‘An adult nightmare.’
Children of the Corn is a 1984 American horror feature film directed by Fritz Kiersch from a screenplay by George Goldsmith (Blue Monkey aka Insect), based on the 1977 short story of the same name by Stephen King. The Gatlin production stars Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton, R.G. Armstrong, John Franklin and Courtney Gains.
Jonathan Elias (Leprechaun 2; Grave Secrets; Parents; Vamp) provided the soundtrack score.
Film rights were originally optioned by Hal Roach Studios, and Stephen King wrote a screenplay based on his own short story. However, Hal Roach executives rejected King’s script and George Goldsmith was hired to rewrite it. Goldsmith has said King’s script started with 35 pages of lead characters Burt and Vicky arguing in their car.
After the release of Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1992) and the series’ acquisition by Dimension Films, subsequent sequels were released directly to video, and bore little to no narrative continuity, beginning with Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995).
In 2009, a television remake of the original film aired on the Syfy network. A sequel to Children of the Corn: Genesis and tenth overall, titled Children of the Corn: Runaway, was released on March 13, 2018.
As physician Burt Stanton (Peter Horton) and his girlfriend, Vicky (Linda Hamilton), drive across the Midwest to his new job, their trip comes to a sudden halt when they encounter the body of a murdered boy in the road.
In trying to contact the authorities, Burt and Vicky wander into a small town populated only by children, followers of sinister young preacher Isaac Chroner (John Franklin). Soon the couple is fleeing the youthful fanatics, who want to sacrifice them to their demonic deity…
By 1984, the Stephen King movie blitz that began in earnest with Salem’s Lot and The Shining in 1979 was showing signs of burning out. One of the world’s top-selling authors, King also had the knack of writing extremely cinematic genre novels, and Hollywood producers were eagerly buying up the movie rights to just about anything he’d written.
Unfortunately, few of the resulting films quite hit the mark. Stanley Kubrick’s radical reinterpretation of The Shining had failed to please either mainstream critics or King fans, and although now hailed as a horror classic, was widely dismissed at the time. This seemed to set the scene for King movies to come.
Appearing in 1984, Children of the Corn was based on a short story from King’s Night Shift collection, originally published in the March 1977 edition of Penthouse. Critics have used the fact that a feature film was spun from a thirty-page tale to knock the film, but we should remember that both Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption – two of the most acclaimed King movies – were also taken from short stories. King’s original story was a tightly paced shocker and told the story of a couple whose marriage is on the verge of collapse and who find themselves lost in Nebraska.
When they hit the body of a young boy whose throat has been cut, they take the corpse to the nearest town, Gatlin. But it soon becomes obvious that all is not right there: not only does the town seem to be deserted, but further investigation shows that a new, strict old testament religion has taken hold – one which demands that followers are sacrificed at the age of nineteen to He Who Walks Behind the Rows.
King’s short story plays on fears that urban America has about small, inbred rural communities – fears that have spawned horror movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – and blends in elements of The Wicker Man (a closed community developing their own religion), Logan’s Run (sacrifice at a certain age) and sinister kid movies such as Village of the Damned. The story clearly has cinematic potential, and so it was no real surprise to find that it was to be made into a feature film in 1984.
The Children of the Corn movie didn’t seem to please anyone on its initial release. Although you’d expect mainstream critics to be dismissive, genre fans were equally scathing. Although the film had followed the template of King’s story to a degree, most people agreed that the switch from the original, downbeat ending to a more traditional ‘happy’ one was a blunder, and many people found it hackneyed and unbelievable.
Certainly, audiences weren’t exactly flocking to the film. It’s US box office take of $14.5 million made it the lowest-grossing King adaptation of the year, though notably, it did better than 1985’s King films Cat’s Eye and Silver Bullet, both of which flopped badly and brought the relentless King movie juggernaut to a temporary halt. Yet the times they were a-changin’, and theatrical box office was no longer the only way for a film to find an audience and make money. Children of the Corn would be one of the earliest movies to show that the long haul to success via videotape could be highly lucrative.
It’s hard to say just why Children of the Corn began to find an audience on video. It’s certainly not down to the director, who went on to a thoroughly anonymous jobbing career, shooting the likes of Tuff Turf (1985), Gor (1988) and Crayola Kids Adventures (1997). It’s more likely that people discovered the film through the cast. Peter Horton would go on to star in yuppie soap Thirtysomething, while Linda Hamilton struck gold later in 1984 when she was cast in a small sci-fi action film called The Terminator. The huge success of that film may well have sent curious fans in search of her other work.
Most likely though, is that the film simply hooked into the post-Goth teen audience which didn’t exist at the time of its original release. It’s notable that, like The Lost Boys, this is one of the few horror films to have a predominantly female fan base, and it’s easy to see how the combination of neo-pagan religion and brooding teen male leads would appeal to self-consciously Spooky Kids.
