Peter Horton - Burt Stanton
Linda Hamilton - Vicky Baxter
R.G. Armstrong - Diehl
John Franklin - Issac Chroner
Courtney Gains - Malachai Boardman
Robby Kiger - Job
Anne Marie McEvoy - Sarah
John Philbin - Richard 'Amos' Deigan
Genre - Horror/Killer Kids/Supernatural
Running Time - 92 Minutes
Based on a Stephen King short story from 1977, CHILDREN OF THE CORN takes place in Gatlin, Nebraska - a small, quiet town that cherishes family values and morality. One morning, an evil looking kid named Issac (John Franklin) orchestrates a mass murder of Gatlin's adults [or anyone 19 or over] - via the children of the town. Apparently, Issac has been listening to someone called "He Who Walks Behind The Rows", who supposedly lives in the town's corn field.
Three years later, a young couple named Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton) travel towards the town of Gatlin. A young child, who was already injured, is hit by the couple's car. This stops the trip for Burt and Vicky, making them curious about Gatlin and what really happened to that child. The two look for help, but are detoured or given the cold shoulder.
After driving in circles, the couple decide to travel into Gatlin. Instead of finding help, they experience a ghost town dirtied with dried corn husks, not knowing that children are watching their every move. Eventually, Vicky gets kidnapped by Issac's first officer, Malachai (Courtney Gains), to become a sacrifice for "He Who Walks Behind The Rows". Burt must realize what's really happening in Gatlin in order to save his girlfriend, and quite possibly, Gatlin itself.
- The opening sequence. CHILDREN OF THE CORN has always been one of my least favorite Stephen King adaptations. To this day, I still don't understand why it has gotten so many sequels [which I haven't seen as of yet]. But there are some things about this adaptation that I do quite like.
Probably the highlight of the film [for me at least] is the opening sequence where the children murder their parents and any other adults in that restaurant. It's just a really effective scene and a great set-up to a mediocre film. Director Fritz Kiersch captures a creepy scene in which children lock up adults in a restaurant as the adults are being poisoned, while Issac watches chillingly through a window. Instead of letting us witness the children's reactions as they kill [we really only see Job's reaction as he's helpless to stop the massacre from happening, which unfortunately leads to his father being the last victim inside the restaurant], we see close-ups of weapons just striking these people until they're dead. It makes the sequence more personal - more chilling - as we don't know why children would want to murder their parents and elders in a group setting. I had believed the scene was gorier [my childhood eyes played tricks on me], but it's fairly tame for the most part [although there is blood].
This opening sequence is just really striking and really teases you for a really good follow up. It never happens, sadly, but those opening minutes still put a smile on my face. Kids can be scary sometimes, and CHILDREN OF THE CORN proves that.
- The premise and ideas behind CHILDREN OF THE CORN. While the execution of these ideas are flawed, at least the film has ideas that go beyond just the typical horror template. The opening sequence deals with patricide/matricide, which even today is still considered taboo and hard to understand. Why would a child murder their parent? What kind of force drives a kid to do something like that? Sure, the answer here is purely supernatural. But it does happen in reality, and it's something hard to grasp.
We also have this idea about religion and how strongly it motivates people's behaviors. This aspect of the film is probably the one that still resonates strongly today, especially when it comes to certain social issues we're still unbelievably dealing with. I'm not sure if Stephen King or the screenwriters were criticizing people worshipping religion [I don't think that's the case here], but the film does seem to judge how some use religion for their own gain and brainwash others. The idea of cults is extremely scary, but one solely involving children is even scarier. Children are molded by outside sources, so Issac preaching the words of "He Who Walks Behind the Rows" as if doing a sermon from the Holy Bible has really screwed up these children and has clouded them from the reality around them. They are totally loyal to this God, never questioning what He asks of them. If He wants someone dead, they follow. And since they don't know better, they lost their humanity in order to follow this being the right way. That's really frightening.
I think the idea of children running a town by themselves by killing anyone over 19 is just a really great premise for any story or film. CHILDREN OF THE CORN is not the first film to accomplish this, but it's a premise certainly made for the horror genre. Adults can barely govern and lead others and themselves. What makes anyone think that children could do it? Once you're 19, you must sacrifice yourself to this "God". And if you're an adult, you're an "Outlander" and must be killed. Hell, Issac and Malachai can't agree on certain issues, both wanting to be in charge. CHILDREN OF THE CORN really deals with some great societal issues that we've all have faced from one time or another. I just wish the film would have focused more on the commentary while bringing the horror at the same time. But I'm just glad the film does make you think somewhat.
- The cast. The actors in this film are pretty good. Peter Horton, probably best known for his television role in thirtysomething, is pretty good here as the yuppie Burt. His dialogue is pretty terrible sometimes, but Horton gets props for keeping it professional and being a decent leading man. Linda Hamilton is great as Vicky, bringing some maternal charm to her role. I thought she and Horton had some great chemistry, coming across as very convincing as boyfriend and girlfriend.
John Franklin is pretty memorable as Issac, giving off a Shakespearean type of delivery when it came to his dialogue. Courtney Gains is probably more memorable as Malachai, looking quite menacing with his soldier-like delivery. Anne Marie McEvoy is cute as Sarah, and Robby Kiger is pretty good as Job. The other kid actors were very convincing in their roles. I wish the script was better, but the actors managed to take the story seriously and make it somewhat affective.
