Directed by Fritz Kiersch and based on a short story by Stephen King, Children of the Corn is an entertaining and unappreciated horror flick. The 1984 film bred a heap of direct-to-video sequels, but the original is a hysterical and unexpectedly shrewd piece of work that really doesn’t deserve its negative status.
Like a lot of King’s fare, Children of the Corn operates on a number of planes. The interminable tempest of Middle America is exemplified by rows and rows and rows of corn, the symbolic relic of Nebraska. There is also instinctive religious fundamentalism, exemplified by the precarious ways in which children follow their irrational beliefs. And, rather unnecessarily, there are supernatural elements.
The movie opens on a terrifying note in the fictional town of Gatlin, Nebraska. After the corn crop fails, a mysterious boy preacher named Isaac (John Franklin) takes over the minds of the town’s children and causes them to murder all the adults. This leads to the establishment of a cult that believes in the prophecies of “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.”
Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton) are heading through Nebraska to get to Burt’s new job in Seattle. They suddenly hit a small boy on the highway and discover that he was murdered before they struck him with their car. This leads them to try to find help, which in turn leads them to discover the town of Gatlin and to become targets of the corn cult children.
Children of the Corn is difficult to take seriously initially, but, when one considers the meaning of corn to the people of Gatlin and how desperate a town can become if their main crop fails, one can start to imagine how beliefs in a just God might be challenged – and how other beliefs might creep up from out of nowhere.
Little background is provided as to how Isaac took over the minds of the children or how he and his right hand man Malachai (Courtney Gains) got such a violent foothold, but there is room for speculation. It is clear, regardless of how the cult started, that there are strict rules that seem to borrow somewhat from fundamentalist religions. Music, games and drawing are forbidden, for instance, while followers must never question Isaac’s connection with the demon – even as the kid becomes more and more arrogant.
Through the aforementioned passageways in the proverbial corn maze, Kiersch allows the audience to examine the foundations of belief and how those foundations can sprout some truly nasty things. What’s more, the followers are children and are especially vulnerable to believing prophecies and laws out of fear of punishment. This cutting critique of fundamentalist religion shouldn’t be ignored.
With these elements in place, Children of the Corn perhaps makes the mistake of never taking itself too seriously. It is hard to escape laughing at the way the children fill cars with cornstalks, but it does appear that Kiersch’s point is to generate some giggles. This is further highlighted during the last scene, which involves a cult-infected lass knocked comatose by a car door. Burt’s rejoinder is riotous.
Children of the Corn stumbles most when it moves away from its appraisal of religious fundamentalism and loses its wit to go for supernatural horror points. The special effects are particularly feeble and the appearance of the demon generates some goofball moments.
Still, Children of the Corn isn’t anywhere near as bad as its reputation would suggest. It launches a fairly lucid evaluation of religion and packs a punch. It is amusing, enjoyable and at times truly frightening. While it certainly doesn’t pack the bucolic fright of classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this King-penned endeavour is worth the trip.