Children of the Corn (2009)
Stephen King’s legacy as the preeminent horror novelist of his time is secure thanks to classic books such as The Shining, Salem’s Lot, The Stand and Pet Sematary, in addition to many others. His name has become synonymous in the popular lexicon with terror and suspense. It’s lucky for King that he’s such a prodigious writer, since his film efforts have been far less consistent. Although his adaptation of The Stand was a network TV classic his first attempt at adapting his own material for the big screen, Maximum Overdrive, is an unmitigated disaster and his made for TV remake of The Shining is a gross insult to Kubrick’s icy, cerebral classic.
King seems to have a need to tinker, meddle and re-write history as compulsive as George Lucas’ similar urge to amend his Star Wars films. The latest in the “I-can-do-it-better” sweepstakes is a made for cable remake of 1984’s Children of the Corn, which was based on King’s 1977 short story. The original film wasn’t fantastic but, considering that the story that it was based can charitably be described as mediocre, it kind of represented a best case scenario. Inspiring a surprisingly leggy franchise of sequels that are little more than variations on the same theme, the original Children wasn’t exactly calling out to be revisited. With a screenplay co-authored by King himself, does the new version of Children of the Corn represent a bitter harvest?
It’s 1976 and Burt (David Anders) and Vicky Stanton (Kandyse McClure) are a married couple working through a rough patch. On a cross country road trip they wind up in the corn fields of Nebraska. Burt is a recently returned Vietnam vet and Vickie is the pampered daughter of a preacher. Hot and tired, both continually take turns launching snipes and jabs at each other about their respective backgrounds. Burt’s concentration lapses during a particularly venomous argument with Vicky and he takes his eyes off the road. He looks up in time to see, but not soon enough to avoid, a young boy who has stumbled on the road from a nearby cornfield. Burt and Vicky are horrified, but an examination of the body reveals that the boy’s throat had been cut shortly before he emerged from the cornfield; he would have died on the road even if Burt hadn’t mowed him down. Burt follows the boy’s blood trail back into the cornfield, shotgun in hand, but finds nothing besides the boy’s suitcase.
The couple takes the body to the nearest roadside gas station to use a payphone and report the accident/murder to the local authorities. The station is deserted save for a few desiccated corpses and some ominous religious signs and scrawling. Moving on the next town, the small town of Gatlin, Vicky starts to rifle through the dead boy’s suitcase. Aside from the expected changes of clothes and other personal effects, there’s a creepy crucifix made from corn cobs and husks.
The boy was running from the other children of Gatlin, all members of a corn centric religious cult. Thirteen years prior, the children rose up and murdered every adult in the town of Gatlin. They worship their deity, “He Who Walks Behind the Rows,” through ritual sacrifice and ever since their mass murdering of the townsfolk, they sacrificed every child on their eighteenth birthday. Now, under the leadership of Isaac (Preston Bailey) and his thuggish enforcer Malachi (Daniel Newman), the cult has set its sights on the Stantons. They abduct Vicky and chase Burt out into the expansive cornfield, where he must call upon his experience in guerrilla warfare to survive, escape and warn the outside world about what’s happening in Gatlin.
Though the original Children of the Corn adaptation took some serious liberties with King’s story, it made the right decision in downplaying Burt and Vicky’s marital difficulties. It worked well in print because we are given insight into their individual psyches. We know where their bitterness and resentment stems from and we can sympathize with their problems because we have insight into them. Developing the relationship the same way in a movie as it was in the story, as it’s done in this redux, just makes for unlikable protagonists. When things start to go south it’s hard to muster up any sympathy for, or interest in what happens to, them. The nastiness of the protagonists is no fault of the actors. The credit for this falls solely at the feet of the screenwriters. Fidelity to the source material at any cost is rarely a good idea and, though I can understand the filmmakers desire to put their own stamp on this remake, it’s a poor decision that severely hamstrings the audience’s ability to care about what’s happening in screen.
On one hand, the remake seems desperate to improve on what’s come before, yet it continually makes deliberate references to the original movie. It even goes so far as to reuse the pieces of the eerily effective score for the '84 film by Jonathan Elias. I’m not opposed to a remake deliberately referencing the film it’s based on: too many remakes, desperate to differentiate themselves, try to make everything different in what is essentially a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If something works and connects with audiences, it can work in your favour to keep those aspects of the original. The problem here is that everything else about the film is rote and unimaginative that reusing the score seems less like homage and more like laziness.
Kandyse McClure is a gorgeous actress who usually has an extremely likable screen presence. The character of Vicky is a complete and utter shrew from the drop and only gets more shrill and obnoxious as the film progresses. McClure also played another King character, Sue Snell, in the TV remake of Carrie. In that re-tread she was allowed to show spunk and attitude while still managing to be a sympathetic character. It wasn’t a performance to supplant Amy Irving’s characterization of Sue in DePalma’s original but it was a good job nevertheless. In this instance, McClure’s insane hotness can’t overcome the hateful way her role is written.