- Some of the direction. Fritz Kiersch's direction is a mixed bag for me. But Kiersch does have his moments visually. I already mentioned the awesome opening sequence. But I also loved the scene where reality becomes a dream, which in turn comes back to reality. It's a very effective scene and shows how haunted Vicky is over hitting a young child on the road. I also thought Kiersch used some nice angles and used great shots to establish how desolate Gatlin was. Gatlin is a character in itself, and it makes the film creepier when you don't see people around while things are covered in husks of corn. I'll get into what I didn't like in a moment, but some of what Kiersch did here I did enjoy.
- The screenplay. For those who don't know, the short story that CHILDREN OF THE CORN is based on was originally published in an issue of Penthouse, before being added to the Night Shift collection. The short story and the film [at least the 1984 version - the 2009 remake is more in tune with the short story] are very different. The original story is pretty dark and downbeat. The story establishes that the adults who are murdered by the children had it coming. The children learn that the blasphemy and sin that the adults had committed led to the troubles the town was experiencing. In some way, the adults are the villains in the short story, not the children [even though what they've done is still wrong]. Burt and Vicky, in the short story, are not a happy couple - but a married couple on the verge of divorce. Bad things also happen to the couple, not like the happy ending in the film. Also, the ending is more creepy and depressing than it is in the film. Plus, "He Who Walks Behind The Rows" is never revealed, and is kept pretty much a mystery in the short story.
Honestly, I'm glad this version kept much of the premise and certain moments of the story intact. But it's just way too happy. You never really feel threatened after that opening sequence. The murder of the adults comes across as tragic, rather than somewhat justified by the children to save their futures by rebuilding Gatlin themselves. Vicky and Burt are always happy and supportive, even when they don't agree on things. The story makes the couple more interesting by having them be estranged, leading to their downfall at the end [which represents the ending of their marriage - "To Death Do Us Part"].
Also, we know too much about "He Who Walks Behind The Rows" here. We actually "see" what it is, taking away much of the mystery and creepiness. The narration by Job doesn't help either. In fact, I'm not even sure why it was even needed. It's more distracting than anything. Let the audience figure things out for themselves. I don't want some kid telling me what I'm seeing and how I should feel about it. Ambiguity with a premise like this is more effective than drawing us the full picture.
Also, a lot of the dialogue is just painful. Burt uses words like "gosh" and "oh golly gee". No real person speaks like that while they're about to be killed, do they? Also, some of the dialogue that Issac and Malachai speak is just awful and comes across as laughable rather than threatening.
The screenplay isn't garbage or anything. Like I said, I'm glad they managed to maintain how most of the story played out. But instead of taking a chance of creating a dark film that truly reflected what Stephen King was trying to express, it plays out way too safe and way too upbeat. The ending pretty much says it all, as the end credits roll even before the survivors exit the screen. The sad part is that there's a pretty tense scence right before the credits roll, but seeing the cast and crew a second after that moment destroys all tension and suspense the film probably wanted to create. The film tries too hard to have people leave with smiles on their faces, rather than let them walk out unsure with a thought provoking ending that could lead to some debate. Not all horror films need to be intelligent, but if the story that it's based on allows that, why shouldn't the adaptation? I'm curious to see the remake, because I hear it's more like the short story. Let's see if a true adaptation works better on screen than this adaptation does.
- Some of the direction. While Kiersch does some great things visually, he does some not-so-great things as well. In particular, the pacing of CHILDREN OF THE CORN is just bad. I don't know how many times I can watch Burt and Vicky drive in circles before finally entering Gatlin. Instead of adding to the story, it just feels like padding to make the film longer. Also, my tolerance level is tested as Burt walks around the deserted Gatlin, looking for help even though there's no one around. Hell, he left his wife alone in a strange place thinking she'd be safe. What a dumbass. I also felt the ending was rushed and just kept spinning on its wheels. Instead of making me feel tense, I just wanted the film to end. Yet, it had multiple endings! It's sad that after an exciting opening sequence, the rest of the film just meanders. Honestly, this film put me to sleep a few times. Sometimes stretching a short story into a feature length film has its negatives...
- The special effects. I honestly don't know how to express how bad and laughable the special effects in CHILDREN OF THE CORN are. Even for 1984 low-budget standards, the visuals shouldn't be this terrible. I mean, the scene where someone is sacrificed and this neon glow cocoons them makes me shake my head in disbelief. The effect is done so lazily and you can noticed the flawed execution. I'm sure people were laughing at this 29 years ago. I know I probably would have!
And don't get me started that "He Who Walks Behind The Rows" is some sort of gopher thingy or something. At least that's how he travels. Even his powers looked unimpressive and fake. And the make-up for a certain character looked "meh" as well. I'm sorry, but I've seen low budget indie slasher films with more impressive special effects. For a Stephen King adaptation, you would expect more care in this department. I'm really floored by how lame the special effects are here. Maybe that's the appeal of CHILDREN OF THE CORN, but I just couldn't deal with the execution.
THE FINAL HOWL
CHILDREN OF THE CORN is one of my least favorite Stephen King adaptations. Still, it's not entirely terrible. The opening sequence is great, some of the direction is inspired, the cast is more than okay, and I like the premise of the story. It's too bad I find most of the film pretty dull, slow, and disappointing - especially compared to the actual short story and the "special" effects. I respect that the film and franchise has its fans, but I can't consider myself one of them. A pretty mediocre adaptation to a great short story.