Children of the Corn (1984)



Main Cast: Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton

Director: Fritz Kiersch

While the original trailer hailed it as “an adult nightmare”, I’m not sure the original CHILDREN OF THE CORN is all that terrifying to adults.  I saw the movie when it hit theaters back in 1984–I was 11 at the time–and while I didn’t find it particularly frightening, lots of people I knew loved it.  I enjoyed it–it was a Stephen King movie, and even at 11, before I had read any of his novels, I was a big fan of the movies adapted from them. But even at that age I knew the effects during the climax were an incredible hindrance to the effectiveness of this movie and that they took away a lot of the horror from this horror movie.

night shift book cover

CHILDREN OF THE CORN was adapted for the screen from the original short story in King’s first collection, NIGHT SHIFT.  The original story ran 30 pages and seems a vastly different beast than the movie.  The gist of the story is the same, but the specifics, and especially the ending, have been totally re-written.

In the movie version, it was three years ago in Gatlin, Nebraska that Isaac, a former child minister, preached the Word to the youth of Gatlin and convinced them to kill everyone in town over the age of 19. 

Three years later, Burt and Vicky are driving through Nebraska to Seattle for Burt’s new job, interning at a hospital.  While looking at the map, trying to figure out where they are, they look up too late to stop and run over a boy standing in the middle of the road.

When Burt goes to check on him, he discovers the boy’s throat had been cut and he was pretty much dead by the time he’d made it to the road.  He loads the boy into his trunk and they find a gas station where the owner tells them he doesn’t have a phone, and what they want to do is head to Hemingford, 19 miles away.  What about Gatlin, Burt asks.  Ain’t nothing in Gatlin, the old man says.  Folks there got religion and they don’t care for strangers.

They head for Hemingford where they hope to contact the authorities about the murder, but the road signs are a confusing jumble and they wind up back at the gas station again.  Screw it, Burt says, we’re going to Gatlin.

What they find is a ghost town.  They see a few teens, but the kids run off before they can ask about a phone.  They decide to leave and try for Hemingford again, but Burt sees a door open and close at a farmhouse they’re passing, so they go inside.  That’s where they find Sarah.  While Vicky tries to get information from Sarah, Burt heads back to City Hall, hoping to find someone. While he’s there, Malachai and his henchmen take Vicky to Isaac for a sacrifice to He Who Walks Behind the Rows.

In 1984, Stephen King could make a horror story out of anything, even a delicious vegetable  That takes skill.

CHILDREN OF THE CORN is a story of religion and faith, the fine line between belief and zealousness, and the differences between a god who preaches love and one who demands sacrifice.  At its core, CHILDREN OF THE CORN is a strong story with great potential for subtext and symbology, and many opportunities for serious scares.  In truth, the film was made for under $1 million, and it shows.

Screenwriter George Goldsmith took King’s original short story and expanded it. He made a 92-minute movie and developed the seeds of this mythology and this world enough that, over time, 7 sequels have followed (The Final Sacrifice, Urban Harvest, The Gathering, Fields of Terror, Isaac’s Return, Revelation and Genesis) and 1 made-for-TV remake. 

children of the corn small poster

I think Goldsmith is the one who not only developed the backstory of the town and what happened there, but also added the supernatural elements.  In King’s version, everything could very well have simply been the product of mob mentality as the youth of Gatlin fell under the spell of a very gifted and charismatic leader.  In Goldsmith’s script, however, there really is something out there in the corn, and it demands blood be spilled.  Coming from the Midwest, where we have our fair share of corn, this is a concept that breeds unease.

Fritz Kiersch directed the movie, and this was his first gig.  He does a great job of properly portraying that desolation of middle America and the isolation of small towns.  My cousins are from a much smaller town than mine, and back when this movie came out the place was so small and undeveloped you could reach anyone in town just by dialing the last four digits of their telephone number.  In the shots of the deserted Gatlin, as Vicky and Burt are looking for help, it was like being in Gower, Missouri on a Saturday afternoon during the summer.  That feeling of a small town in the middle of nowhere with almost no people came across perfectly.

Kiersch got a few really good, creepy shots early on, but by the end of the movie had eschewed any attempt at suspense and was going for all-out action scares.  With a very limited budget, those shots were terrible and made the whole movie seem a lot sillier than it should have.

The acting will do, but didn’t elevate the movie above the level of B-movie cheese.  Linda Hamilton had little to do but sit in the car, babysit Sarah while Burt looked for help, or struggle later on when she’s in Malachai’s clutches.  Not the strongest female character in the world, nor the most useful.  If not for the we have your woman plot to get the story to its climax, Vicky could have been edited out of the movie.

Hamilton’s somnambulant performance didn’t convince me she was all that necessary.  As for Peter Horton as Burt, he was still three years away from yuppy stardom in thirtysomething. He gave it his all but he was given some pretty cheesy lines.  He tried to make it work, but the best parts of CHILDREN OF THE CORN are the parts where no one is talking.

The standout performances were from John Franklin as the enigmatic Isaac and Courtney Gaines as his very evil henchman Malachai.  Franklin was in his late 20s when he starred as Isaac, the boy preacher, and his age lent a total creepiness to his portrayal because he was obviously not under 19. But Franklin had such a childlike quality to his features, as well as a voice that didn’t sound like it had hit puberty yet, and it makes everything feel slightly off center every time he’s onscreen.  Add that to what is undeniable screen presence and John Franklin became an instant horror legend. 

Gaines, on the other hand, seemed to be reveling a bit too much in Malachai’s viciousness.  He didn’t come across as evil, just as a kid being led astray by an evil force.  However, it’s obvious he enjoyed the freedom of being able to do what he wanted without a parent telling him otherwise.

I think most people who saw the movie back in the 80s probably couldn’t tell you the names, real or fictitious, of the two stars, but they sure as hell know Malachai and Isaac.  That says something.

CHILDREN OF THE CORN is by no means a great movie, horror or otherwise.  It has a few memorable moments that went down in horror history, but a first-time director coupled with a really small budget, even for the 1980s, isn’t going to produce a work of art.  Honestly, I think if this movie hadn’t had King’s name attached to it, it would have performed far worse and vanished quickly into video obscurity.  Considering what I have, so far, seen of the sequels, maybe that would have been for the best.

King on Film

Carrie (1976)

‘Salem’s Lot (1979)

The Shining (1980)

Creepshow (1982)

Cujo (1983)

Disciples of the Crow (1983)

The Woman in the Room (1983)

The Dead Zone (1983)

Christine (1983)

The Dark Half (1993)

The Tommyknockers (1993)

Needful Things (1993)

The Stand (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995)

The Mangler (1995)

Dolores Claiborne (1995)

The Langoliers (1995)

Sometimes They Comes Back … Again (1996)

Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996)

Thinner (1996)

The Shining (1997)

Ghosts (1997)

Chattery Teeth (1997)

The Revelations of ‘Becka Paulson (1997)

Trucks (1997)

The Night Flier (1997)

Chinga (1997)

Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)

Gerald’s Game (2017)

1922 (2017)

The Stand (2021)

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