Back in 1984, I didn’t see Children of the Corn because if I’m not mistaken, I believe I was “Stephen Kinged Out” by so many adaptations of his work popping up in theaters and not being all they could be. Amusingly enough, when this screener of the nicely restored 2K version popped up from Arrow Video in my mailbox, I’d actually been thinking about films made from King’s novels and short stories thanks to the recent arrival of IT into theaters.
I’d read a long time back that King wasn’t too fond of director Fritz Kiersch’s film partially thanks to the rewritten script by George Goldsmith altering and adding elements to King’s original short story. Let’s just say that the end result is a mixture of good intentions and lousy cost-cutting and leave it at that. Well, okay – that would mean this review would end at that last sentence, so I’ll elaborate if you care to read any further.
The best things about the film are the principal actors giving it their all, a few very effective shots and a nice reliance on “less is more” when it comes to onscreen violence. The worst things are some truly crummy visual effects that weren’t good back in 1984 (and really stink now), the abrupt ending that feels as if was added in post-production and the addition of two annoying kid characters (and a voice over narration) that give the film a sappy gloss that lessens the horror factor geometrically.
Still, you can’t get any more unsettling than the opening scene of Gatlin, Nebraska’s children taking out all the adults in the small town on the orders of Issac (John Franklin). All the kids are into a new religion that demands a hell of a sacrifice (ha and ha) and there are some effectively creepy moments thanks to Franklin’s Issac and Courtney Gains’ Malachi comfortably taking over whatever scenes they’re in. Talk about perfect casting! As for the two main leads, both Peter Horton (Burt) and Linda Hamilton (Vicky) are fine here as the young couple who ends up in deep after their road trip is cut short by their trip to the doomed town. They initially think they’ve killed a kid in a hit and run accident. But when it’s realized the victim has been murdered, the pair end up rooked into driving to Gatlin after road signs gone rogue lead them into danger.
While the tension is set up for an encounter with Issac and his flock, the film’s use of the aforementioned annoying kid characters really ruins any total feeling of hopelessness (and yes, the original short story was markedly hopeless in its fates for Burt and Vicky). Every time those kids are onscreen, the tome of the film shifts from horror to a mini-telethon of sorts. You know they’re in *danger* throughout the film, but not under any threat of harm because they represent the moral center of the piece. Malachi catches them playing and listening to records (both forbidden by Issac, but they’re let off the hook (or knife). Yes, another kid they knew runs away (and is killed by Malachi), but he represents that sacrificial lamb as well as one of the ties to King’s original story and version of the script.
When it’s not being eerie, the film is more or less a TV movie with feature film aspirations thanks to the tonal shifts and refusal to step too far over the edge into slasher flick territory. Sure, that tribe of killer kids falling prey to bad religion is noteworthy and gives the film somewhat of an impact particularly if you have a strong belief in a particular religion. On the other hand, Issac’s youthy, toothy minions can’t even catch a wounded Burt on the occasions he’s being chased around. Vicky, on the other hand, plays the poor damsel in distress (Hamilton is a true trouper here, by the way) who gets caught and tied up to be a sacrifice to “He Who Walks Behind the Rows”, who’s very likely walking behind the rows because he’s a lousy visual effect saved for near the end of the film.
In fact, the last portion of the film turn into a class in very low-budget movie making 101 thanks to some decisions made by the producers that turned what should have been a scary finale into a horror show of a different sort. Hey, when the visual and makeup effects from an old Star Trek episode are superior to what’s in your film, that’s saying something. Anyway, SPOILER: evil gets vanquished, Burt and Vicky are freed from their near-doom and they have company in the form of two annoying kids they just might adopt. Boo. Oh, and there’s a stupid coda that leads nowhere but to an ending that screams “We had no money left, so let’s get in one last shot as a jump scare that fails miserably”. Whee, The End. My response was “Wait, that’s it?” as I nearly fell off my bed laughing.
Still, despite me not liking the film outside the scary bits, I’ll give props to Arrow for adding a bunch of special features, some of which are from the older Anchor Bay version:
Brand new audio commentary with horror journalist Justin Beahm and Children of the Corn historian John Sullivan
Audio commentary with director Fritz Kiersch, producer Terrence Kirby and actors John Franklin and Courtney Gains
Harvesting Horror – retrospective documentary featuring interviews with Fritz Kiersch, John Franklin and Courtney Gains
It Was the Eighties! – an interview with actress Linda Hamilton
…And a Child Shall Lead Them – a brand new interview with actors Julie Maddalena and John Philbin
Field of Nightmares – a brand new interview with writer George Goldsmith
Stephen King on a Shoestring – an interview with producer Donald P. Borchers
Welcome to Gatlin: The Sights & Sounds of Children of the Corn – interviews with production designer Craig Stearns and composer Jonathan Elias
Return to Gatlin – a look back at the iconic filming locations in Iowa with host John Sullivan
Cut from the Cornfield – an interview with actor Rich Kleinberg on the infamous ‘lost’ Blue Man Scene
Disciples of the Crow – 1983 short film adaptation of Stephen King’s story
Original theatrical trailer
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Fully illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by John Sullivan and Lee Gambin
Everything there is highly watchable, but I really liked Disciples of the Crow best because while a lot lesser in quality in terms of production values, it delivers a more grim tone than the feature film does. Granted, it also changes Burt and Vicky’s fate considerably and is too short a film to touch other aspects of King’s original tale. But there’s a certain sense of rawness missing from the more familiar film that works quite well. So, sure – if you liked the original (or sequels, of which I’ve seen none of at this point and can’t comment on other than to say there are a lot of them), this new disc will be right up your alley. If, on the other hand you’re all new to the Corn, expect “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” to maybe get you rolling on the living room carpet when he makes his big appearance.
Score: B- (80%)
Review copy provided by the publisher