Children of the Corn (Fritz Kiersch, 1984)

by Douglas Buck April 4, 2020 6 minutes (1395 words)

Haunted cars, rat-faced vampires, ghostly hotels, rabid dogs… and even comic book-style cockroach attacks. Inspired visions from the minds of Cronenberg and Kubrick, Romero and Hooper (did I mention De Palma?), all at the top of their games. Unforgettable thespian turns from the likes of Nicholson and Duvall, Spacek and Walken (‘The… ICE!… Is gonna… BREAK!’), with the added delights of first-rate character bits from old-time vets Nielsen (“I can hold my breath… for a… VERY… LOOOONNNNGGG… TIME!!”) and Marshall (that’s E.G. to you!). What a seven film stretch (that being, six feature films and a television mini-series).

Alas. I guess it was bound to happen. Eh. At the least, it provides a good learning lesson for my 15 year old daughter accompanying me on this journey of all-things cinematic Stephen King; that being, nothing lasts forever. The law of averages was bound to catch up (and, as any true discerning genre fan knows, the law of horror film averages is way below the usual law of averages… we’re used to sifting through a lot of garbage to find those inspired kernels that keep us going).

And while I wouldn’t call this eighth adaptation garbage, by any stretch — I’ll likely be saving that term for any number of the numerous “Corn” sequels I’ve now also decided to embark upon (an offshoot of the King retro – but I’ll do it alone, no reason to have my daughter suffer unduly), this first “Corn” is certainly a comedown from the shining (pun intended) brilliance achieved in varying degrees over those first seven…

It wasn’t a problem of the source material, based as it is on a thoroughly nasty little short tale of the same name (what a great title — with the effectiveness of it being one of the very reasons for the longevity of what is apparently a fairly awful film franchise, I’m guessing) from King’s legendary “Night Shift” collection (a cornerstone anthology during my period of obsession with the author’s works) following a bickering, terribly unlikeable couple, Burt and Vicky, on their way to California to save their failing marriage, as they find themselves lost in the desolate, maze-like backroads of Nebraska and, even worse, at battle with the only surviving denizens – that being some very strange Quaker-like children, all ominously under the age of nineteen, with nary an adult in sight — of the isolated town of Gaitlin, with the menacing figure that they worship, “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” lurking somewhere back there in the shadows of the endless huge cornstalks.

Re-reading the story again after at least 30 plus years, it was interesting to discover, while it holds up fairly well, my overall impression of it came down ever so slightly (while my perception of the film — which I actively disliked after seeing it on its initial theatrical run — slightly went up… clearly a matter of revised expectations, in both cases).

While King certainly does an effective job conjuring up a good share of powerfully grisly imagery merged with nicely evocative ‘old religion’ iconography (all which will be stuck forever in my mind, landing as they did during those early impressionable years), an enigmatic glimpse at an unknown evil having overtaking a town… at the same time, the writer doesn’t quite have the transcendent authorial abilities to craft the foreboding mood and deep existential angst the tale is asking for (see T.E.D. Klein’s dark and moody short tale of the rise of the Lovecraftian Old Ones in a rural landscape, “The Events at Poroth’s Farm”, for a pitch-perfect example of that, eventually expanded by Klein into the equally mesmerizing “The Ceremonies”).

As far as the film adaption, well, the first obvious hint of quality control issues should have been the director. Not to cast aspersions on the once-aspiring, but Kiersch is the first no-name to sign in for filmmaking duty on any of these cinematic King assignments; a director whose short filmography would eventually relegate him to never-name status (at least I think so… though, I don’t know, maybe the low-budget scifi sword-and-sandal pic Gor, the film he did for the infamous Cannon Group – starring a certainly-had-to-have-been-inebriated-out-of-his-mind-the-entire-time Oliver Reed, was some kind of massive blockbuster I just never knew about it… it’s possible, I mean I’m someone who was entirely clueless to the fact that Sandra Bullock was one of the biggest female box office stars in history until I read it somewhere, so what do I know?).

Whatever the case, after a really startlingly and effective opening scene showing the town massacre (one only surmised in King’s story, never shown), orchestrated by the eerily stoic black-hatted Isaac (played by the unsettling Jonathan Franklin, born with a growth deficiency making the considerably older actor quite reminiscent of – though nowhere near as freaky as – the mommy-tit sucking man-boy from Andrea Bianchi’s considerably more crazily entertaining Burial Ground released around the same time, and a good match for the part as the weird kid cult leader) and feisty second-in-command long-haired ginger Malachi (Courtney Gains, another oddball-looking kid – reminding me that the film’s casting, as far as the Gaitlin kids goes, while mostly missing the mark, with too many of them seeming a lot older than nineteen, certainly nailed it with Isaac and Malachi, ultimately being two of the more memorable elements of the film), unfortunately, as the film jumps ahead three years to follow the now happy couple (a commercial consideration, likely, with the producers thinking no one was gonna root for two unhappy bickering people for the entire film), on their way to a new life in Seattle, things turn far more pedestrian the rest of the way.

The couple’s ‘fawning’ dialogue is terribly awkward and forced (as is the meaner version of their dialogue in King’s story, I discovered upon the re-read), with the strikingly pretty Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton as the couple, not necessarily the greatest of thesps (though, of course, Hamilton, when used right, is fucking unforgettable – I’m naturally talking Sarah Connor in James Cameron’s first two Terminator films), are left floundering a bit. None of the scenes (other than opening) are captured with much directorial flair or inspiration (and the later scenes of the couple and the now-mostly-changed-back-to-good kids under attack by – the weather? Sound? Its impossible to tell – is completely inept (as is the unforgiveable cartoon-like ectoplasm that engulfs Isaac as well as the demon face in the explosion… yeesh… bad…). And where the ending of the short story is harsh, with one of the most indelibly violent images from all I’ve read from King (having devoured everything all the way up through It, then a few here and there) the film, alas, ends with a… meh.

With all that, I’m still a sucker for a film like Children of the Corn… it may be inept at worst and not all that well-executed at best, yet I can’t help but give it plenty of points for the mysterious rural setting and central idea of a town where the children have massacred the adults, living out some weird perverse religion in the name of some kind of mysterious Old Ones.

Where the short story had the benefit, through its very brevity, of being mysterious with its hints at quasi-supernatural elements and enigmatic on what exactly is going on, allowing our imaginations greater room to run wild, the film naturally requires some of the gaps be filled in… and its handling of the supernatural elements is really wonky and arbitrary (I mean… what exactly does Isaac’s return as demon-possessed even mean?), with little concern for any kind of rules, let alone an overriding mythos of the creature living out there in the corn that they all follow.

So even including Children of the Corn, I’d say the King adaptation track record remained pretty impressive up to this point. I was surprised to find my daughter even more forgiving with the film than I was, really enjoying it (couldn’t be the teenage slaughtering of all those unnecessary parents spoke to her, could it? Gulp…)

Looking ahead though… while the second half of the eighties still have a few King gems… the road definitely starts to get a bit bumpier…

Children of the Corn (Fritz Kiersch, 1984)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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