Children of the Corn

Children of the Corn (1984)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton, John Franklin, Courtney Gains
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Trivia Track, Trailer, Still Galleries, BD-Live

"Children of the Corn" was in crowded company when it was released in 1984. Horror auteur Stephen King was becoming quite the rage in Hollywood in the early 1980s as producers were eager to cash in on his string of best-sellers. In 1983 alone, no less than three films were adapted from King novels: "Cujo, " "The Dead Zone," and "Christine." In addition to this film (based on a short story from King's 1977 anthology "Night Shift"), the following year also saw the release of "Firestarter." Despite critical scorn, a modest budget, and competition from more than 30 other films based on the author's writing, "Children of the Corn" surprisingly became the most lucrative of all Stephen King adaptations, spawning six sequels to date (the last five of which were released straight to video) as well as a TV remake purportedly in the works.

So what exactly does "Children of the Corn" have that, say, "Carrie" (1976), "The Shining" (1980), or "Misery" (1990) don't that has led to its never-ending legacy of follow-ups. I can easily tell you what it doesn't have, namely a solid narrative, good direction, complex characters, strong performances, and genuine terror. And yet, it remains an undyingly popular movie 25 years on.

The film is set in the fictional Nebraska town of Gatlin, a small farming community where the good folks follow Sunday church with breakfast at the local coffee shop. One fateful morning, however, the town's children revolt against the adults, poisoning their coffee and slashing their throats in a truly horrific scene. Three years later, affectionate but noncommittal sweethearts Burt and Vicky (Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton) have a rather nasty accident just outside of Gatlin and go searching for help, but there is not a single adult to be found.

After pacing around the deserted Gatlin for a good half hour or so looking for a phone that works, Burt and Vicky come to realize that something is terribly wrong. Well actually, she figures that out right away, but he needs further convincing. Somehow the snipped phone cords, three-year-old TV Guides, desecrated church paintings, and corn shucks scattered through buildings don't do it for him. What they eventually find, partially with the help of a psychic child, is that the children of Gatlin have formed a religious cult around a mysterious, evil being, "He Who Walks Behind the Rows," that lurks through the town's expansive corn fields. Adults are their enemies, and they sacrifice any adult with the misfortune to enter Gatlin to their unseen master. Even more troubling, the children themselves become sacrifices when they reach the forbidden age of 19.

At its best, the film scores in its casting of the two lead "child" actors. As Isaac, the 9-year-old prophet who organized the moppet cult and receives direct commands from "He Who Walks Behind the Rows," John Franklin is inspired. Suffering from Growth Hormone Deficiency, Franklin was actually about 24 when he played the part, and he possesses the uncanny quality of appearing both old and young at the same time. As he charismatically preaches his unholy sermons to a group of rather lackadaisical young listeners, he seems to be fully committed to every horrible word he is saying. Likewise, the incredibly strange-looking Courtney Gains (who has built a lasting career on his unsettling features) turns in a furious performance as Malachai, Isaac's right-hand boy who ignites a kiddie mutiny against the fearful leader.

But the movie's clumsy execution is its ultimate undoing. Neither first-time director Fritz Kiersch nor screenwriter George Goldsmith has made a noteworthy film between them since. In adapting Stephen King's short story, Goldsmith shifted the focus significantly from the central couple to the nutcase children, who in the original story are introduced toward the end and only really fleshed out in the final paragraphs. For the purposes of a feature-length film, expanding the role of the children is not a bad idea, and the opening scene of their brutal attack on the adults is admittedly shocking. This was done, however, at the expense of scaling back the development of Burt and Vicky, who are only pallid reflections of the married couple on the verge of divorce from King's story. Here, as portrayed by then relative newcomers Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton, they are not so much active protagonists as bland victims, doltishly stumbling into the diabolical rituals of the blood-thirsty kids. Both Horton and Hamilton are fairly wooden in their performances, but with the material they are given it is no small wonder.

There is also the introduction of two needless characters in Job and Sarah (Robby Kiger and AnneMarie McEvoy), siblings who are not part of the cult but are allowed to live only because Sarah has psychic abilities, which Isaac uses to his advantage. Overly cute and plucky, they are the only allies Burt and Vicky have in Gatlin and bring an unnecessary sentimentality to the movie. The film opens with the story being told by Job in a voice-over narration. To whom he is telling the story is never revealed, but the narration is thankfully dispensed of less than midway through the film. Most of it is inappropriately hilarious and juvenile, such as this gem of a contradiction:

Job (in voice-over): One day Joseph told us he was running away. He said he couldn't take it anymore. He was pretty scared. I wasn't.
Job (on-screen): I'm scared!

