Children of the Corn
Walking the VHS rows as a kid, I’d always fascinate myself with all the chapters and sequels of all those venerable horror franchises. I’d daydream and hyperbolize just how good the first film in each franchise must be to spawn so many sequels. Everyone knew about the quality of the originals when it came to Psycho or Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street, but for every series spawned on a classic, there were a dozen or so that weren’t. The Amityville Horror, Ghoulies, Witchcraft, Pumpkinhead, and even Saw today, each have spawned never ending franchises on by most accounts terrible first films. Unlike drama or action, it’s not the strength of the cast or crew that makes these franchises last, but instead the mere strength of the concept. A possessed house, people forced to kill themselves, a punishing farm demon, goblins that come out of the toilet. Well, okay, not even the concept works in Ghoulies’ favor, but part of what makes horror so intriguing is the way franchises just never seem to die.
Not only does it happen with quite regularity that horror franchises reach the five film landmark, but it’s often the case that many of those sequels are completely different than the others. It’s always the roll of the dice with franchise horror. Sometimes you get sequels that have nothing to do with their originals – Troll 2, Halloween 3, Zombi 2, and sometimes you get sequels that by all accounts eclipse the originals – Ghoulies II, It Lives Again, Dawn of the Dead. Becoming a horror aficionado means taking the pledge to sift through the endless sequels in search of those diamond in the rough follow ups. It’s a hell of a sift for those brave enough to visit the Children of the Corn – seven films later and it’s still thriving on the direct-to-video market. What about the one that started it all? Anchor Bay’s released it twice before on DVD and now it hits the disc a third time on Blu-ray. The 20th Anniversary DiviMax has been upgraded with new features on Blu-ray for the 25th but is this franchise father closer to Amityville than it is Halloween? Time to start the harvest and find out!
Welcome to Gatlin, Nebraska. A quaint, quiet little town that eats, prays and reaps together. Things went without a hitch until a state-wide corn drought turned the city into one of tense uncertainty. Then came along Isaac (John Franklin), a pint-sized preacher with ideas as fresh as his youthful face. His sermons started to resonate with the youth and finally one day at the local diner the kids all rose up. Every adult was ruthlessly slaughtered by knife, by scythe and by meat grinder. Nobody over the age of 19 was spared. We’ve been asked by horror films past “Who Can Kill A Child?” but the question here is “Why Would You Kill A Parent?”
Gatlin has been without adults for three years now, but after a few wrong turns, a twentysomething (or in Peter Horton’s case, soon to be thirtysomething) couple lands right on their doorstep. Well, first a kid ends up landing on their car bumper, but that was bait of sorts. If Isaac is the evangelist, Malachai (Courtney Gains) is the enforcer, and when one of the kids tried to escape the community, Malachai made sure his fate would be road kill. When Burt (Horton, Fade to Black) hit the kid, he and his wife Vicky, (Linda Fucking Hamilton) decide to do good and call the police at the first phone in Gatlin. Little do they know it’s them who need the help…and there’s nobody in Gatlin to give it!
Once the couple arrives in the city they quickly realize it’s abandoned. The TV Guides are years old, every house is dirtied with dried corn husks and stocks and nobody walks the streets. Or do they? They keep seeing people sneaking around in the background, but don’t really know what to make of it. Burt splits off to investigate, while Vicky gets kidnapped and hoisted up on a corn stalk cross. If he wants his lady back, Burt’s going to have to address the village’s terrible reality and face off once and for all against the god the children refer to cryptically as “He Who Walks Behind The Rows”.
It’s certainly not the best crop out there, but Children of the Corn harvest some modest scares. Although it’s set almost entirely in daylight, limiting the kind of experimentation with darkness that horror films thrive on, director Fritz Kiersch injects the film with a palpable visual energy. The camera is always running through the rows as if they are a kind of fate sealing fence, and every scene feels as if it is constructed with a grand visual scope in mind. The most interesting use of the camera is almost Bresson-ian in the way Kiersch uses the close-up as a distancing mechanism. The problem with killer kid movies is often that the subject, children, are just not scary. They’re cute. They’re Leif Garrett. To overcome that, Kiersch stages much of the murder sequences as a series of ominous close-ups. Knives being drawn, hands being pushed towards the meat grinder, blood hitting a suitcase. The children thus become crude symbols of death and fear, rather than little actors putting on their mean face. Kiersch keeps us at a distance with the close-ups, never letting us into the eyes of his children and never letting us empathize with them. They’re cold killers, and it’s that calculated visual choice that still gives the film disturbing qualities a quarter of a century later.
