Killtoberfest 5 – #4: Children of the Corn

In All, Movies by Kyu

“You rewriting the whole thing, or just the parts that suit your needs?”

Children of the Corn must have one of the longest ratios of original word count to franchise running time in history. This is a 29-page short story that went on to spawn nine movies (and counting, if Wikipedia is to be believed). And just look at the titles! You’ve got a horror movie sequel with the word “Final” in the title that isn’t the last one in the series. You’ve got the remake-by-the-same-name reboot attempt. You’ve got the gimmicky numbering of Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return. There’s even one subtitled “Revelation.” Every cheesy horror movie franchise trope is at play here, including the fact that, like the Hellraiser series, Children of the Corn quickly went direct-to-video (after the second film, in fact). I don’t really know what to make of any of this, or why this story, out of all of Stephen King’s writing, should inspire such a long-running franchise. Why aren’t there nine Shawshank Redemption movies about different people being redeemed in different prisons? Life is unfair, I guess.

Most horror franchises at least start with an initial entry that is very good. Children of the Corn starts with a scene that’s very good and goes downhill from there.

The opening sequence perfectly captures the feel of early Stephen King: something violent and/or bizarre interrupts ordinary small town life. In this case the small town is Gatlin, Nebraska, and the violence is a horde of killer kids, accompanied by eerily matter-of-fact narration from one of the few non-violent kids, Job (Robby Kiger):



The scene is horrible but gleeful at the same time; there’s a sort of dreadful anarchy in seeing the old biddies clutch their throats and keel over, poisoned coffee spilling from their cups; in seeing the men’s throats cut and one man’s hand shoved into the meat slicer. Malachai (Courtney Gains) pulls his knife out from underneath a pinball machine, and at one point blood sprays onto Job’s face to compliment his milkshake mustache. The rest of the Gatlin revolution plays out through a series of child’s crayon drawings, as the killer kids slaughter their parents, destroy their technology, and dedicate the rest of their lives to growing corn for the Lord. This isn’t high art, but it’s still good, creepy fun, especially as it continues to connect childishness and murder. Unfortunately, the movie is never this good again.

King’s original short story (from his first collection, Night Watch) is a bleak, gruesome little chiller. In it, husband and wife Burt and Vicky are taking a cross-country drive to try and save their ailing marriage. Their hateful bickering is only interrupted when Burt runs over a kid in the road; they take the body to nearby Gatlin, an apparent ghost town run by young, murdering religious fanatics. It doesn’t end well for either of them. Not King’s best, but he does capture how scary religion can be, particularly in isolation:

   …Perhaps a religious mania had swept them. Alone, all alone, cut off from the outside world by hundreds of square miles of the rustling secret corn. Alone under seventy million acres of blue sky. Alone under the watchful eye of God, now a strange green God, a God of corn, grown old and strange and hungry. He Who Walks Behind the Rows.
Burt felt a chill creep into his flesh.

The film takes the same structure and makes four significant changes.

First, and the only indisputably correct call, Children of the Corn makes Burt and Vicky happy and likeable people whom you would actually enjoy seeing survive. It doesn’t succeed in making them interesting, but at least I’m not rooting for their deaths. Peter Horton as Burt is a generic everyman type whose most interesting characteristic is that he’s a doctor and that’s sometimes useful. Vicky is played by Linda Hamilton in only her second screen appearance; she acquits herself adequately in a role that requires her to do little except be scared and get captured. Seven months later The Terminator made her immortal. Strange to imagine her as a generic scream queen instead of the icon of female badassery she became.

The second change Children of the Corn makes is to add Job and his sister, Sarah (Anne Marie McEvoy). She’s an odd example of somebody else adding a very Stephen King trope to a story that didn’t already include it–in this case, the “character who is psychic for, like, no reason.” (King uses the trope in CujoGerald’s Game, and Pet Sematary, among others.) In doing so, the film leans on the supernatural early, making the later revelation less surprising. In King’s story, the final jolt comes from the realization that He Who Walks Between the Rows is real–that these kids’ insane religion has some basis in the truth of an actual monster who sends dreams and must be placated with sacrifice to ensure the harvest. In fairness, it’s hard to say this really impacts the movie’s ending, because the movie’s ending is pretty terrible in its own right. We’ll get back to that.

