Based on King’s short story by the same name, Children of the Corn is one of the forgotten classics of his movie adaptations—largely due to the slew of wretched sequels that came later. The original pretty much fell off the radar for a good many years, getting to the point where higher numbered cable stations didn’t even bother to air it and only the most bargain-basement video stores still carried copies.
As a King fan, I was cautiously excited about this 25th Anniversary Blu-ray release. The short story it’s based on is one of my favorites, and I had vague memories of being really creeped out by the movie when I was younger. But it’s a sad fact that the majority of movies from the eighties based on King’s stories were pretty lousy, and it was possible—maybe even probable—that this would be an hour-and-a-half long piece of garbage.
Well, I’m happy to say that for the most part this movie holds up remarkably well.
The film stars Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton as Burt and Vicky—a couple making a cross-country journey to Seattle where Peter will begin residency at a hospital as a new doctor. As they drive through the barren, corn-infested wasteland affectionately known as Nebraska, they hit a boy who was standing in the middle of the road. Being responsible adults, Burt and Vicky stop to see if they can help, and when they find that the boy is dead, they wrap him in a blanket and place him in the trunk. Then they drive on in search of a phone so they can call the police.
But hitting the boy was just the beginning of their problems. Time and space twist, forcing the couple to the isolated town of Gatlin whose only inhabitants are children who worship a mysterious force known only as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” And whoever “He” is, he has plans for the two of them.
Before going into the technical aspects of movie, I have to say how refreshing it is to see people in a horror movie act like responsible human beings. Although I found Burt condescending and Vicky ineffectual, they get major points from me for acting like adults. When they realize they hit a boy, they don’t run away or try to hide the body, they do the right thing, and because of that I could forgive Burt’s pedantism or Vicky’s uselessness. I suppose it’s just a minor detail, but I liked it because frankly I’m sick of watching stupid, morally reprehensible people as protagonists in horror movies. It’s nice to have somebody to root for, for a change.
Of course, they do still suffer from the basic stupidity inherent in just about every horror character ever before the Scream movies catalogued the rules: namely, they stay in an obviously dangerous place for far too long. I would have never gotten out of my car after seeing five seconds of Gatlin’s downtown, but like typical horror characters, Burt and Vicky get out and explore! Just watching those sections of the movie made my spidey-sense go off like a fire-engine siren, but Burt only seems mildly curious while Vicky makes tepid squeaks about leaving.
I mention this part of the movie because scenes like that really interest me. There are times when I watch a horror movie and I get angry at the characters for doing something stupid, but the reason I get angry and they seem so stupid is because I have information they don’t. Let’s face it, Burt and Vicky are white, middle-class Americans in the heartland of the country; they’re conditioned to believe that they are safe, and they have about thirty someodd years of experience backing that up.
That sense that they should be safe—and implicitly that we should be safe in a similar situation—is what makes this such an effectively creepy movie. Alfred Hitchcock once quipped that his show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, “brought murder back into the home, where it belonged.” Besides being a wonderfully pithy comment, Hitchcock was saying that murder belonged in the home precisely because it doesn’t belong there—if you can dig that paradox. Horror is at its most effective when it takes what should be safe and makes it sinister: and what could be safer than a child?
The children are what really make this such a frightening movie. While I could rattle off countless of cases where children rape or murder, or even moments of children acting cruelly from my own experiences, I can’t help but think of children as a group as innocent, even helpless. There’s a mountain of cultural history that goes into that, and it’s that history that Children of the Corn capitalizes on so well. One scene in particular stands out in my mind where a group of children under the command of Malachai—the oldest of the children and the most zealot believer in He Who Walks Behind the Rows—surround a house where Linda Hamilton is waiting patiently for Burt. The kids—especially Malachai—radiate menace. The potentiality of immanent violence practically hums in the air, and the fact that it comes from the children makes it even more upsetting because a part of me deep down says that children should not act this way. This is fundamentally wrong.
There have been plenty of killer children movies before and since, but Children of the Corn really stands above most of them because the elements of the isolated town, religious fanaticism, and the threat of horrible physical violence on the part of the children mesh together very, very well. It helps, too, that the director, Fritz Kiersch, comes from the Hitchcock school of thought where the implication of violence is far more terrifying and disturbing than actually seeing it. While these children kill a lot of people, you never see it directly, which leaves your imagination to fill in the gory details.