Another plus that Kiersch brings to the film is the nuance with which he brings us into the story. Rather than shovel lines to plot, he spends much of the first act of the film instead organically building the relationship between Burt and Vicky. Hamilton is great early on in the initial motel scene – goofing around with that song and dance and just generally projecting an aura of puppy love throughout. They become such a likeable family unit, which is what makes the tragedy they’re flung into all the more intriguing. The two leads are solid and their resumes after this first kick at the can prove it, but the two young antagonists are just as good, too. Franklin’s Isaac sinister stare and manboy voice projects a child grown up much too fast, while Gains’ Malachai and all his “Outlander!” cries suggest the foot soldier drunk with power that you’d read about in social classes on the Third Reich or the KGB. Indeed, the passing references to the Russians via a quick scene in a communist fallout shelter suggest this is a story, like Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm, reducing politics to a microcosm.
While the flaws of blind worship are certainly stressed in the picture, Children of the Corn as a film certainly could have been much more. Stephen King’s original 1977 Penthouse short story (later bundled into the collection Night Shift) had much darker and deeper roots. The pivotal difference is in the leads, who were not the happy, empathetic unit projected here. They were bickering and on the verge of breakup (a theme he’d explore again in ’77 with The Shining and later with works like Cujo) and their cross country trek to California to start anew was a biting Me Generation update of The Grapes of Wrath. Considering the way the couple has squandered life, love and responsibility, in the book it’s hardly even tragic that the children kill adults – they had it coming. King wrote with a wonderful ambiguity, not only in how you see the main characters, but how the story is revealed to them. The nature of the killing and all the He Who Walks Behind The Rows stuff is very much a mystery for most of the short story. In the film, it’s established right from the start via corny, heh, child narration and an opening massacre and subsequent drawing montage. The massacre and montage are admittedly effective (the narration not so much), but in the long run they remove any of the sinister unknown that makes the final act such a show stopper in the book.
As it happens in the film, the ending is one of Spielbergian family triumph, where perseverance and good nature makes families out of the most unlikely sources. It would almost be PG if we hadn’t just seen a child burned at the stake. In the book, though, the ending is far less rosy, with both Burt and Vicky slaughtered in hyperbole like their marriage. King’s story leaves a lingering question mark behind the future of family in the age of divorce, but in Kiersch’s film when the lights go up so does all the darkness. It’s normalcy restored and the credits literally start to scroll before the new nuclear family even exit the screen. The film is so quick to let audiences off the hook that it effectively negates all the tension it worked so hard to create before it. As a result, Children of the Corn is nothing more than a solid populist shocker while the short story left so much potential for more.
Six sequels later, though, and it seems that indeed more has been achieved from this humble little horror flick. Unfortunately in this sense “more” seems more like additional ways to get kids to kill people than King’s initial goal of exploring the follies of marriage and childbearing. Still, a remake is promised, and in the extras Producer Donald P. Borchers (of both this original and the impending remake) promises that the new telling will be much truer to King’s original intent. Hopefully, at least, it won’t have any of that awful negative effect optical that plague the crops of the original’s finale. Whatever the future holds for Children of the Corn it’s certainly true that the past has been kind to King’s little story, this being the longest running franchise spawned from any of King’s works. The original film may be compromised, the sequels may not be any good, but this little chiller has left an indentation on the soils of horror. Like other unassuming eighties notables, its sparse modesty is its best asset.
Visually this is Anchor Bay’s third kick at the can, previously releasing the film barebones in 2001 and then DiviMax restored for the 20th anniversary in 2004. It’s been 25 years now, and well, the film still has its problems. While generally the transfer has definition, there are still odd scenes that are much softer and seemingly of different source material, than the rest of the film. The transfer is largely inconsistent, both in terms of sharpness and print quality to the color timing. There are scenes where hues are overly pink and colors seem muted – like some of the early driving scenes with Burt and Vicky. Other scenes, like the later ones in the crops feature vivid greens, saturated skies and strong yellow retention. Overall I suppose this progressive, anamorphic 1.85:1 HD upgrade is a good crop, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few rotten specimens along the way.
Anchor Bay has been good about including the mono mixes on most of their Blu-ray upgrades, but here Children of the Corn features only the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 upgrade. The sound is very clear and the source elements seemed to have been preserved very well over the years. As for how the track utilizes that expanded sound space, well, the truth is not all that well. Everything is contained up front and directional effects are virtually non-existent. That said, everything sounds very sharp and effects and explosions resonate with a deepness that a mono track could not provide. As a mono restoration it’s quite good, but as a 5.1 remix this track is certainly lacking.
