|DISCIPLES OF THE CROW (1983)
starring Eleese Lester, Gabriel Folse, Steven Young, Martin Boozer
based on the story "Children of the Corn" by Stephen King
adapted for the screen and directed by John Woodward
|CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984)
Stephen King's Children of the Corn
starring Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton, R.G. Armstrong, John Franklin
screenplay by George Goldsmith, based upon the story by Stephen King
directed by Fritz Kiersch
|CHILDREN OF THE CORN II: THE FINAL SACRIFICE (1993)
starring Terence Knox, Paul Scherrier, Ryan Bollman, Ned Romero
written by A.L. Katz and Gilbert Adler
directed by David F. Price
|CHILDREN OF THE CORN III: URBAN HARVEST (1995)
starring Daniel Cerny, Ron Melendez, Mari Morrow, Jim Metzler
written by Dode Levenson
directed by James D.R. Hickox
|CHILDREN OF THE CORN IV: THE GATHERING (1996)
starring Naomi Watts, Brent Jennings, Samaria Graham, William Windom
written by Stephen Berger and Greg Spence
directed by Greg Spence
|CHILDREN OF THE CORN V: FIELDS OF TERROR (1998)
starring Stacy Galina, Alexis Arquette, Ahmet Zappa, David Carradine
written and directed by Ethan Wiley
|CHILDREN OF THE CORN 666: ISAAC'S RETURN (1999)
starring Nancy Allen, Natalie Ramsey, Paul Popowich, Stacy Keach
screenplay by Tim Sulka & John Franklin
directed by Kari Skogland
|CHILDREN OF THE CORN: REVELATION (2001)
starring Claudette Mink, Kyle Cassie, Michael Ironside
written by S.J. Smith
directed by Guy Magar
|CHILDREN OF THE CORN (2009)
starring David Anders, Kandyse McClure
screenplay by Donald P. Borchers and Stephen King, based on the short story by King
directed by Donald P. Borchers
|CHILDREN OF THE CORN: GENESIS (2011)
starring Kelen Coleman, Tim Rock, Billy Drago
written and directed by Joel Soisson
|CHILDREN OF THE CORN: RUNAWAY (2018)
starring Marci Miller, Jake Ryan Scott, Mary Kathryn Bryant, Lynn Andrews
screenplay by Joel Soisson
directed by John Gulage
|CHILDREN OF THE CORN (2023)
starring Elena Kampouris, Kate Moyer, Callan Mulvey, Bruce Spence
based upon the short story by Stephen King
written and directed by Kurt Wimmer
by Walter Chaw Kurt Wimmer's Children of the Corn prequel/reboot is drab, uninspired, witless I.P.-sploitation. I first read Stephen King's same-named short story in the movie tie-in edition of Night Shift (the one with the red cover) in sixth grade and loved the Lovecraft of it, how it begins in the middle with a car-tripping couple hitting a kid running out of a cornfield in bumblefuck, Nebraska and leads said couple through a forensic reconstruction of the doom that came to Gatlin. I see in its setup and execution both the tendrils leading backwards and the ones nourishing stories like Clive Barker's "In the Hills, the Cities." It has a feeling of the inevitable uncanny that is underestimated in King's best work: a sense that what is happening has almost finished happening, and it's too late to do anything but bear witness to our collective ruin. Of the dozen films in the eclectic Children of the Corn franchise, only the third feature, subtitled Urban Harvest, hints at that feeling of Elder Gods infecting the innocent to act against the innocent and the generational end times attending that. None of the rest deal with the horror of good kids from loving families falling into an apocalyptic blood cult and suddenly murdering all of the grown-ups, choosing instead to paint the victims as abusive or absentee so that they kind of deserve whatever's coming to them. That's a revenge fantasy, not horror.
In film and literature, the sub-genre of evil children is a fulsome one, of course. Even kids in a horror scenario who are not evil, per se, will reliably draw creepy crayon portraits as the first indication that something's wrong. In the book and film(s) of Lord of the Flies, kids prove useful as analogues for the British colonial boarding-school system. Part of King's genius is his ability to tie weird fiction with children, who, as a device, are elastic enough to be terrible for their vulnerability as well as terrible for the alien inscrutability of their consciousness. Children are the uncanny valley: not exactly human, though the expectation is they'll be human one day; not completely Other, though their behaviour may indicate otherwise. They're monsters we are evolutionarily programmed to protect. King's short story works because of its brevity and nihilism. It only says as much as it needs to (a childless couple in a troubled marriage is beset by a situation that's a metaphor for their dissolution), then leaves the rest to the crows. It's as enduring as it is because, in the course of being short and brutal, it works in archetypes to pose more questions than it answers. Again aside from the third film, each sequel and fresh adaptation is focused on the wrong aspect of the story, zeroing in on a Blood on Satan's Claw folk-horror conceit rather than what I think is more effectively a play on broken families and the role of religion in those divorces, literal and metaphysical.
