Review Date: October 26, 2011
Released by: Dimension
Release date: October 9, 2001
Widescreen 1.85| 16x9: Yes
Whoever was in charge of casting the Children of the Corn
sequels could not possibly have been paid enough for the job(s) they did. While the films themselves were hit-or-miss affairs, they nevertheless managed to introduce the world to an impressive pool of up and coming talent. Charlize Theron, Eva Mendez, Alexis Arquette all had debut or early starring roles in Corn movies. Most notable among the alumni of the Corn is Oscar nominee Naomi Watts. Okay, she had already had a supporting role in the big budget flop Tank Girl, but Children of the Corn IV
is her North American debut as a top billed lead. She’s in almost every scene after the opening credits and, even in this direct to video horror flick, she shows in no uncertain terms exactly why she went on to have such an illustrious career. An additional surprise on the pleasant side is that the film around her, while no masterpiece, is still a shockingly good thriller that a star like Watts should have no shame in including on her resume.
Grace Rhodes (Naomi Watts
) is taking a semester long sabbatical from her university studies to return to her home town of Grand Island, Nebraska. Grace’s mother, June (Karen Black
), has developed a mental illness and is unable to properly care for June’s younger siblings James (Mark Salling
) and June (Jamie Renee Smith
). The night that Grace arrives home, Margaret and James wake in the night with a sudden fever. The next morning when Grace returns to her old job assisting at the doctor’s office, all the town’s children seem to be suffering from the same strange illness. It baffles Grace and the local general practitioner Doc Rob Larson (William Winding
) who draw blood and start looking for an explanation. They assume that it’s a virus going around. Their assumption couldn’t be more wrong.
One night, all the town’s children get life threatening fevers at the same time, sending the parents of Grand Island into a panic. At the clinic, Grace treats children as they pour in, packing them in ice baths and trying stop the fever from killing them. Just as rapidly as the fevers occur, they subside and the children recover. They’re not quite their usual selves, though. They’re glassy eyed and distant and seem to have knowledge of past events that they should not have. They also start to stalk and methodically murder the town’s adults. Apparently long time ago, a child preacher with psychic powers a proclivity for not aging, Josiah (Brandon Kleyla
), was murdered by the townsfolk. The children of the Grand Island are now possessed by the spirits of his followers, who gather to perform a ritual intended to resurrect Josiah. With most of the town’s adults out of commission it falls on Grace and the father of a boy suffering from haemophilia to stop the ritual before the demonic preacher is made corporeal, and becomes able to spread his evil beyond the confines of Grand Island.
Unlike the campy, gory third instalment the emphasis in Corn IV
is definitely on suspense and atmosphere. That’s usually just a kind way of saying that the film is ultra cheap (and cheap looking) but The Gathering
is an exception. The film is slick looking and the effects, while restrained, are still well executed and stylishly shot. Director Greg Spence, who also directed the far-better-than-you’d-expect Prophecy II
for Dimension, stages some good fright scenes. He’s currently producing episodes of Game of Thrones
for HBO, but he doesn’t have any directorial credits after 1998. That’s too bad, since he showed a real talent for wringing every dollar out of miniscule budgets and coaxing good performances out of young up and comers and old pros. If Patrick Lussier could graduate from the Dimension sequel film school to the world of theatrical features, there’s no reason Spence couldn’t have, as well.
Children in danger are still pretty taboo, even in horror movies, and there’s something gleefully perverse and edgy with how Corn IV
victimizes children at every turn, making them both victims and antagonists at the same time. The scenes where the children are afflicted with a life threatening fever will probably hit close to home for anybody who’s ever been in charge of the care of a sick child, be they parent, nurse or babysitter. Children are already vulnerable but that vulnerability is compounded by a serious sickness. The film effectively establishes the children as helpless victims, then after the fever breaks and they are possessed, they’re still victims but they’ve also slipped into the role of antagonists as well. It’s a neat little reversal that’s handled really well.
A simple narrative double back is relatively easy to pull off, but Corn IV
’s qualities don’t end there. The film continues at a break neck speed. While most direct to video movies meander and waste time with exposition dumps and inconsequential character scenes, The Gathering
is well paced. The central mystery – what is happening to the children and why- is pretty expertly handled. When directors choose to emphasize suspense over action, there’s always the possibility that they can tip their hand too soon and dilute the suspense for the remainder of the film. Hold out too long, though, and your audience is likely to become bored and tune out. Corn IV
delivers the explanation behind the children’s illness exactly when it needs to. Although the final revelation behind the mystery is pretty stock, the pacing of the last act of the movie mitigates by not switching gears and moving directly into the final act, the bulk of which is action.
