn III: Urban Harvest also in decent presentations. For fans of the Children Of The Corn series this set is obviously essential.
Elsewhere there is also a 20th Anniversary "Divimax" Edition of Children Of The Corn currently available on US R1 DVD from Anchor Bay. This contains exactly the same extras as the UK edition, however I'm not sure if the 1.85:1 anamorphic print is any better than that on the UK disc. There is also an order Region Free US disc also from Anchor Bay which was bare bones and in now OOP and there was also an earlier UK R2 release from Cinema Club, which sports a far inferior print to that on the current UK disc and is therefore best avoided.
Children Of The Corn Collection: 1-3 (Anchor Bay UK/Starz - UK R2): amazon.co.uk
Children Of The Corn (Anchor Bay UK/Starz - UK R2): amazon.co.uk
Children Of The Corn - 20th Annversary Divmax Edition (Anchor Bay US - Region 1): amazon.com l amazon.co.uk