Vicky (Linda Hamilton): "What is it with this corn?!"
During the 1980s, if you wanted to see a movie adapted from a Stephen King story, chances were pretty good one was playing at a nearby theater or drive-in. After the financial successes of Carrie (1976) and The Shining (1980), Stephen King movies for a time were cranked out like sausages, at the rate of about one every six months: In 1983 there was Cujo, The Dead Zone, and Christine; 1984 saw the release of Children of the Corn and Firestarter; Cat's Eye and Silver Bullet followed in 1985; and Maximum Overdrive, Stand by Me, and The Running Man were released not long after.
Children of the Corn was just about the worst of the early King adaptations though, incredibly, it's spawned no less than six sequels to date (most direct-to-video) and a made-for-TV remake has been announced. Nevertheless, the film "that started it all" is about as bad as it could be; the two leads give decent performances, but otherwise it's a model for how not to make a horror film. There's no suspense, it's not scary or atmospheric, it's full of plot holes, and like many bad horror films, the main characters are required to act like total idiots to facilitate a plot that demands far too much suspension of disbelief.
Adapted from King's short story (it debuted in Penthouse before appearing in the 1978 compilation Night Shift), the movie version is oddly structured, told simultaneously from two incompatible perspectives: a young boy named Job (Robby Kiger) narrates the film, but most of the picture is told from the point-of-view of a married couple, Burton Stanton (Peter Horton), a medical doctor, and his wife, Vicky (Linda Hamilton). This odd approach is not only awkward - it stifles all the potential effectiveness of each perspective.
Further muddling things is the film's badly-executed prologue: In 1981, in the small, isolated farming town of Gatlin, Nebraska, all but two of its children return from a visit to the cornfield to gruesomely murder all the adults. Only Job, who was in church that Sunday morning, and his little sister, Sarah (Anne Marie McEvoy), at home with a fever (and clairvoyant for no good reason), are spared the hypnotic influences of adult-child Isaac (John Franklin), leader of the religious cult-like children of the corn.
Three years later, one boy attempting to flee Gatlin is stabbed in the cornfield by Isaac's lieutenant, a fiery redheaded teenager named Malachai (Courtney Gaines). Dying, the boy wanders out onto the highway and is struck and killed by Burt and Vicki's speeding automobile. Taking note of the trail of blood leading out of the cornfield, Burt puts the body in the trunk of his car and he and Vicky decide to contact the appropriate authorities in the nearest town. But, as fate would have it, they're inexorably drawn to the nearly deserted, decaying Gatlin.
For starters, telling its story from two perspectives is ruinous. The filmmakers should have picked one or the other: stick with the kids and explore their fears, isolation, and efforts to get away, or with Burt and Vicky so that the audience stumbles upon Gatlin and its mysteries as they do. In trying to have it both ways the filmmakers only shoot themselves in the foot: the potential for a baffling, unsettling mystery with Burt and Vicki evaporates, and because the lion's share of the script focuses on them, there's no time to get inside the kids' heads, or to tell the story from a child's perspective.
In this sense the film invites unfavorable comparison to the later Stand By Me, which did a much better job capturing the concerns of children and the way they talk and behave. In Children of the Corn the kids are like those in a Disney comedy; they don't react in ways that are anything like real kids, and the child actors just aren't in the same league as those in Stand By Me, either.
Because it's filmed without any finesse or effort to adapt King's nightmare-like storytelling style cinematically, the story's flaws are accentuated and the film begs innumerable questions that go unanswered. What do the children eat? Why hasn't anyone in nearby communities noticed Gatlin has been taken over by a supernatural cult and that all the adults have been murdered? After three years wouldn't the IRS make inquiries? Who empties their septic tanks? Who's paying the water and electric bills?
Worse, Burt and Vicky act like total morons almost from the very beginning. It's obvious to Burt that the boy he and his car struck had been viciously stabbed, but Burt tramples all over the crime scene, moves the body (left rotting in the trunk of his car at the fade-out, incidentally) and other evidence, and after the initial shock of hitting the boy, has no sense of urgency about contacting the police. For most of the film they act more annoyed than unnerved, like vacationers put out because their airline lost track of their luggage. In King's story the couple's marriage was on the rocks; that made them less appealing but it also made their self-defeating behavior more logical.
When he and Vicky arrive in Gatlin, they see no adults and find the local café, its front door unlocked, overrun with corn stalks and rats. All the phones in town are dead, and there may be no electricity. (The film is extremely unclear about this latter point.) At this point, if not much earlier, any sensible couple would have beat a hasty retreat, but they decide to separate, with unconcerned Burt continuing to wander around an obviously long-unused, vandalized town hall and police station.
Why did the filmmakers choose to set most of the film in broad daylight? A dark and stormy nighttime setting would have helped a lot, and many of the film's deficiencies (including notably poor optical effects and lackluster makeup) could have been hidden away in the shadows. As it is, Children of the Corn is much less frightening than the average Simpsons Halloween Special.
If it weren't so boringly uneventful and routine - "Things just aren't happening fast enough," Burt admits at the halfway point - it might have gained a cult classic status. The script is certainly full of howlers: "It's a little weird here," Burt admits to Vicky, "but it's safe." This is five minutes before Vicky is attacked by teens with sickles. When it's revealed that older teenagers must sacrifice themselves to the monster under the cornfield, the latest sacrifice cuts up his chest and explains to Burt that today is his 19th birthday, prompting Burt's reply: "You gotta sick way of celebrating it, pal!" Malachai - an over-emphatically evil-sounding name - spends most of the film wandering around town like a demonic Mick Jagger screaming, "Outlander! Outlander!" After a few appearances Malachai becomes comical instead of threatening.
Video & Audio
Children of the Corn gets a 1080p 1.78:1 presentation, opened up slightly from its 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. The image is generally impressive though digitally tweaked a bit, most obvious in an early scene where Hamilton's character dances in front of a window with bright sunlight pouring in. Generally though, the image is bright and impressively sharp, though opticals tend to be pretty grainy. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 remix, though a big upgrade from the original monophonic release (New World's films were usually mono, well into the mid-'80s at least) boosts the musical score at the expense of dialogue, but it's okay. English and Spanish subtitles are included. The menu screens are clumsy and overdone.
For such a bad movie the disc has a lot of supplements. Harvesting Horror: Children of the Corn is an older, 36-minute documentary in standard definition from an earlier release, but the other three featurettes are all new and in high-def. Welcome to Gatlin: The Sights & Sounds of 'Children of the Corn' features interviews with production designer Craig Sterns and composer Jonathan Elias: It Was the Eighties! offers a fascinating chat with Linda Hamilton; and Stephen King on a Shoestring features a rather dull but informative interview with co-producer Donald P. Borchers, who was only in his mid-20s at the time yet New World's VP of worldwide production.
A party-like atmosphere prevails on the audio commentary track with director Fritz Kiersch, co-producer Terrence Kirby, and actors John Franklin and Courtney Gaines. A Fast Film Facts feature accesses bits of trivia that one can enjoy in tandem with the commentary track. A trailer, storyboard and advertising art round out the extras.
Children of the Corn is extremely mild, uninvolving, and at times criminally stupid. It's a product of its era, when it seemed almost everybody was screwing up one Stephen King adaptation or another. But the transfer is nice and the extras are plentiful, so if inclined toward this sort of picture, you might want to Rent It.
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