The acting is far better than Naomi Watts shows why she went on to become a major star; she’s excellent despite the pulp, low rent material she’s in. Many times you can track the progression of an actor over the course of his or her career and watch as they mature from film to film. Though this is not her acting debut, it’s still early enough in her career that you’d expect to see a few rough edges in her performance. That’s simply not the case, though. Watts is as good here as she would be four years later in her AFI nominated breakout role in Mulholland Drive
. The only difference is that in Lynch’s film, she has far more complex material to work with. She has the same kind of fresh faced innocence that worked in her favour in Mulholland
; she’s beautiful and instantly likable. From the moment she first appears on screen she won my sympathy so I found myself unusually invested in this cheap horror sequel.
Okay I’ve been just a bit too positive. I need to bring things back down to Earth and emphasize that, for all its strengths, the story in Children of the Corn IV
is 100% rote and by the book. That the cast and crew did their very best with mediocre material is admirable and they elevate it somewhat, but not to the level of greatness, or even excessive goodness. The movie is thin and though it moves at a good enough clip that you can ignore the threadbare script but in the end, Children of the Corn IV
is a disposable thriller. The final credits are a ridiculous 5 minutes long, meaning the movie proper runs a barely feature length 79 minutes and the final sting is so wretched and pathetic it manages to leave a bad taste even after all the hard work the movies has done up to that point.
There are a couple things that kind of bother me about the series at this point. First and foremost, by this fourth instalment the series has gotten so far away from the source material that still calling it Children of the Corn
is actually doing it a disservice. With no references to Gatlin or He Who Walks Behind the Rows, fans are likely to feel cheated. That’s too bad, since this is a decent little thriller that deserves an audience willing to give half a chance.
This leads into my second complaint: that good ideas are left to die on the vine since there’s no narrative through line from film to film. Yes, having a series of self-contained films can help isolate and minimize the impact that poor instalments might have on the fan base (didn’t like 2 or 3? Move on to a totally different story with 4 or 5). What happens with series that do have contiguous characters and plot lines, though, is that each film strengthens every other film. The Friday the 13th
films, when viewed in isolation, aren’t particularly good movies but the series as a whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Had Jason truly died in The Final Chapter
, the series probably wouldn’t be as iconic as it is today. It’s the entirety of the continuing saga that helped cement Jason in the public consciousness, simply by virtue of the character always being in the public consciousness. The Saw
films are probably the single best example of this. There was an opportunity to do this with the Corn
films – and given that they use motifs culled from American folklore it would have been a franchise that’s uniquely resonant for American audiences. That the filmmakers decided not to go that direction feels like a big loss for the genre.
As much as I may wish for more ambition on the part of the producers, I understand that these movies aren’t meant to build a lasting legacy, develop a complex mythos or cultivate a fan base but only to snare a few unknowledgeable renters and make a few quick bucks trading on the franchise name before fading to obscurity. If that’s the case, then it makes the care and craft that went into Children of the Corn IV
all the more remarkable, and the film just a bit more special.
Children of the Corn IV
looks about how you’d expect a low budget, direct to video Dimension sequel to look. This disc was released right around the time that Buena Vista made anamorphic widescreen transfers standard on their discs (it’s getting to hard to remember a time when major studio releases would hit disc with non-anamorphic transfers). The image is soft, with only fair color reproduction despite the stylish and often very bright visuals. This being an older transfer I would expect to see more compression issues, but this more than ten year old transfer still holds up in that regard.
While 16:9 transfers may have been the norm, 5.1 audio was still a luxury reserved for big budget films. Children of the Corn IV
has a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track. Dialogue and sound effects are confined to the front channels while the score and a few isolated effects are pushed to the rear channel. It’s a decent mix, though dialogue is occasionally hard to discern in some of the quieter scenes and the films’ atmosphere suffers for lack of discreet surrounds and low end. About what you’d expect.
A trailer gallery for other Dimension horror titles is included. Unfortunately, they’re not theatrical trailers but home video promo pieces. That’s not a huge black mark against them since most of the titles are direct to video sequels, but there’s no reason not to have the theatrical trailers for Dracula 2000
and Halloween 6
. The cheesy home video promos are not going to get potential buyers more interested in those films.
I still prefer the campiness and FX orgy of Urban Harvest
but The Gathering
is still a tight suspense thriller that’s well worth watching and a high point for the less than consistent series. Naomi Watts is shockingly good in an early role and the sure directorial hand of Greg Spence keeps the proceedings from getting stale. It’s probably not going to plant itself on your list of all time favorites but, for a lazy afternoon on the couch, it’s a pretty sure bet you’ll be entertained by this Gathering
I’m still waiting for my follow up to Urban Harvest
Movie - B-
Image Quality - C+
Sound - C+
Supplements - N/A
- Running time - 1 hour and 25 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 2.0 Audio
- French Dolby Digital 2.0 Audio
- English SDH subtitles