Interview: Julie Maddalena Remembers 1984’s CHILDREN OF THE CORN

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CHILDREN OF THE CORN, Peter Horton, Julie Maddalena, John Philbin, 1984.©New World Pictures

SHOCK sits down with Julie Maddalena, Rachel in the first adaption of Stephen King’s CHILDREN OF THE CORN.

One of the greatest elements in 1984’s CHILDREN OF THE CORN is the outstanding child acting that was mined from various casting agencies and talent scouts all across America. Trying to find children capable of delivering terrifying performances as devoted cultists in the mid-west was quite the task for the filmmakers, but a gifted assortment of youngsters surfaced and the fictional bible belt town of Gaitlin finally had it’s precious homicidal darlings congregate in the golden sun-kissed cornfield.

Shot in Sioux City, Iowa, these mini-movie stars were set to torment the two adult leads in the form of Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton (as well as legendary character actor R.G. Armstrong) and each of them left an incredible impression on horror fans during the 80s VHS boom.  

Of course alongside John Franklin and Courtney Gaines who played the cult leader Isaac and the violent right hand man Malachi respectively, one of the children that left the biggest impact on this scribe was the young lady who played sermon leader Rachel – the incredibly talented and dynamic Julie Maddalena. With her maniacal glare, frazzled and frenzied demeanor, powerful dedication to her religion and He Who Walks Behind the Rows, Maddalena’s Rachel is the epitome of child preacher spawned from Hades.

Regardless of only appearing in three core scenes, Maddalena’s impressive performance is perfectly realized, fine-tuned, electric and packs a mighty punch. These are the kind of performances in mid-80s horror that truly stand out for historians like this writer, who will always champion those who come into a film, do their thing, do it incredibly well and remain underrated and underappreciated. Here is a performance that needs to be acknowledged as a mighty superlative one.

SHOCK: How did the role of Rachel come about and what was the audition process like?

MADDALENA: It was actually very fun for me, because firstly it was my first Hollywood job. I remember going to the audition and being excited and getting a call back, which was great. I got the audition through my agent and was very happy to hear that I got that call back. But when I got to the audition – and this is a very candid “woman’s or young girl’s moment” – I remember seeing this incredibly beautiful young girl there with long flowing blonde hair and she was going for the same part, and I kind of imprinted “Oh she’ll get the role, for sure”. This was a typical female moment in my thinking. But when my agent called and told me that I got the job, I was just shocked. I remember my agent telling me “I guess they liked your hair” – you know, I had a perm at the time, and maybe the casting agents thought my hair looked weird or stuck in some time period which would be perfect, and I was like “Ok…that’s not the nicest compliment, but I’ll take it, I’ll wear it if it gets me the part.”

SHOCK: What did they get you to do in the audition? I remember Courtney Gaines saying that he got the role by drawing a knife on the casting director and scaring her to death…

MADDALENA: Courtney Gaines has a great memory and that is so Courtney Gaines to do that. He is so intense and so great. Well, I didn’t do anything like that! I was a little bit more straight forward, I don’t remember them asking me to do anything odd, but I remember having to crank up my evil. At that time in my career I was getting cast in a lot of roles that were “against type”. So when this film came along I felt that I didn’t look like what was supposedly the look for an evil kid, and I don’t act like an evil kid, so when I am cast as an evil kid it plays against type and that is incredibly fun to play out. The filmmakers much have liked that aspect of it, that I didn’t come across as someone with dark elements in their personality or nature, so that when I got to play that out it shocked them and impressed them.

SHOCK: What do you recall about the location and the art direction – the look of Gaitlin is great: the idea of a ghost town “gone to corrupt religious zeal”…

MADDALENA: It was so fun and it was so other worldly. It was quite surreal. I mean, Sioux City, Iowa is already quite strange. And that poor little town really didn’t know what they were getting into. It was quite amazing seeing the transformation and disturbing at the same time, I mean if anyone has any modicum or reference to the church it was disturbing to see and also helped with the role. I loved it, I loved what they did. It helped so much inform the characters and to bring the performances to life.

SHOCK: Can you describe the sequence in the church where you are conducting a sermon and John Philbin is seen carving a pentacle into his chest? What was this like to shoot?

MADDALENA: It was very intense and John Philbin had that way about him, he had a sort of madness that he brought to the role, so the whole thing was incredibly realistic. Even though he wasn’t really carving the pentacle into his chest, it was still really believable and disturbing. The art direction really informed everything as well. It was set up with paintings of Christ with corn as hair and blood stained walled with passages from the bible and it was completely the kind of place where children just should not go, and here I was conducting this sermon to them. It was incredibly creepy and very disturbing and so much fun. Everything about that scene helped create the mood.

SHOCK: You share your pivotal scene with Peter Horton. What was he like to work with?

MADDALENA: Peter was wonderful. It was before his THIRTY SOMETHING fame, he was just a gem. He and Linda Hamilton were both so paternal and maternal on the set. Peter was fun and a joy and easy to work with. I had no problems with him. He made it so much fun. And also, because I felt like such a child on the set, I mean I was a young adult, he made me feel empowered and capable and that was great.

SHOCK: A lot of the child actors in the film are very young – do you recall any concerns about this, seeing that the film does tap into rather heavy territory?

MADDALENA: We, if anything, had such a sweet connection to one another. We were all such great friends and all kept the mood light and fun. There was definitely an element of the filmmakers and the adults on the set making sure the children who were more sensitive were OK and protected and assured that what they were doing was all fun and make-believe, so in between takes children would be allowed to play and run around and not have to go into the heavy stuff over and over again. But for the most part, most of the children got it and understood that they were in a horror movie with dark material and that it was part of the artistry. Children are incredible smart and incredibly perceptive and natural artists, I think people don’t give them enough credit. We were all making the effort to make sure that everything was artistry and creativity and not reality. It was a great balance.