Start with John Woodward's "stealth" adaptation of "Children of the Corn," 1983's Disciples of the Crow. At an efficient 19 minutes, it manages to hit the main points and, more importantly, the concision of the source material better than subsequent installments. Its Burt (Gabriel Folse) and Vicky (Eleese Lester) love each other but don't much like each other in the typical way of couples trapped together in a car for an extended period of time, and when they run down some redneck, the decision to take him into an abandoned town grates less thanks to how quickly the decision is made. The backstory of good kids turning homicidal is told in a sharply-edited prologue that gets right to the point. Midway in each of the "source" films, there's a sequence where Burt finds out about the type of Christianity the children have adopted in a graffitied church while Vicky is set upon in her parked car. In this iteration, Woodward, serving as his own editor, suggests Vicky's fear and the violence of the attack with a real sense of physical menace and kinetic momentum that indicates a high level of technical skill. Implication rules the day with visual sleights of hand, and although the ending errs on the side of audience-pleasing, it's an impressive debut in almost every way.
Fritz Kiersch's official feature-length adaptation Children of the Corn appeared months later in 1984, the same year as Mark Lester's better-than-remembered Firestarter and the year after David Cronenberg's devastating The Dead Zone and John Carpenter's winsome Christine. It is one of 14 Stephen King features from the 1980s alone--a number replicated in the 1990s. King is the print analogue to Spielberg: effortlessly masterful at tricks that are impossible to diagnose, much less replicate. They're both easy to dismiss as panderers to a common taste, but few have ever cracked the code of how to please so wide an audience so consistently. King references the connection at the climax of his It, in which a character watches a town explode and notes how the spectacle is very much like, well, a Spielberg movie. They explicitly share a deft way with centring three-dimensional children, whether in peril, as the apple of their desperate parents' eye, or as the heroes (or villains) of their own lives.
As Vicky and Burt, Linda Hamilton (right before her breakthrough in The Terminator) and Peter Horton (before "thirtysomething" made him a megastar) are extremely capable though outmatched by a George Goldsmith script that struggles to mount a compelling argument for why Burt insists on walking into peoples' homes, checking "just one more place" in an obviously cursed husk of a town, and leaving Vicky to her own devices even after it's clearly unsafe to do so. Chief baddie, child preacher Isaac, is brilliantly played by the ineffably creepy John Franklin, and his chief henchman, Malachai (Courtney Gains), leaves a strong impression as the quintessential visage of the middle-American ginger, haunting the nightmares of all minority cross-country sojourners. This series, at its heart, is hicksploitation--a subgenre of horror magnifying class tensions in a country that's not supposed to have any. The divide between the "reasonable" north and the "unreasonable" south is particularly interesting, I think, in that there's either truth to it or my bias has been so distorted by the last few years, I'm no longer able to distinguish between prejudice and reality. The Republican party in the United States has risen to power on the backs of making a small, superstitious, and uneducated electorate terrified of imaginary bogeys. Their enemies are the most vulnerable populations--immigrants and minorities in race and orientation--as well as the doctors, librarians, and teachers with enough education to recognize the danger empowered ignorance represents. In China's cultural revolution, the unwashed rose up to barbecue and cannibalize, literally, the flesh of these same groups of people on the backs of populist fervour. Fear of a provincial population driven to homicidal mania by an unsophisticated dogma oft and loudly repeated isn't, in other words, an irrational fear but rather a historically documented threat. When Vicky and Burt, "normal" folks who speak well and in sentences largely free of Biblical references and hysterical fear-mongering, stumble into a nest of actual as opposed to arrested children pulled into an ideological blood cult, well, it plays more than a little bit like a documentary.