The story's short-form origins are painfully obvious throughout the middle section of the film, in which Burt and Vicky wander through the empty town, searching houses, the coffee shop, and finally the church. This section seems to go on interminably with nothing of great interest happening. In King's story, the couple's exploration through Gatlin is eerie in its mystery, as the reason behind the town's desertion has yet to be revealed. The film loses this element of suspense because we already know what the children are up to, leaving this section feeling prolonged and redundant. The film's climax also suffers from the transfer to feature length. Whereas King efficiently wraps the story up with an abrupt but chillingly ambiguous ending, the movie's supernatural finale serves as a drawn-out, indulgent showcase for some embarrassingly dated special effects only to peter out in the final moments with a conclusion that seems like an afterthought.

How "Children of the Corn" continues to be so successful and popular 25 years after its release still remains a mystery (even to its participants, as the Blu-ray's supplements prove). What worked as a concise if simplistic exercise in shock and subversion of readers' expectations in Stephen King's short story has been stretched out, watered down, and further simplified to a surprisingly lifeless horror movie. Considering how little substance there is, it is even more confounding that other filmmakers have been able to conceive of subsequent chapters (even if they have gone straight to video). It might have been interesting to see what this same director and cast could have done with the material had it been produced as a short work, perhaps as a TV episode or segment of an anthology film. For the sake of comparison, it is worth looking for "Disciples of the Crow," a 20-minute independent production drawn from the same story and filmed in 1983. This short is currently available on YouTube.

Anchor Bay's Blu-ray treatment of "Children of the Corn" is generally impressive. The film is presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer in full 1080p high definition. For a 25-year-old low-budget film as this, the picture quality is pretty good. Most of the film looks sharp and clear, save for some occasional but fairly negligible scratches. Grain is the main distraction during some of the dark scenes, appearing heavily over night skies and such. Skin tones are occasionally a tad red, but overall this is a nice-looking transfer for a movie that is not visually brilliant.

A Dolby Digital 5.1 TrueHD soundtrack is mainly wasted here, as the film was originally recorded in mono and does not lend itself well to multi-channel surround. Dialogue and music sound clear enough. Jonathan Elias' memorably shrill score frequently rips off the satanic chanting from "The Omen" (1976), and it is given substantial room to breathe here, but the action scenes toward the end have no real impact and are let down by this track. English (SDH) and Spanish subtitles are available.

An entertaining commentary track is retained from the 2004 special edition DVD, featuring director Fritz Kiersch, producer Terrence Kirby, and actors John Franklin and Courtney Gains. The four men clearly have a good time remembering the production, and they keep the discussion going consistently.

A trio of featurettes has been created for this Blu-ray release, all offered in HD. First is "Welcome to Gatlin: The Signs and Sounds of Children of the Corn." Lasting 15 minutes, this featurette boasts separate interviews with composer Jonathan Elias and production designer Craig Stearns. The amusingly titled "It Was the Eighties!" is a 14-minute interview with Linda Hamilton on her experiences making the film as a little-known actress. She provides some fun insight into how this role prepared her for and helped establish her career as an action heroine. "Stephen King on a Shoestring" is an 11-minute interview with producer Donald Borchers, who conveniently finds room to plug the TV remake that he is working on.

Ported over from the last DVD, "Harvesting Horror: Children of the Corn" is a 36-minute spot featuring interviews with commentary participants Kiersch, Kirby, Franklin and Gains. As retrospectives go, this is pretty typical, lightweight and aimed squarely at fans.

A trivia track, new for this Blu-ray, may be accessed during the film. I watched this and listened to the commentary at the same time, and the trivia track basically repeats all of its information from the commentary, making it totally redundant.

Finally, a trailer and group of still galleries round out the features. The disc is also BD-Live enabled.

While few adaptations of Stephen King's work can honestly be called stellar, "Children of the Corn" must rank among the worst of the lot. It fails as horror for the simple reason that it is not scary, but it further lacks compelling characters and storytelling. Still, audiences have remained loyal throughout the years, and Anchor Bay's Blu-Ray edition is the one to get for picture quality and bonus material. They say there is no accounting for taste, and this seems to be true as I cannot fathom what has made this film so resonant. But I think congratulations to me are in order for not making a single "corn" joke!