Third, and in keeping with the second entry on this list, the film gives Isaac (John Franklin) and Malachai more development. In fact, unlike the story, the film splits its antagonists into factions, dramatizing a schism between its two most prominent members. Instead of one flock of killer kids (Who Can Kill a Child? style), Children of the Corn gives us some variation. Some of the kids are willing followers, others tolerated non-affiliates (Job and Sarah). Isaac is the leader, all fire and brimstone in his giant preacher’s hat. Malachai is the primary doer of violence, and over the course of the story he’ll argue with and ultimately challenge Isaac for control of the cult. This is a good way to make a set of antagonists more dynamic, but you also run the risk of making them less scary. The children seem less alien and more normal. Isaac and Malachai don’t seem to be crazy so much as just plain mean. That makes them very hateable as villains, but less frightening. King’s story makes the kids very creepy by depersonalizing them in Burt’s eyes–they’re dressed like Quakers, armed with knives and rocks and sticks, giggling and laughing as they close in on the interlopers. They say little. The film makes them people.

Worse, the film demonstrates that they’re not so fearsome when facing a grown man. Over the course of the long middle act, Burt is generally able to outrun them or outfight them as needed. He enters their church (in the middle of some weird Communion-esque ceremony involving blood drinking) and lectures them on their religious practices. With the help of Job and Sarah, he’s able to hide from the roving mob of murder-kids. Later, after Malachai takes over the group and crucifies Isaac on the corn cross, Burt actually defeats the sullen, knife-wielding teenage asshole in single combat. Triumphant, he delivers another goddamn lecture:

“Was this how it was with your parents, huh? Was it? Just because some self-proclaimed holy man said this was what God commands? What kind of God tells children to kill their parents, huh? Answer me that, buddy, huh? Did you hear that before Isaac? Did you? I can’t believe you’re this blind. Maybe you’ve been listening to these holy rollers so long, it’s all starting to sound the same. Well, it’s not. Any religion without love or compassion is false. It’s a lie.”

Admirable sentiments, but the didactism is grating, coming from a man who doesn’t seem particularly wise and delivered to a group who don’t seem particularly fanatical. The overall picture here is of a group of impressionable young kids led astray by one preacher and his psycho enforcer. No wonder they don’t seem that scary overall.

I’m just saying, even I could beat this little nerd up.

The film seems to recognize it’s hit a wall here, though, and that leads to the fourth and worst major change from the short story: the ending. Although I’d argue the middle hour or so of the movie is fairly boring, as Burt and Vicky play hide and seek with the knife-wielding youngsters through Gatlin and Malachai offs the old mechanic (who only exists to give bad directions and up the film’s body count), Children of the Corn isn’t truly dire until Isaac comes back to life as some kind of zombie prophet of He Who Walks Behind the Rows, complete with incredibly cheesey hand-drawn effects, which appear to have been rotoscoped onto the frames. The previous battle lines–kids versus anyone over age–fall away immediately, and the last fifteen minutes of the film feature the kids working together to help Burt defeat the evil corn monster with, I’m not even joking, the power of alternative fuels.

Yes, they burn the Corn God to death by flooding the fields with gasohol, a mixture of gasoline and corn-based ethanol. It might be ironic if it wasn’t so stupid. Equally stupid is the scene where Burt, Vicky, and Job figure out what to do and how to do it. They go to the trouble of puzzling through a Bible passage left by the cop who tried to do this on the day of the massacre (and who got crucified for his trouble), only to solve the riddle by realizing, duh, burn the field. What else were they going to do to a giant corn monster? Spit on it? Turns out its secret weakness was fire. Oh, hey, you know what else shares that weakness? Everything.

This smoke monster went on to have a starring role in the hit TV show Lost.

In short, the film’s big climax is a silly solution to a stupid problem (featuring bad special effects, no less), and the fact that it works essentially devalues the challenge facing our protagonists. Rather than being an unbeatable murder-cult backed by a mysterious, supernatural nightmare, these are just a bunch of kids who would have lost to any average adult they failed to immediately take by surprise. Burt is nobody special, and the fact that his everyman hero act succeeds in bringing the film to a happy ending completes the movie’s turn from unique horror film to ordinary adventure tale.

I’m not the biggest fan of King’s original short story, but this film adaptation doesn’t even surpass that totally reasonable bar. For containing most of the horror movie food groups–creepy children, religion, isolated rural location–Children of the Corn manages to make a snack out of a meal. I can imagine a version of this that’s really, really scary, that doesn’t need to openly critique religious fanaticism but merely present it in all its violence and misery, from true crucifixions to silent young cult members facing the death they owe when they come of age. A version whose protagonists are likeable but doomed. Whose villains are cruel without being petty. Whose monster is barely glimpsed, and never conquered. I can imagine a movie that, bloody and horrifying, truly confronts the dark heart of American religion, unhappy children and lonely towns just off the freeway.

But this isn’t that. And I doubt the next eight are, either.

Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 5: Five’ll Get You Dead, even though Malachai says playing games is forbidden. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.