SHOCK: You do a fantastic job as a teen zealot completely devoted to the “cause” – what was your take on Rachel? How much of the performance was you and how much was the director’s instruction?

MADDALENA: That’s a great question. My mom would not like to hear me say that a lot of that character was me, but I am a recovering Italian female, so I definitely have the passion and the devotion ingrained in me, so that was something I could bring to the role because it did require that element of total commitment. These kids were totally committed to something that was so twisted, and I bought that to the role, the idea of the commitment to my relationship with Amos (John Philbin). Did you know that they had bought in very, very young children to sit in the front row of the sermon sequence that were supposed to be mine and Amos’s. We were supposed to have had children together which I thought was completely unrealistic. But there were these details that don’t come across in the final cut, but these helped the character and her commitment to the religion. In my background, my great-great grandparents were hit men, and we joke how we have come a long way from that – but yes, that kind of Italian fire and that kind of Italian passion really did help shape Rachel and her intensity. The director more than anything gave me permission to go further with it which was nice. He also fed me details. I didn’t know Amos was supposed to be my husband until we got to set. Also, I didn’t think that made sense in that these were children who were against adult trappings or the things that grown ups do, which would include marriage and sex, so it didn’t make sense, so in a way it’s good that that element gets lost in the final cut. The story was also much more fleshed out than the original short story. I mean reading the Stephen King short story you don’t get the details you get in the film.

SHOCK: CHILDREN OF THE CORN is one of the most popular films belonging to the subgenre of the evil-child movie. Are you a fan of this facet of horror film?

MADDALENA: I think they are successful because they are against type. To imagine horror originating from a child is something shocking. It appeals to people because it is so terrifying to think that a little innocent child can be so sinister and evil. Now as a mom, it one of those horror subgenres that I have to prepare myself for, because it’s harder to deal with now. But it’s so brilliant because it’s so against the norm and frightening, however, unfortunately in real life we now live in a culture where children take to guns and shoot kids at their schools and that is deeply disturbing and horrible.

SHOCK: How do you feel CHILDREN OF THE CORN measures up as one of Stephen King’s adaptations?

MADDALENA: I was a big Stephen King fan as a child. I loved them all. THE SHINING was my favorite, it did the most damage to me in terms of being terrified. I remember looking over my shoulder every time I read it. Reading CHILDREN OF THE CORN before doing the movie was great, but I really do remember that there was not much in regards to the background of the children and not much involving the kids at all, that is was mainly the two adults dealing with them. So it was very exciting to see what the filmmakers were going to do with these evil cultist children.

SHOCK: Did you research cults or look into the idea of alternative religions when you got the part?

MADDALENA: Another great question! I didn’t research cults, but I had an understanding of cults. Even at that young age I knew about them. I already had a full understanding of the personality profile of people who would get involved in cults and come under the influence of cults. I approached it from that psychological stand point, rather than immersing myself in studying cults. I was interested in Rachel’s interest and devotion to a cult. How did she get involved? Why did she? I liked the idea of creating this character’s background, I thought, how can this kid in sobriety get involved in this homicidal cult and my answer was that there is something not quite right, something a bit off in her own personality. As an actress you have to believe what you’re doing and find out why your character does what she does. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense.

SHOCK: The film deals with a young couple who are childless forced to fend off psychotic children – what do you think the film says politically and subversively?

MADDALENA: I love that question – I think that is such a common thread in movies about either evil children or children who have gone off the path. I think kids who have stepped out of line are missing something pure and something wholeheartedly loving, and family is the heart of those elements that are missing. So the solution would be family to save those children who are able to be saved, such as the two children in the film who are desperate to flee the cult. Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton take them on because family is where the heart, health and home is. There is a natural pull to the family unit being the refuge.

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SHOCK: The film spawned an entire franchise – did you see any of the sequels? If so, what were your thoughts? Nancy Allen plays Rachel as an adult in one of the sequels, was there ever any talk of you yourself being cast in a follow up?

MADDALENA: I think I started to watch one once, and I couldn’t get through it. It was awful. The only experience I had with one of the sequels was for the first one and someone had sent me some sides to read through and to see if I wanted to be involved. I read the script and I was like “Oh this is so not right, and so not the first movie…” and I just did not want to be a part of that at all. It was awful. I called my agent and told them I wanted to pass. I’m glad I did that. In regards to Nancy, I heard that recently and I love her and that makes me want to watch that particular sequel.

SHOCK: What was your most treasured memory about working on the film?

MADDALENA: My fondest memory was probably when we had a day off and Linda Hamilton, Peter Horton, some of the other children and I went out on a boat and it was lovely and refreshing and we really bonded. Now don’t laugh, but before shooting the film I had become a Christian, and Linda Hamilton was as well, and she gave me a cross and called it “heart sisters”, we because “heart sisters” and we just really bonded, it was very sweet. Also, when they added the ending of me popping up in the car, that was added while we were shooting. It was never originally meant to happen, but they thought they’d give the film a final “boo” moment and it was tacked on. They never told me about it until it was time to shoot it, so that was very lovely and so much fun. Now the worst memory, or the most yucky was when we did the wrap party which was held at an abattoir and the joint building where they would process beef and treat beef in Sioux City. So this was a former slaughterhouse that some “brilliant” business man thought would be a great place for a supermarket, but it still smelled of blood, still had the meat hooks everywhere and it was the most horrible place to transform into a market place and wrap party venue.