Children of the Corn (1984) New World/Horror RT: 92 minutes Rated R (violence, language) Director: Fritz Kiersch Screenplay: George Goldsmith Music: Jonathan Elias Cinematography: Raoul Lomas Release date: March 9, 1984 (US) Cast: Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton, R.G. Armstrong, John Franklin, Courtney Gains, Robby Kiger, AnneMarie McEvoy, Julie Maddalena, John Philbin. Box Office: $14.6 million
Low budget horror movies don’t get much better than Children of the Corn, an adaptation of the short story from Stephen King’s Night Shift collection. It was the fourth of five King adaptations to hit theaters in the space of nine months (August ’83-May ’84); the others being Cujo, The Dead Zone, Christine and Firestarter. Of those, Christine and The Dead Zone are the best. Children of the Corn is next on the list.
I remember being impressed by the trailer which I first saw in January ’84; it was attached to the exploitation classic Angel which bore one of my all-time favorite taglines “High school honor student by day. Hollywood hooker by night.” The movie looked totally freaky. The whole idea of a religious cult comprised of children that killed all the adults in town sounded cool. I saw Children of the Corn opening weekend at a Saturday matinee at the City Line Theater. I thought it was great. Now let me clarify that statement. It’s NOT great filmmaking but it IS a great cheapie horror flick. Made for just $800,000, it looks and plays better than many horror movies made by major studios for 50 times that amount. There’s a lot to be said for low budget studios like New World and producers who can squeeze dollars out of dimes. Mainly, they tend to try harder. In many cases, like Children of the Corn, their efforts pay off.
It opens with the children of the fictional town of Gatlin, Nebraska slaughtering all the adults in town. Almost all of them are under the influence of Isaac (Franklin), a pint-sized preacher who delivers his sermons in the cornfields that surround the town. Three years later, Gatlin is essentially a ghost town occupied entirely by kids. A place with no adult supervision may sound like paradise (to other kids) but that’s not the case with Gatlin. In fact, some kids want to escape. Based on what happens to one boy as he makes his way through the corn to the highway, leaving Isaac’s cult alive is not an option.
A young couple, Burt (Horton, thirtysomething) and Vicky (Hamilton, The Terminator), driving to Seattle literally run into the boy standing in the middle of road. Burt’s a doctor so it takes him about a minute to determine the boy as already dead when they hit him. Still, they need to report it to the police (or somebody, so he puts the boy in the trunk and drives off. A crotchety service station owner (Armstrong, The Beast Within) offers no help other than warning the couple to stay out of Gatlin explaining the folks there “got religion” and “don’t like outsiders”.
Hard as they try, all roads lead to Gatlin. Burt and Vicky head out on foot to find assistance. It isn’t long before they find themselves neck deep in trouble with Isaac’s followers led by his right-hand man Malachai (Gains, Hardbodies). They get help from a brother and sister, Job (Kiger, Table for Five) and Sarah (McEvoy, Invitation to Hell), who don’t follow or listen to Isaac. So why does he let them live? It seems that Sarah has the gift of sight; she foretells the future by drawing pictures. It’s she who predicts the arrival of “the outlanders” (i.e. Burt and Vicky).
Isaac and his followers worship an entity called He Who Walks Behind the Rows. We first see it as it runs/burrows underground through the cornfields like a large gopher. When it finally shows itself, it’s a huge glowing red blob. It looks like an animated cartoon. It’s pretty hokey but in the context of Children of the Corn, it works. One of the things I love about low budget horror movies is the cheap special effects. The makers can only afford to do so much with what little money they have to work with. The physical manifestation of He Who Walks Behind the Rows looks cheesy but in a good way. Is the creature scary? No, not at all. That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t.
Any nightmares youngsters experienced as a result of watching Children of the Corn more than likely featured Isaac and Malachai. The cult leader is a creepy evil little dude who dresses like an Amish preacher and incites his followers to violence with talk of prophecies. Franklin, who was 24 at the time of filming but looks to be about 13, is perfect for the role. He’s like Ralph Macchio’s evil cousin. Gains is also very good as Malachai, the red-headed enforcer of the laws governing their society who eventually tries to wrest control from Isaac, the self-proclaimed chosen one. I’ve always liked him as an actor; he has incredible range as evidenced by his hilarious role in the teen T&A comedy Hardbodies later that year. Hamilton is a great B-movie actress and Horton does very nicely as the outsider hero. Kiger and McEvoy are very good as the helpful brother and sister who see Isaac’s interpretation of religion for what it is.
Children of the Corn has some cool scenes like Vicky being crucified on a cross made of corn stalks. The kids arm themselves with farm tools and chant, “Praise God! Praise the Lord!” during one of Isaac’s sermons. There’s also a skeleton of a cop (the kids call him “The Blue Man”) hanging on a cornstalk cross. The movie has plenty of atmosphere; it has kind of a Midwest Gothic thing going on with the empty roads, the all but abandoned town, the sun-baked gas station and rows and rows of corn. The sense of isolation and disconnect from the rest of the world gives it a nice eerie factor. My only complaint is the lack of gore and graphic violence. The opening scene where the kids attack the adult after-church crowd in the local diner is cool but nothing much is shown.
Still, Children of the Corn is a very good fright flick. Director Fritz Kiersch (Tuff Turf) does a good job of it. Writer George Goldsmith takes many liberties with King’s original story. That kind of thing is inevitable, especially with short stories. It’s a good adaptation though. I really like the movie’s plot. I watched it countless times on cable TV and nearly wore out the VHS tape I recorded it on. I regard it as a B-movie classic that puts today’s watered-down PG-13 horror movies to shame.