Whatever the reason, Children of the Corn‘s sleeper success on video had reached a point by 1993 where a sequel – unthinkable when the film was first released – became a viable option. Home video has created many sequels that we might not have otherwise expected to see – by extending the life of a movie beyond the initial theatrical release and occasional TV showing, video ensured that numerous films which failed to make much impact at the box-office would nonetheless become ubiquitous enough to justify follow-ups, particularly as a large part of the video rental market seemed to thrive on familiarity, only too happy to rent films which had some name recognition. Children of the Corn had been a solid renter for the best part of a decade, and so it seemed likely that a sizeable audience would exist for a second instalment.
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA
After an unhappy experience trying to script Children of the Corn (see above), author Stephen King was quoted calling the finished film the worst movie based on his writings. You will immediately note two things: (1) Possible resentment based on his rejected screenplay as a hidden motive, and (2) since 1984 there have been something like 50, 100, or 1,500 more films based on Stephen King material. Many of them rubbish. In hindsight, Fritz Kiersch’s original Children of Corn doesn’t look half bad now and is hardly at the bottom of the feed trough.
With a chanting soundtrack and effectively creepy vibes (a bit of a challenge given that much of the feature takes place in bright daylight), this does raise some shudders – then wrecks the momentum with cheap gore and a feeble finale. A properly shocking tone is set from the beginning, as children in the farm town of Gatlin, Nebraska, methodically poison, bludgeon, slash and kill all of the parents and take over (reminiscent of Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s notorious 1976 Spanish horror film Who Can Kill a Child?). Nobody in the outside world seems to notice this; an explanation later hints that Gatlin is an intensely religious town, insular and unfriendly to visitors.
Three years later, Doctor Burt Stanton (Peter Horton) and his girlfriend (Linda Hamilton), driving to a new job, stumble across Gatlin’s secret in the worst way, running down a mortally wounded boy trying to escape. They find bloody religious icons made from corncobs with the victim and proceed to investigate (translation: a lot of rather dull skulking about).
It seems that the killer kids of Gatlin had been indoctrinated into a strict cult founded by Isaac (John Franklin), an influential boy preacher who forbids music and games and leads quasi-Christian worship of “He Who Walks Behind the Rows,” a demonic entity who demands a human sacrifice of anyone over eighteen.
Depending on what the paltry special F/X budget permits, He Who Walks Behind the Rows sometimes looks like burrowing underground giant-mole shape, a weird cloud or a glowing cartoon. Far more disturbing are the juvenile performers, who do quite a good job making themselves a fearsome tribe of youthful fanatics wielding farm-implement weapons. As an intensely unsettling young actor, John Franklin compares quite well with David Bennent in Volker Schlondorff’s acclaimed 1980 adaptation of Gunther Grass’ The Tin Drum, and that is no small praise.
Besides the juveniles, the picture manipulates audience anxieties and stereotypes about America’s heartland – miles and miles of fields, isolated agricultural villages, and radio stations broadcasting nonstop fiery sermons. Instead of yesteryear’s movie Satanists, with their horns and satin-cape/black robe ensembles, these diabolical villains caricature ultra-conservative evangelical churches, crucifying their victims on corn stalks.
A few lines of dialogue cite Bible verses warning the faithful of the coming of false prophets (or in the case of He Who Walks Behind the Rows, an evil spirit) leading the devout astray. But for those who have read conservative apologist Ben Stein’s neat little book The View from Sunset Boulevard, this flawed film might strike a chord. Stein discerned in Hollywood entertainment post-1960s a stark paradigm shift, that small-town life, with picket fences, gazebos and church steeples, formerly idealized as the patriotic embodiment of all-American virtue, had instead transformed into sinister places where the worst horrors were apt to lurk out of sight.
Thus, a big-city crimefighter such as Kojak or Columbo might venture out into the countryside for an investigation and inevitably comment that if the gritty, mean streets of his metropolis had problems, you ain’t seen nothing yet until you really look into hidden depravity and malice of America’s rural towns. Children of the Corn rather splendidly illustrated this cynical revisionism (that Stein found rather troubling; you may agree or disagree).
Children of the Corn generated enough of a profit for B-filmmakers in the dawning direct-to-video era to sprout numerous sequels, a few attempting continuities with the original, others just rerunning the central premise, and some having nearly no connection whatsoever. Good luck telling them apart – although history notes Stephen King himself finally bestowing his approval on one of them, Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest. Maybe even Stephen King got a fright from The View from Sunset Boulevard?
Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES and MANIA
Other reviews [contains spoilers]:
“King was always good at playing on more sensitive notes, and the idea of evil children carries quite a punch. It is a fairly original set-up in a genre dogged by formula, but one that is finally bedevilled by the constraints of budget and a ludicrous monster movie denouement.” Empire
“Incidentally, the inclusion of a battle against a real demonic power is what helped to make Children of the Corn one of the best horror films of all time. Tangible enemies are one thing, but when you’re battling against a force of darkness that lurks among the corn, devours children and adults and has a pretty good sense of direction, you’re really in for something.” Horrorfreak News
“Though definitely an imperfect film thanks to some blatant padding (lots of driving and walking around here), iffy acting at times, and a very underwhelming monster reveal during the climax, Children of the Corn is an oddly haunting and potent film with its ferocious religious angle (delivered by children, of course) giving it quite a bit of punch.” Mondo Digital
“As happens too often in fiction of this sort, the resolution fails to top the buildup. There is one arbitrary resurrection from the dead, and when we finally do see He Who Walks Behind the Rows, it turns out to be He Who Burrows Between the Rows, like a gopher. Gophers, even satanic ones, aren’t terribly intimidating.” Vincent Canby, The New York Times
“At the end, those of us who are left in the theater cling to one faint hope: That our patience will be rewarded by an explanation, no matter how bizarre, of the thing that moves behind the rows. No luck. Instead, the movie generates into a routine action sequence involving lots of flames and screams and hairbreadth escapes.” Roger Ebert
“The story might have been more chilling if there were no supernatural element, but as it is this is a fairly strong entry into the stream of King adaptations, which is mostly down to its trappings rather than its narrative.” The Spinning Image
“A late lurch from Lord of the Flies-ish mass psychosis to silly supernatural SPFX topples the film into total cornetto.” Anne Billson, Time Out Film Guide
“Had the film stayed away from special effects at the end and kept to the idea of a religious cult it would have been a far more satisfying ending. As it is, it gives the impression that the kids actually knew something we didn’t and maybe weren’t so mental after all… a pretty weak end to a fantastic story.” That Was a Bit Mental
” …by the time “He Who Walks Behind The Rows” awakens and the corn comes to life, the whole thing starts to seem too — well, corny to take very seriously. Which would all be fine and good if Kiersch were playing things tongue-in-cheek throughout, but given that he opts for the straight-forward approach, the film’s “climactic” final act just comes off as being uninspired at best, embarrassing at worst.” Trash Film Guru
“Considering that Children of the Corn is a thirty-page short by King just goes to show how dedicated Kiersch must have been to stretching it out to a full-length feature film. No mean feat, I’m sure you’ll agree. As far as gory moments go, there are some, but […] they’re mainly ‘off-screen’ which only adds to the atmosphere.” UK Horror Scene
Cast and characters:
- Peter Horton … Burt
- Linda Hamilton … Vicky
- R.G. Armstrong … Diehl
- John Franklin … Isaac
- Courtney Gains … Malachai
- Robby Kiger … Job
- Anne Marie McEvoy … Sarah (as AnneMarie McEvoy)
- Julie Maddalena … Rachel
- Jonas Marlowe … Joseph
- John Philbin … Amos
- Dan Snook … Boy
- David Cowen … Dad
- Suzy Southam … Mom
- D.G. Johnson … Mr. Hansen
- Patrick Boylan … Hansen’s customer
- Elmer Soderstrom … Hansen’s customer
- Teresa Toigo … Hansen’s customer
- Mitch Carter … Radio preacher (voice)
On October 3, 2017, Arrow Video released a Special Edition Blu-ray disc with the following special features:
- Brand new 2K restoration from the original camera negative
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
- Original stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio options
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Brand new audio commentary with horror journalist Justin Beahm and Children of the Corn historian John Sullivan
- Audio commentary with director Fritz Kiersch, producer Terrence Kirby and actors John Franklin and Courtney Gains
- Harvesting Horror: The Making of Children of the Corn retrospective piece featuring interviews with director Fritz Kiersch and actors John Franklin and Courtney Gains
- …And a Child Shall Lead Them a brand new interview with actors Julie Maddalena and John Philbin
- It Was the Eighties! an interview with actress Linda Hamilton
- Field of Nightmares a brand new interview with writer George Goldsmith
- Return to Gatlin brand new featurette revisiting the film’s original Iowa shooting locations
- Stephen King on a Shoestring an interview with producer Donald Borchers
- Welcome to Gatlin: The Sights and Sounds of Children of the Corn an interview with production designer Craig Stearns and composer Jonathan Elias
- Cut from the Cornfield an interview with actor Rich Kleinberg on the infamous lost Blue Man Scene
- Disciples of the Crow 1983 short film adaptation of Stephen King’s story
- Storyboard gallery
- Original Theatrical Trailer
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin
- First pressing only: Fully illustrated collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by John Sullivan and Lee Gambin
California and Iowa
The movie took $14,568,989 at the US box office against a reported budget of $800,000. Strong video rentals ensured that a franchise was spawned.