I think that's why the original Children of the Corn leaves so much to be desired. It's well-directed if stolid, shot through with intelligent use of unassigned point-of-view shots that imply either that the town of Gatlin is thick with ghosts or that Burt and Vicky are being observed by the omniscient being the children call "He Who Walks Behind the Rows," yet the picture doesn't really have any subtext. 1984 is the end of the first Reagan administration; everyone was afraid the fucking idiot was going to accidentally start a nuclear war. Who knew his dissolving the fairness doctrine and dismantling guardrails around foreign broadcast ownership would bring us closer to annihilation than his off-colour jokes captured on a hot mic? The ground was fertile, in other words, for Children of the Corn to worry out the fanatical "City on the Hill" neo-conservative dogma, borne on the backs of prosperity evangelism and, indeed, domestic terrorism. "Children of the corn," in many ways, is as condemning a taxonomy of conservative red-state voters as the "Bible belt" synecdoche. The very reasons the story has proven so durable a starting point for films across 40 years and a dozen adaptations have largely eluded its adaptors. Viewed as a mere folk-horror picture in which kids go wrong, it's straightforward enough, if frustrating for Burt's inexplicable mulishness and terrible decisions. Credit Hamilton for whatever menace there is in the film. As in The Terminator, it's hard to see her stalked and afraid. She's precious, corny as that may sound.
If I like the first sequel, Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice, it's because it doesn't seem to have any illusions about what it is and proceeds to have a good time with it. In place of gravity and social relevance are slasher kills, among them a moment where an elderly woman in an electric wheelchair is hijacked by the children, driven into the middle of a street, and then catapulted into a bingo parlour. The punchline? An old guy holds up a winning card and declares, "Bingo!" I also appreciated the death of a different old lady, crying out "what a world! What a world!" as she's crushed under her house with her legs sticking out from beneath, Wicked Witch-style. The ostensible heroes are bickering father and son John and Danny (Terence Knox and Paul Scherrer), a reporter for a gossip rag and his boy on the trail of the story of the century--the children of Gatlin are adopted by a neighbouring town--when, alas, little boy Micah (Ryan Bollman) reveals he's the new prophet of He Who Walks Behind the Rows. Joining the good guys are fetching local Lacey (soap heroine Christie Clark) and professor Frank Red Bear (Ned Romero), and where the first film has a creepy light and a suspicious storm, this one does a hard lean into science-fiction with a John Wyndham/Jack Finney thing involving a fungus growing on the corn that might be causing mass hallucinations. Children of the Corn II is not high art, but it's fun. It's also the last of these films to receive a theatrical release.
James D.R. Hickox's Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest is the first entry to embrace the H.P. Lovecraft roots of King's story unabashedly. F/X maestro Screaming Mad George fully animates the cornfield now, with leafy tentacles hungry for eye sockets and a penchant for burrowing through the ground like the Tremors graboids. As two of the titular tykes are adopted by a kind Chicagoan couple, the movie nails the sense of injustice where the victims of the kids and their cult are truly innocent and also good people, and it sets up a nice brother dynamic between the one who's a kook (Daniel Cerny) and the one (Ron Melendez) who can be deprogrammed with proper exposure to minorities and books. There's a lot of sociological meat to chew on, in other words--a lot of kernels on this cob, as it were, all held together by a few practical effect gags that are stand-up-and-cheer-worthy. The fate of buddy Malcolm (Jon Clair), in particular, is the sort of extravagantly horrible that fills me with exhilarated delight. (Watch for a bit of DIY modelling in the style of The Deadly Mantis that's so bad it's somehow transcendently great.) Borrowing an ending from John Carpenter's The Thing, complete with miniatures and gallons of K-Y jelly, the picture was the first shot out of the barrel for new franchise stewards Dimension, created essentially to capitalize on a booming home-video market. Its promise would quickly be deflated by a run of unusually poor outings.
Greg Spence's Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering presents a pre-Mulholland Drive Naomi Watts, Karen Black, and Brent Jennings in the flaccid tale of a woman coming back her small Nebraskan hometown to discover the children there inflicted with a corn virus/possessed by the souls of previous Children of the Corn and conspiring to kill all the grown-ups, I guess. It ends, as most of these films end, with an explosion, although this one does suggest that an undead child preacher's only weakness is mercury.
Leaden, boring, and a terrible waste of an impressive cast--much like the subsequent Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror, wherein David Carradine plays Bill a few years before he plays Bill, Fred Williamson is an asshole sheriff, and a young Eva Mendes (billed as Eva Mendez), who is somehow not the star, makes her film debut. The plot concerns a group of college nincompoops getting lost on a road trip and finding themselves at the mercy of a redneck agrarian cult--sort of a "Five-H Club" where the fifth one stands for "Hellspawn." Every year, these children have a sacrifice ritual where an 18-year-old leaps into a volcano to appease their fertility god. Without any active volcanos in Nebraska, a burning corn silo must suffice. That's the extent of it, aside from the now-standard trope of surprise offspring or hidden offspring or bastard offspring of the original kids getting a turn as the lead in a sequel. This one does hold the distinction of being the only one of the 11 features to have a hero, Stacy Galina's Allison, so gaffed they need to be told to use fire to destroy a god made out of corn. Her figuring this out is treated like Arthur unsheathing Excalibur from a stone.