Burt, on the other hand, is a meathead and playing up his post traumatic stress disorder makes it seem like he’s more interested in revisiting his Vietnam experience than rescuing his wife. His tough guy speech to the children of Gatlin, and the ridiculous rum-dum-dummy hero music that accompanies it, is laughable. At one point he also says, and I shit you not, “Why don’t you put that in your God and smoke it?” If your aim is to improve on the original Children of the Corn, a good first step would be to craft a screenplay that doesn’t include some of the worst dialogue ever to escape an actor’s lips. Seriously, this is grade school level writing these poor actors are saddled with. I cannot blame them one whit for not being able to make drivel like that sound believable.
John Franklin wasn’t exactly Oscar in the original but he had a creepy enough presence to make him a credible threat. Making Isaac younger, in the remake he’s nine years old, is another poor decision. A villainous role is a challenge even for the most gifted of young actors, to say nothing of the workaday, gigging young actor a bargain basement production like this could afford. No offense to young Preston Bailey, he gives it his all, but the role is beyond him. His diminutive size also means that he brings no credible physical threat to the table. This youngster should’ve been playing one of the members of the congregation, not its malevolent head. Really, the only standout in this cast is Daniel Newman as Malachi. He has an imposing physical presence and brings a great deal of menace as the enforcer of child preacher Isaac. Or maybe it’s just that he’s a pasty-skinned ginger that makes him so creepy. Either way, he’s a single bright spot in an otherwise dismal affair.
The movie at least has competent visuals and technical polish. It’s awash in pleasantly warm orange and yellow hues, almost like it was filmed in it’s entirely during magic hour. I’m usually more a fan of grimmer, de-saturated sheen but the warmth really fits the material. There are some pretty ambitious camera moves, as well; crane shots that reveal rustling in the cornfields and whatnot. The scenes where the children are stalking Burt in the cornfield are also exceptionally well done. The blocking of this scene does a great job of establishing the physical location of Burt in relation to the children while still being able to convey his frustration to the audience. I could have done without the overt Vietnam flashbacks, but by this point I was willing to take whatever I could get. The scene also culminates in one of the most shocking neck breaks you’re likely to see in a mainstream movie. The gore is well done but the fact that it’s a child getting his neck broken is what really gives the scene its impact. In fact all the gore effects, courtesy of Robert Kurtzman, are excellent though too infrequent to rescue the rest of the film. Really, I don’t think anything could save this movie. By the time this was released there was already a bushel full of movies telling almost this exact same story. Some did it better, some worse, but this remake doesn’t have anything new or interesting to add.
Children of the Corn is presented in 1.78 widescreen, as it was originally broadcast. The AVC transfer is decent, but nothing that’s going to knock you over. Brightly lit daytime scenes fare the best. Colors aren’t overwhelmingly bright, but the film’s nice, warm hues are well represented. Dimly lit interior scenes, on the other hand, tend to the soft and noisy end of the spectrum. It’s pretty easy to discern which scenes were excised from the network TV version and reincorporated for this video release: they dark and muddy, soft and hazy and lacking in detail. Other than those, however, detail is pretty good all around, except in the very corners of the frame in night scenes where the blacks turn to mud. Contrast is blown out across the board, suggesting that it’s a stylistic or pragmatic choice by the director and not a fault in the transfer itself.
Dolby 5.1 True HD can best be described as underwhelming. Dialogue is confined to the front channels and shares them with the sound effects. The surrounds don’t have much presence except when they’re utilized for the score. There’s little in the way of surround effects, usually they’re just echoing the front channels. Ambient noise or anything else to lend the film atmosphere is almost totally lacking. Horror films so greatly depend on their sound as much as their imagery to generate suspense and scares, so to have a 5.1 audio track that doesn’t make use of discreet surround action is shocking. At least something about this viewing experience was.
No supplements, not even the usual promotional EPK fluff pieces are included on this Blu-ray release. Honestly, they’re not missed. Hell, this release so reeks of apathy that there isn’t even a pop-up menu accessible during the feature. Even Echo Bridge’s cheapjack re-releases have that.
Children of the Corn is probably the 80’s horror least in need of an update and this anaemic re-tread certainly doesn’t bring new life to the oft-told story. Even going in with barrel scraping expectations, Corn ’09 still doesn’t deliver. This Blu-ray release is serviceable in all technical respects but even though it’s tagged with an inexpensive MSRP, it still doesn’t represent good value for your money. Children of the Corn ’09 doesn’t improve on its namesake and it doesn’t stand as a good film on its own terms. If you feel the need to revisit the town of Gatlin, watching the original 1984 film would represent a much better trip.
Another nice review, Chunkblower. I can't really argue with anything you wrote and you pointed out a lot of ridiculous things I missed when I watched this a few months back. I did think there were some scary moments but overall it was a pretty forgettable affair.
Still a remake of "Children of the Corn" wasn't really a ridiculous idea. They remake everything these days and the original, though it has its moments, is hardly a classic. The problem is King's source material isn't really enough to stretch to feature length and this version feels especially padded. They should have considered doing this as a one hour movie for MASTERS OF HORROR when that series was still going.
I do like King's original story, even with its less than likeable protagonists. It reminds me a lot of the TWILIGHT ZONE episode "Stopover In A Quiet Town," which I guess is why I think it would work better as a short than a feature.
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