Schlock & Awe: CHILDREN OF THE CORN is Low-Budget Stephen King

There’s been a Stephen King reawakening.

Of course, he remains one of the world’s most popular and bestselling authors, and has had dozens of his stories turned into feature films or miniseries. (Seriously, check out our ranking of his 13 miniseries and 44 feature films!) But, with The Dark Tower, It, and Gerald’s Game all coming out in 2017, this year is surely a resurgence. However, 2017 doesnt have anything on 1983 trhough 1985, when eight feature films hit the silver screen straight from his stories, including 1984’s down-and-dirty cult classic, Children of the Corn.

Children of the Corn was a short story King had published in 1977, in Penthouse magazine of all places, before collecting it into his landmark 1978 volume Night Shift. This collection had some of King’s most beloved stories, many of which would become films themselves (The Lawnmower Man, Trucks, The Mangler, etc.). Of these, Children of the Corn was the clear standout to film producers at New World Pictures, who were looking for fresh acquisitions following the sale of the company by founder Roger Corman in ’83. It had to be made relatively cheaply, and it had to be scary.

What’s scarier than murderous zealot children worshiping a monster of some kind?

While King himself wrote a screenplay draft, it was deemed a bit too exposition-y, so the reigns were turned over to relative newcomer George Goldsmith and directed by first-timer Fritz Kiersch. They filmed on location in Iowa, and made extensive use of that state’s boundless supply of corn stalks.

In a very weird happenstance, the film’s stars were Linda Hamilton — soon to be a huge star following The Terminator‘s release in ’84 — and Peter Horton, who’d go on to be a regular on TV’s Thirtysomething. Why weird? Because Hamilton and Horton, playing a young dating couple in the movie, had been married between 1979 and 1980. Incidentally, at the time of filming, Hamilton was married to Re-Animator‘s Bruce Abbott and Horton was married to Michelle Pfeiffer. Anyway.

Horton plays Burt, a young doctor on a road trip from Chicago to Seattle to start an internship. He’s joined by his girlfriend Vicky (Hamilton). While traveling through Nebraska, they hit a teenager in the road, but they didn’t actually kill him…he’d been dead already, his throat cut. They put the boy in the trunk (gross) and try to find the nearest town. That town happens to be Gatlin, NE, which, for the past three years, has had a population of almost entirely children and young people. And it ain’t Candyland there, let me tell ya.

At the beginning of the movie, we see an idyllic Sunday afternoon turn into a blood bath, led by the sinister Isaac (John Franklin), where children rise up and slaughter all the adults. The only two not on board are Job (Robby Kiger) and Sarah (Anne Marie McEvoy), the latter of whom has the gift of the “second sight,” allowing her to draw cutesy little pictures of the grim and violent future events. Isaac is pretty damn scary, but his chief enforcer Malachai (Courtney Gaines) is much, much worse. Isaac speaks to a bloodthirsty deity called “He Who Walks Behind the Rows,” who demands adults be sacrificed. If the kids start getting too old, they get groomed for sacrifice as well. It’s an imperfect system, really. But, hey, True Believers and all that.

For a good portion of the movie’s runtime, Burt and Vicky wander around the empty town of Gatlin, ignoring what common sense would dictate: getting to the bigger town 20 minutes away. They find Sarah alone in a farmhouse and while Vicky stays with her, Burt goes off to explore some more. This leaves Vicky free for the treacherous Malachai to kidnap her, directly defying Isaac, and attempt to lure Burt to join her as one of the sacrifices. And if it were just crazy kids with scythes and knives and axes, it’d probably be pretty easy to get away, but there’s that monstrous god-thing and he wants him some human meat, no matter who it is.

As presented, Children of the Corn is equal parts effective scares and silly plot and actors. One of the things King’s draft had that was ultimately cut out is more of an explanation of the three years with Isaac in charge, and what exactly He Who Walks Behind the Rows is. King’s work often employed use of unknowable, Lovecraftian entities (hell, Pennywise is one) but he always provided some kind of explanation. Here, the beast rumbles from under the corn using an effect out of Tremors and Carpenter’s The Thing, or appears in the form of weird, jittery ’80s optical effects. Like a VHS blob more than anything specifically scary.

The addition in the screenplay that King objected to are the characters of Job and Sarah, who act as friendly comic relief, aloof audience surrogates, and exposition. Why Sarah is psychic is never really discussed, but they do spend an awful lot of time on the fact THAT she is. However, it almost doesn’t matter if Job and Sarah, or even Burt and Vicky, don’t quite work, because the movie lives and dies on the backs of Franklin’s Isaac and Gaines’ Malachai. They are so twisted and intensely good in their respective roles and so malevolently magnetic that they make up for a lot. Isaac’s rueful screams as he’s betrayed will haunt you almost as much as Malachai’s constant shouting of “Outlander!” to Burt. They ARE Children of the Corn.

The movie has had a very long life outside of its initial release, spawning one not-good theatrical sequel and five direct-to-video sequels, as well as a reboot in 2009 that had two sequels of its own. There’s definitely a cult following for this movie about a cult following, and that’s on full display in the extras of Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray release. In addition to a mostly-informative commentary by a critic and an uber-fan, there’s a making-of and interviews with Linda Hamilton and writer George Goldsmith. The latter proves the most enlightening as he says he used Iran Contra as a basis for the plot and characters. I’m not sure anyone really got that in 1984, but it does make for an interesting reading on the film.

While nowhere near the best adaptation of a King story, Children of the Corn works quite well for what it is, and remains the go-to reference for any kind of scary children. Who hasn’t wished their parents into the corn field once or twice?

Images: New World/Arrow Video

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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