While the previous 2001 DVD was barebones, the DiviMax had a few quality extras. Those extras are preserved here, in addition to three featurettes and a trivia track new to this Blu-ray release. Let’s tackle the old stuff first. There is an audio commentary with Director Fritz Kiersch, Producer Terrence Kirby and Actors John Franklin and Courtney Gains. The four are recorded together and have a good time revisiting much of the memories of the production and the legacy of the first film. They all look back fondly on the film and the experience, it being the first for the two actors and the biggest things all four of them probably ever did. Kids being kids, the two actors remember so much from the production, and Kiersch and Kirby certainly remember plenty, too. Filled with trivia and personal reflection, it’s a quality listen.
The other big extra ported over from the DiviMax is the robust 36-minute “Harvesting Horror: Children of the Corn”. While this one features Kiersch, Franklin and Gains from the commentary, it covers new ground by allowing Kiersch to explore his intent and the production in more depth than the experience-heavy commentary. He talks about how he approached working with the child actors, how he conceived of shooting scenes and how they patched cities and fields together to create the illusion of a single place. It’s also nice to catch up with the child actors again and see how they’ve aged (or in this case, haven’t really) and to see how they both remember the whole experience. Very worthwhile.
Now onto the new. Michael Felsher’s Red Shirt Pictures contribute three new featurettes to the mix, the first being “Welcome to Gatlin: The Sights & Sounds of Children of the Corn” (15:27). This one features Production Designer Craig Sterans and Composer John Elias. The score really is haunting and iconic, and it’s nice to finally see it get a little tribute here. Elias sadly does not talk about how he came up with that disturbing children chant, but it does still give it some talk time. Sterans is very passionate about what he does and talks about how horror films give him the ability to experiment and how in Children of the Corn he had to spend a lot of time spray painting corn!
Having no Linda Hamilton on the previous discs was a big oversight, and thankfully now she gets her own 14-minute tell all with “It Was The Eighties!”. She talks about just starting out in Hollywood and how this was her big break, and also how she really strives for the physical with each performance (who knew?). She isn’t quite modest when she describes how Corn was a building block for her eventual journey to “action icon” but she’s always laughing and having a good time remembering. Felsher does a good job editing the piece, too, even allowing a fourth wall break for a nice personal moment with Hamilton. She’s a legend, and it’s great to hear from her.
The last new featurette is “Stephen King on a Shoestring” (11:20) which features Producer Donald P. Borchers. This might be the most interesting, since Borchers sort of takes the blame for changing up the story from the original Stephen King story. He parlays talk about the changes into how he’s now approaching the remake, which sounds promising should it ever reach completion. There are also some other interesting trivia bits, like how Sam Raimi was one of the directors interviewed for the position that would eventually become Fritz Kiersch’s. He talks about filming in Iowa and other notables from production, and like the rest of the content thus far, is totally informative.
Less informative is the new trivia track, which basically takes all the trivia shared in the commentary and puts it into text pop-ups. There is also some terrible factual errors, like one of the initial claims that Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton were actually at one point married. Nope. The disc is rounded off by some nice promotional material, from the cryptically narrated trailer to original storyboard art, a poster and still gallery and a gallery of all the girl’s drawings used during the title sequence of the film.
It’s taken 25 years, but Children of the Corn finally has a special edition worth calling definitive.
Although it’s certainly not the kind of shocker that would demand a franchise of six sequels and counting, Children of the Corn is a simple and effective little bit of eighties horror yarn. The direction and performances are solid, even if the screenplay softens the spit of Stephen King’s short story social commentary. While the Blu-ray offers an adequate audio and visual upgrade, it’s all the extras here that really make this recommended purchase. The previous DiviMax extras were solid, and the 45-minutes worth of new interviews makes a good thing even better. I can’t speak for the sequels, but 25 years later the first film still has yield, so for those who haven’t yet seen it – reap it!
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
One of these days, I'm gonna collect my thoughts and create a whole huge thread pertaining to how the original Ghoulies plain and simply is not that damn bad. I am a fuckin' man alone in defense of that film, but I will be triumphant!
That movie has Jack Nance and effects by John Carl Beuchler and I still want to kill myself 5 minutes in.
Damn, man, age hasn't been all that kind to Linda. Still love her though.
I just watched my Divimax copy of this a couple months back. It still has moments and I generally enjoy it. I haven't actually seen a single one of its sequels, but I'm curious. Great review.
She could still beat the shit out of all of us, Dave.
Good review- I actually picked this up today- but hey man show some love for Pumpkinhead - I would not put that in the "terrible" first movies category. I love that movie! <:
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