Children of the Corn Review (1984)

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

Children of the Corn Review (1984)

Horrorific content by penguin_pete on July 14th, 2018 | Movie Review | Survival, Road Trip, Cult, Folk Horror, Killer Kid

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It’s about a traveling couple encountering a village run by a cult of children obsessed with corn.

Children of the Corn was directed by Fritz Kiersch (who also directed The Hunt and Surveillance) and stars Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton (from King Kong Lives) and R.G. Armstrong  (from The Beast Within).

In their world adults are not allowed... to live.

Children of the Corn Review

At the kernel of this review is a commitment to make as many corn-based puns as possible. So lend us your ears and let’s get started. Children of the Corn is a flaky film adaptation of the Stephen King short story of the same name. It’s about a cursed town full of feral, superstitious kids who stalk a pair of adults who end up stuck there. While they get the grits scared out of them, the couple escapes relatively unscathed.

Shucks, we’re tired of the corn puns already!

Contemplating the rows of Stephen King books on the store shelves that have been adapted into movies, we just have to ask: What is it about his novels where they’re so great to read, but end up on film coming off as... well, corny? There’s just something about them that doesn’t... pop. For one thing, most of King’s gift is in his prose; he writes at a casual level, not calling attention to himself. On paper, he’s good at portraying kids - he did work as a school teacher before hitting the big time as a writer. He’s brilliant at showing character’s motivations and getting inside people’s heads, explaining why they make their decisions. But most importantly, Stephen King is a 1950s / 1960s man, and there he has remained. His frame of reference comes from drive-in movies, radio plays, the dawn of rock-n-roll, and of course the eastern seaboard, as a Yankee up to his boots in lobster. You can predict the length of King’s next novel by observing how long winter lasted this year.

None of that translates to the screen. Especially when King’s imagination meets state-of-the-budget special effects. The scary, foreboding vehicle apocalypse in his short story Trucks becomes that ridiculous Goblin-mobile in Maximum Overdrive. The close-to-home dystopian nightmare of The Running Man turns into a goofy Schwarzenegger action zapper in the movie. At least The Mist managed to hit viewers where they ate their lunch, but the novella made the characters feel real and the threat more terrifying. The one King adaptation lauded by all as an unqualified masterpiece, The Shining, practically threw out the book and started from scratch.

One thing that never seems to work, but Hollywood keeps trying anyway, is to make a feature-length film out of a Stephen King short story. Look, the man can write books big enough to use as tire chucks; if he thought the story needed to be that long, he’d have damn well written it that way. When you try to stretch a short story to fill feature lengths, you have to add a lot, and look how that worked for *The Hobbit*.

Meanwhile back on the farm...

Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton) are boyfriend and girlfriend driving through the Midwest, making fun of preachers on the radio. They come off just as obnoxious as the denizens of Reddit’s /r/atheism channel; even if you agree with them, they’re tiresome. But lo, they run over a kid who was apparently shoved out in front of them with his throat cut. Scrambling to find help, they run across a town with no adults save for a mechanic at the edge. The town is populated by kids who have made a Pagan-ish religion out of corn and murdering everybody over the age of 18. They are led by the fanatic Isaac (John Franklin) and his right-hand shucker Malachai (Courtney Gains), who also get the kids to offer themselves for sacrifice on their eighteenth birthday.

Anyway, power struggles within the cult hamper the gang of kids from keeping up with Burt and Vicky, who manage to escape unharmed after a harrowing adventure. She gets kidnapped and he has to rescue her, after they make the Scooby-Doo mistake of splitting up. So for a horror film, there isn’t really much blood shed. There does turn out to be some kind of supernatural entity behind all this, a real ghostly presence in the corn that goads on the kids. This is one big failure of the movie; it would have worked better as a straight Wicker Man cult and be done with it, leaving it ambiguous whether there really was a spirit or the humans were just deluded.

What works in the movie?

John Franklin as Isaac runs away with this movie, full stop. The movie turns to mush whenever he’s off the screen, but his crisp performance as a brainwashing prophet of doom lashing the kids to do his bidding makes him magnetic whenever the camera’s on him. There’s a permanent sneer in his voice, and he issues his lines like Cthulhu’s own Moses. He is 100% the kind of charismatic maniac who would form a cult.

The use of corn by-products in making symbolic totems and fetishes as props throughout the movie is delightful. And, well, the atmosphere of the movie is alright. If you see it as a drive-in B-movie, it hits the right stride. The present author, a citizen of the Midwest, can attest to having driven through many a stretch of highway surrounded by cornfields to the horizon in both directions, and let me tell you, there is something spooky about corn country. You stop at small towns for gas, and there’s an air there like any one of them could harbor a cult and nobody outside would know. You come across folk art sculptures made out of repurposed tractor parts, or a church in the middle of nowhere that doesn’t quite look like they’re reading out of the same book as everybody else, or a huge sign some farmer painted with a long rant about local politics. There’s weird thinking going on out there without adequate counseling.

Sadly, we’ve reached the cob...

But aside from those few good points, this is one of the worst of Stephen King adaptations. It’s a low-budget production that feels phoned-in. Excepting the impressively hammy Isaac and his competent sidekick Malachai, the acting goes soggy in milk. Burt and Vicky’s relationship comes off as stale mush. As amazing a feat as it was, they actually managed to remove the scarier parts of the story, probably to avoid getting slapped with a harder rating. But worst of all is that this movie’s final two acts crawl. They already show what the kids are up to in the opening act, leaving a half-empty town for our starring couple to stagger around in trying to dope out the mystery we already know.

When it’s all said and done, Children of the Corn is warmed over and not part of anyone’s complete breakfast. The best you can say for it is that it’s tasty and non-filling if you have the right appetite.

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