Children of the Corn: 1984 Stephen King adaptation somewhat pulls its punches but is still a fun, gruesome horror movie
In the 1980s, Stephen King movies were all the rage, due to the success of A-list horror masterworks like Brian De Palma’s Carrie, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, John Carpenter’s Christine and David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, with every minor league King short story being optioned, adapted and expanded for feature film length. And most of these lesser King films weren’t very good. They were low budget and shot quickly and while some of them were fun and entertaining — 1985’s Silver Bullet, for example is a great minor-league King flick — many simply settled with the status of generic horror product, taking the germ of whatever tale they took their titles from and veering off into unrelated directions.
Director Fritz Kiersch’s 1984 King flick Children of the Corn was viewed critically at the time as one of those exploitative and craven King quickies, though with its striking poster, meticulously-cut trailer and the brand name flaunting of King’s name, the movie was a hit theatrically and even more potently, a juggernaut on home video and cable. That’s where kids saw the movie, though with its gruesome gore and disturbing passages, they probably never should have. But, hey, it was the ’80s. Parents were much more lax with what their kids saw on TV and that worked out just fine for us (yes, this writer was a child of that wild decade). Children of the Corn gripped kids, chiefly because of its harrowing opening sequence of parental mass murder and the very concept of evil kids laying waste to every human being over 18 in the middle of nowhere. Now, because my generation of horror fan was SO exposed to so much, we recognized that Children really wasn’t that serious of a horror film and we sneered at how it pulled its punches, trying to soften its nastiness with humor and pedestrian plot contrivances. Still, the movie has gone on to be a genuine cult classic, spawning sequels galore and standing as one of the flagship horror rental titles of the decade. And as far as King riffs go, it’s actually pretty good.
Indeed, watching Children of the Corn today, it’s easy to forgive its trespasses and appreciate all the things that work. King’s short story, most relevantly published in his legendary Night Shift collection, is a slice of misery, a peek into a marriage at the end of its tether and a couple who end up in a small Nebraska town where bad seed kids reign supreme. Apparently his original script was exactly this, but it was rejected by the producers and re-written. The film casts Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton as that same couple but, as Kiersch takes great pains to illustrate, they are very much stable and very much in love, driving cross country (with a copy of Night Shift on the dashboard!) to find a better life. Their plight is juxtaposed against that aforementioned doozy of of an opening, where bible-belt teens slaughter their elders, shoving fists into meat grinders, slitting throats with sling blades and poisoning coffee, all to the shock of two innocent moppets who were obviously inserted into the tale to brighten the misery of the movie. These two narrative arcs collide — literally — when Hamilton and Horton run over a murdered kid who dared try to escape the demonic youths, thus sending them spiraling into the madness and dark religious fervor that has the tiny town Gatlin in its grip.
The things that harmed Children of the Corn upon release still hamper the film, chief among them those two heroic kids and the little boy’s inexplicable narration that pops up from time to time. But as far as ’80s mainstream horror movies go, it’s tons of fun and has enough of King’s DNA in it to justify his name above the title. That opening really is a corker and the rest of the gore is also eerie and the cast is game, with Hamilton a great heroine and Courtney Gains and John Franklin brilliant as the monstrous teen cult leaders. The score by Jonathan Elias is also really good, a synthesizer-soaked riff on Jerry Goldsmith’s The Omen score that adds great sonic weight to the picture. It’s also exceedingly well-directed and photographed, with most of the action taking place in the day, the corn crops blowing in the breeze while something prowls between the rows.
Arrow’s new Blu-ray looks good, with some interior shots streaky and grainy but hey, only the fussiest AV fetishist will carp about that as the movie looks better than it ever has. Extras are plentiful, including a rowdy commentary with Franklin, Kiersch and Gains, a great interview with Hamilton, a mini making-of doc, another fan commentary with writer Justin Beahm and Corn superfan John Sullivan, the original short film Disciples of the Crow and much, much more.
With the success of IT ushering in yet another inevitable wave of Stephen King cinema worship, it’s nice to note that Children of the Corn still holds up and in fact honors the pen and mind and spirit of the man who sculpted its soul. Buy it here.