Obviously, this movie holds up very well in most aspects, but it falls apart a bit at the end: not enough to ruin the experience, mind you, but enough to take just a little bit away from the terror. Where the movie falls apart, really, is at the end when you actually see “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” I won’t go into too great of detail considering some of you may have never seen the movie, but the filmmakers use some really substandard animation to create the corn God, making the animation at the end scene of Highlander look like it was done by Disney. I’d be tempted to blame the cheesiness of the effect on this being a Blu-Ray release, but I have a hard time believing that it looked any better back in 1984 when it was originally released in theaters.
It’s strange that the filmmakers would do this considering they had done so well throughout the majority of the movie in implying the violence and representing the corn God through the way its will and presence manifests indirectly. It may be a clunky comparison, but I can’t help but compare it to a gravitational lens—the way that objects with heavy gravity fields warp light around them. Astronomers use this affect to indirectly observe phenomenon like black holes, and something similar goes on this movie in that with the exception of the ending you only see the effects of the God, not the God itself.
There’s also a minor inconsistency that again takes a bit away from the movie. The film begins with a voice-over by the character Jobey. The voice-overs taper off as the movie progresses and eventually end altogether. Now, I’m not a huge fan of voice-overs, but if you begin a movie with a voice-over, convention demands that you end with a voice-over. I could understand it if the filmmakers were playing with the format, but really it seems like they just forgot about it along the way. It’s not a major point, but it did irk me.
Despite these problems, Children of the Corn is a creepy, suspenseful movie and is definitely one of the better early Stephen King adaptations. Fans of King’s movies should do themselves a favor and check out this forgotten gem.
The movie was presented in 1.85:1 widescreen with the audio in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. There are also English subtitles for the hearing impaired. The movie looks and sounds great with no discernable transfer problems. The picture is sharp with vibrant colors, and the audio comes through just as clearly.
Audio Commentary with Director Fritz Kiersch, Producer Terrence Kirby and Actors John Franklin and Courtney Gains – This is a pretty standard commentary track: a bit dry and technical for my tastes, but those who enjoy commentaries will probably like this.
Fast Film Facts – This feature enables little pop-up screens of information that play during the movie. Personally, I find it distracting, but it’s a neat feature.
Welcome to Gatlin: The Sights & Sounds of Children of the Corn (15:28) – Craig Sterns the production designer and Jonathan Elias the composer talk about the various aspects of production in the movie. There were some interesting tidbits of information, but the featurette was a tad overlong to make it worth watching.
It was the Eighties!: An Interview with Linda Hamilton (14:09) – This was a bit sad considering Linda Hamilton comes off as a little ditzy, getting the facts wrong about her co-star John Franklin, and by making some rather silly comments. It was a little uncomfortable to watch because of that.
Stephen King on a Shoestring: An Interview with Producer Donald P. Borchers (11:20) – At this point the featurettes start to repeat themselves. Couple this with the rather deadpan delivery by Borchers, and this was rather boring to watch.
Harvesting Horror: Children of the Corn (36:14) – Director Fritz Kiersch and actors John Franklin and Courtney Gains talk about their memories of the movie. Again there is some repeated information here, but what I took away from this featurette is that Courtney Gains is insane. Hearing about his antics when auditioning for the role of Malachai is almost enough to make this worth watching. Almost.
Theatrical Trailer (1:27) – This was a fun little relic to include on the disk. I always enjoy watching older movie trailers and seeing how different they are from today’s.
Original Storyboard Art – This is a nice feature for movie buffs really interested in the minutiae of the filmmaking process, but I found it rather uninteresting.
Poster and Still Gallery – Again, a nice little extra, but nothing I would ever peruse through again.
Original Title Sequence Art – This is something else hardcore movie buffs will be into.
I was pleasantly surprised at how well this movie held up. While it was by no means perfect, especially near the end, it was a good adaptation of a great horror story and was genuinely frightening without resorting to gore and cheap theatrics. While I wouldn’t necessary suggest buying this unless you’re a major King fan, it’s definitely worth renting. Recommended.
Anchor Bay Entertainment presents Stephen King’s Children of the Corn: 25th Anniversary Edition. Directed by: Fritz Kiersch. Starring: Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton. Written by: George Goldsmith. Running time: 93 Minutes. Rating: R. Released on DVD: August 25, 2009. Available at Amazon.com