Reasons not to have kids: The Children of the Corn Series- Children of the Corn
It has to be said that I really don’t make things easy for myself. I ask if anyone has any suggestions for a series, and someone (Droid) pops up with “Children of the Corn”. Now, I’d only seen one of these and seemed to remember it being quite good so thought “that’s not a bad idea, I’ll give it a shot”. However, really, alarm bells should have been ringing as Droid only ever suggests a series in the hope that whichever mug (usually me or Frank) that sits through them will have a miserable time. Not forgetting that there are 8 films in it including the remake. That’s potentially a lot of suck.
Never mind, I’m committed now, so let’s get this fiasco underway with the original 1984 Children of the Corn
Well, this actually falls under pleasant surprise. I was, frankly, expecting the worst: a boring and annoying load of shit. I mean, it is based on a Stephen King story and we all know how patchy he can be when adapted- Misery is great, for example, The Tommyknockers is not. Stand by Me is great, Dreamcatcher is not. You get the idea. Furthermore it’s directed by one Fritz Kiersch, who has a pretty shitty CV (although I do have to say that The Stranger sounds great, and has a brilliant cover), and King’s script was discarded in favour of something by George Goldsmith, another with a notable lack of quality on his CV. Finally, it basically stars kids which means the potential for annoying, grating, obnoxious brats was huge. Actually, children in Horror Movies can be simply terrifying in their utter eeriness (the Omen, for example) but it’s a fine line between creepy in a horror way and creepy in a grimy and unpleasant way.
Children of the Corn opens with a real bang. It’s 3 years in the past, and Job (Robbie Kiger) is narrating the story of the day the town changed. He’s sitting in the diner when the older kids, at the instigation of Isaac, massacre every adult in the place. This is a powerful scene, being brutal, disturbing and the haunting image of Isaac dressed in Amish gear staring through the window really sticks with you. Isaac is one creepy little bastard.
Cut three years forward, and we hook up with Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton) traveling across rural Nebraska. Through sheer bad luck, Peter runs over a child, but discovers that the child was already bleeding to death when he hit him. They are forced to investigate the town of Gatlin where there are no adults, and the kids run things as part of a weird and scary cult for “he who walks behind the rows”. Events escalate, Vicky gets crucified before Burt heroically saves the day by torching the demon.
This is, I’m astonished to say, a genuinely unsettling film. Gatlin is deliberately set up as being completely isolated and the endless corn fields serve as an almost impenetrable fence trapping the characters in a nightmare, and that’s before I even get to that corn fields are intrinsically unsettling in themselves. It’s probably a Freudian thing. These things always are. Nevertheless, fear of the cock aside, there’s a post-apocalyptic feel to the town, what with everything being graffiti-covered and barren and despite being in the middle of agricultural countryside it actually feels claustrophobic.
Secondly, the performances of the kids themselves, particularly the evil fanatic kids, are pitch perfect. Courtney Gains is demented in his single-minded religious fervour, and he’s a great piece of casting as the crazed Malachi. Other child performances such as Julie Maddelena as high-priest Rachel or John Philbin as the suicidal Amos are also spot-on. I’m really very surprised at this. However, the acting plaudits here have to go to John Franklin as Isaac. Isaac initially appears to be a sort of juvenile Jim Jones, spewing vile rhetoric, and demanding the most appalling actions from his flock, but as the divisions widen there’s an absolutely incredible moment when the facade is ripped clear and we see that he’s actually a lonely and frightened child. A surprisingly accomplished performance.
The adult actors Horton and Hamilton, aren’t anywhere near as good. Hamilton in particular has a heinously underwritten role. Horton fares a bit better, but he’s not required to do a lot. They aren’t bad, but it’s probably just as well for Hamilton that Cameron had already cast her in Terminator.
This is actually quite thematically adult. There’s a strong anti-organised religion undertone to the film (frequently Horton questions what the hell they’re playing at, even calling them stupid at one point). Furthermore, Children of the Corn brilliantly plays up the widening divisions in the cult and the split between the more measured Isaac and the increasingly barbaric, but physically much older, Malachi. I rather liked the depiction of factionalism here, and thought in the context of an anti-religion film that it was both effective and well handled.
I also, and this is a nice touch, particularly like the total lack of explanation to “He who walks behind the rows”. As the film effectively positions itself from a child’s point of view, it’s really nice that there is an absolute absence of reason to the demon- a young child wouldn’t ask “where did it come from”, rather they would accept that it is here. Not that kids aren’t curious, they are, but they don’t feel a need to explain everything in their world. Not a single attempt is made to explain where “He” came from, what he hopes to achieve, and what the hell is he going to do when he runs out of kids. The nearest we get is that Isaac was a TV preacher or some such, and that he did “everything you asked of me”, but that’s hardly comprehensive. It’s a pleasant change to watch a film featuring the supernatural and not have the makers spoon feed us some kind of shitty origin.
However, there are some serious problems to it. The first is that this is a film that absolutely requires a perfect atmosphere of weirdness to be effective, and Children of the Corn just doesn’t manage it. The first and fundamental mistake is that Burt is an adult guy, and these are just kids. Therefore, if he decided to kick their arses, then there is absolutely nothing they could do about it. Furthermore, it keeps breaking into accidental comedy (watch out for Burt clobbering the priestess in the head with a car door) and this utterly dispels the unsettling aura that was required.
Overall, this was a reasonably enjoyable film, but a deeply flawed one. I didn’t hate it, enjoyed some bits of it, actually, but I’ll be surprised if I ever watch it again once I’ve finished this series off. It’s certainly got moments that stand out, and a fantastically evil performance from Franklin, but just lacks something, and as that something is atmosphere (which the film completely relies on) it does seem to have shot itself in the foot. I give it a “could do better” 2 Changs out of 4.
Next up is the sequel- that’s better, has an even more odious kid and is probably the high point of the series.
I just can’t work out how they managed to squeeze so many films out of such a flimsy premise.