The ending--a fresh baby with evil eyeballs--portends a sequel that is not followed up by the next entry, Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return, which sees John Franklin's no-longer-a-kid preacher waking from a long coma already wearing contact lenses, so that's convenient. Kari Skogland, director of Gal Gadot's upcoming Cleopatra fiasco, so over-directs the film that every single establishing shot is moving, zooming, dollying in or out, or flying around on a crane. The picture sways with unmotivated Dutch angles, uses pretentious blocking for nothing scenes, and essentially cuts the legs out of a cast that boasts Nancy Allen as the secret mother to an evil kid and Stacy Keach as the town doctor who's seen too much. The hero is Hannah (Natalie Ramsey), a child of the original Gatlin children, and...look, it's all too depressing to get into, but credit a couple of good gore effects, including a sweet Nate Cox-ing. Halved! Snicker-snack, just like that. An identical cliffhanger closes this one, too, again never to be paid off.
Children of the Corn: Revelation is Guy Magar and screenwriter S.J. Smith riffing on Koji Suzuki's Dark Water some years before Hideo Nakata and Walter Salles knock it out of the ballpark. The conceit is essentially a young woman, Jamie (Claudette Mink), returning home, yes, this time to an empty apartment building due to be demolished and where her grandmother is supposed to have been waiting for her. As she tries to figure out what's happened to grandma, Jamie encounters a gallery of sad neighbours, jousts with a hot cop (Kyle Cassie), and finally learns from a threatening priest (Michael Ironside) that her dreams and visions of an evil pair of children running around the empty halls are inspired by the coming of Satan, a.k.a. He Who Walks Behind the Rows. This is a problematic turn, if you ask me, because it's better if this god is either the Christian one or some other pagan god and not Satan; "Children of the Corn" gets very boring, very fast, if it's just another Catholic action film. There's a lovely moment in Stephen King's story--still effortlessly terrifying in a way none of its film adaptations and spin-offs can touch--where Burt finds the letters that used to spell out "Grace Baptist Church" tossed into the corner of Gatlin's church. He asks himself why, and in answer: "It wasn't the Grace Baptist Church anymore, that was why. So what kind of church was it? For some reason that question caused a trickle of fear..." I would say it causes a trickle of fear because what if bloody, arbitrary tests of fidelity are the kind of god we're stuck with? What if, in other words, what appears to be true--that God is a fucking asshole--is just...true? When you make the bad guy in this scenario the Christian devil, there's an element of colonization and castration to what's powerful about the story, so fuck that. Anyway, Jamie blows everybody up.
In 2009, Donald P. Borchers, producer of the first feature-length adaptation of the story, rebooted Children of the Corn to be more faithful to King's prose, and faithful this TV movie is. The bickering between Burt (David Anders) and Vicky (Kandyse McClure) is reproduced word-for-word and embellished with some truly ugly invective underscoring Burt's time spent in Vietnam. It's implied he's a grunt (mostly to allow for this stuff, I presume) when the story clarifies he was a medic. "Kid-killer," jabs at his PTSD--personal, unforgivable stuff, as it happens, that makes Vicky extraordinarily unlikeable in a way she is not in previous incarnations. Another change (some would say clarification, in that King never makes Burt's or Vicky's race explicit) sees Vicky become Black, meaning that in 1975, this interracial couple has decided to take a road trip through rural backwaters. It transforms Burt's decision to explore creepy Lynch-ville, U.S.A. into an act of real aggression. So while the story does indeed hew closer to the text, it also removes the not-inconsiderable force of empathy we develop for Burt and Vicky. The age-appropriate Isaac (Preston Bailey) seems very much like a little boy, free of the force of personality perhaps necessary to command a revival tent, while the horror of children being sucked into a cult is somehow neutered. Is it the lack of gravitas behind the child performances? None of it feels either inexorable or cruelly arbitrary. Children of the Corn '09 plays the notes but doesn't hear the music, and the improvised bits are deadly to the cohesion of the piece.
Then there's Joel Soisson's dialogue-heavy Children of the Corn: Genesis, the best film of the series mainly because it doesn't try to recapture the lightning King caught in a bottle. It's an "It's a Good Life" conceit in which a rural couple (Barbara Nedeljáková and Billy Drago) take in young lovers Allie (Kelen Coleman) and Tim (Tim Rock) when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Turns out, they're not the only ones the couple has taken in: there's also a mysterious kid (Dusty Burwell) living in the shack behind their house. Coleman and Rock have believable exchanges I suspect were ad-libbed to some extent by the actors, reacting in the appropriate ways and to appropriate degrees as their characters discover they're trapped with not just a pair of backwoods weirdos, but also a poltergeist or something worse. About 50 minutes in, a thing happens to a cop called to the scene--probably borrowed from Joseph Ruben's The Forgotten--that I adore when I see it in a film; already intrigued, I was all-in from then on. What works about Genesis is that it doesn't sweat the franchise lore and focuses instead on a template that works and lets its cast do the rest. It's a "Children of the Corn" film in name only--but having said that, it's the best film with "Children of the Corn" in the title.
Finally, there's "Project Greenlight" series three winner John Gulager's Children of the Corn: Runaway, shot in a lo-res, zero-budget style so kitchen-sink I wish someone had pulled the plug. Ruth (Marci Miller), one of the last children of Gatlin, has a kid of her own, finds herself back in Gatlin, gets a job as a mechanic with poor, moribund Carl (Lynn Andrews), and essentially goes through the motions of a mordant indie-flick version of Stella Dallas. Stella Dallas, that is, without the style, the narrative cohesion (it's so poorly edited that none of the characters have legible motivations or reactions), or a purpose. Points for touching on the impossibility of living below the poverty line in the United States. Demerits for being generally terrible.
Which brings us to the eleventh instalment (twelfth if you include the short film), calling itself just Children of the Corn but leaving Burt and Vicky to their unrestful graves. In their place are winsome dreamer Boleyn (Elena Kampouris), her shithead brother, Cecil (Jayden McGinlay), and their sad-eyed dad, Robert (Callan Mulvey), who gives a speech early on about how Big Corn has introduced chemicals and GMOs into the crop, causing a blight. Good Pastor Penney (Bruce Spence) blames this physical blight on a moral one. It's a scene taken out of Chinatown that ends with an interruption of the proceedings not from the herd of a farmer's livestock but from a gaggle of evil children, led by disassociated frowner Eden (Kate Moyer). Meanwhile, sentient tendrils in the field wrap themselves around old farm implements with that crinkly foley that suggests creepy monsters. Eden demands an equal vote in the town assembly, and when mocked for it, the children unleash hell. Yes, for every looming atrocity, there is an equal and opposite abusive adult deserving of it. For everything inexplicable, there's a popular bogey to bear the brunt of the blame. The children, we learn, might be infected by that toxic corn dust introduced in the first sequel, or they might be environmental activists opposed to a move away from...um, mechanized agriculture as the town's means of survival? It doesn't hold together. Worth mentioning is how in the King story, one indicator of the strangeness of the corn is how well-kept it is, how it's bereft even of insects. But the films, starting in part three, introduce cockroaches and grasshoppers (and a cricket in Runaway) as evidence of supernatural infestation. One is uncanny--rows as cleanly swept and weed- and pest-free as a supermarket aisle--and the other is standard horror-movie fare.
Children of the Corn 2023 (it was completed and shelved in 2020) is the latter. The kids are little freakazoids, the teen heroes are insufferable scolds and orators, and the adults are meatbags waiting for the business end of a sickle. Boleyn and Cecil, midway through, watch the aforementioned "Twilight Zone" episode "It's a Good Life," because at least writer-director Kurt Wimmer has seen the other eleven pictures--although this has not enabled him to write words that human beings would say in scenarios where they'd say them. It's a deeply uncomfortable film for this stiltedness. Boleyn as a hero is impossible to rally behind because she and everyone else feel like they're doing the first walkthrough rehearsal of a work in progress. It's brutally bad. Bad enough that a scene where the mass culling of wild horses from Hud is transmogrified into the live burial of a few dozen Nebraskan heartlanders is deflated by smug Eden crossing her arms like a child in a pageant and prostrated-by-uncontainable-grief Boleyn needing to be restrained by her girl crew. For all its protestations to the contrary, this Children of the Corn isn't about anything. It's so empty that all of the grave sequences where the music turns serious and the tears flow heavy and hot are unintentionally hilarious. Characters narrate what they're doing as they're doing it; the score narrates it again, in case you missed it; and then the execution is so rough that not even a big, giant, stupid CGI corn monster can inject anything like life into it. The original "Star Trek" had an episode called "Miri" where a man-made virus caused madness and death in anyone experiencing puberty while dramatically slowing the aging process of the pre-pubescent. The absent adults got what they deserved because the virus that killed them before Kirk and co. got there was manufactured in the process of trying to engineer immortality. Anyway, that episode is somehow less of a relic than this newish film. Oh, and the movie ends in an explosion. Of course it does.