Franchise Corner Entry: CHILDREN OF THE CORN

CHILDREN OF THE CORN *** USA 1984 Dir: Fritz Kiersch 94 mins

Stephen King’s 15 page “Night Shift” story first saw cinematic life in the form of this box-office hit in which young couple Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton (who starred in THE TERMINATOR the same year) are terrorised by a juvenile cult led by the camp, diminutive Isaac (John Franklin) and the thuggish Malachi (Courtney Gains) – worshippers of the mysterious He Who Walks Behind The Rows. The movie scores its creepiest scene early on when Hamilton and Horton accidentally hit a mortally wounded young boy in the road, although for apparently intelligent adults, the couple display some of the dumbest behaviour in an 80’s horror movie. (Horton leaves his good lady alone in a car in a strange place right after they discover the kid’s throat was already cut! This example of dumbed-down scripting is joined by other silliness throughout, but it’s still a nostalgia trip for anyone who remembers being 8 and thoroughly terrified of the sullen, brutish Malachi. Jonathan Elias’ score is perhaps the film’s biggest asset: borrowing choral-based horrors from Jerry Goldsmith’s classic OMEN scores. Note: the movie has only ever been released in toned down versions, having been diluted originally before its US release by the MPAA and further cut by its UK distributor before BBFC submission during the “video nasty” panic : particularly affected are the opening coffee shop massacre and the assault on R G Armstrong in his garage.


Although it resorts to horror’s biggest cliché (an Indian burial ground is offered as an explanation for the children’s behaviour!), this first sequel is well directed and enjoyable. Unusually, it directly links to the original by having its tabloid reporter hero reporting on the discovery of 50 murdered adults (“Just your basic Sunday afternoon Bible Belt”) in the town of Gatlin. Christie Clark takes welcome outdoor showers in her bikini and Daniel Licht contributes a suitably malevolent score but this film’s biggest strength is its string of OMEN-esque creative deaths. A nosy parker old lady is crushed under her own house, someone has their throat slashed via an ear of corn, and the town preacher suffers the Nosebleed from Hell, haemorrhaging all over his congregation. The highlight, however, is a splendid bit of extended bad-taste in which the Corn kids terrorise an old woman in her remote control wheelchair, manoeuvring her into the path of an incoming truck that sends her crashing through the local bingo hall (undaunted by what has just happened, one guy still shouts “Bingo!”). We still don’t care about all this He Who Walks Behind The Rows guff, but it’s stylish, lively fun.

CHILDREN OF THE CORN III: URBAN HARVEST **** USA 1994 Dir: James D.R. Hickox 89 mins

Just like its immediate predecessor, James D R Hickox’s CORN entry has terrific death scenes, plus the added bonus of the best of the series’ cult leaders in the horribly smug, creepy form of Eli (David Cerny). Eli and his good-guy adopted brother, both orphaned Gatlin kids, settle in to a Chicago family home where Eli slips his new “mum” the tongue during a good-bye kiss and gives thanks to He Who Walks behind the Rows during “Grace”. Eli gradually assimilates most of the local kids into his revived cult and the principal knows something is very wrong because two weeks pass without any fights or drug dealing at his school. URBAN HARVEST has the finest gore of the series: spinal cords are wrenched from bodies with wild abandon and heads split open in fine style. There are genuinely creepy moments as headmaster Michael Ensign realises everyone is somehow different as he walks the school corridors, and FX genius Screaming Mad George helps deliver a show-stopping finale, complete with tentacled animatronic monster rising from the ground. BUFFY fans should keep an eye out for a young Nicholas Brendon.

CHILDREN OF THE CORN: THE GATHERING *** USA 1996 Dir: Greg Spence 85 mins

Just as they did with the HALLOWEEN and HELLRAISER franchises in the 90’s, it was Miramax’s genre-specific offshoot Dimension that kept the series going as a straight-to-video entity in order to make some easy pennies from a brand name. This Nebraska-set fourth entry stars a young Naomi Watts as a woman returning home to look after her agoraphobic mother (Karen Black, hammy) and discovering the strange behaviour of the local kids is linked to the rebirth of a vengeful preacher from decades earlier. Avoiding the usual guff about He Who Walks…, this offers a variation on the ELM STREET sins-of-the-other-generation theme but sadly resolves itself in an anti-climactic finale in which the central menace is almost immediately destroyed via a hosepipe. This is too bad, since the build-up is eerily effective : the gradual physical and mental changes in the children are nicely handled, and the regular deaths lively and gory : beheadings, William Windom cut in half and syringe-crucifixions keep it fun.

CHILDREN OF THE CORN V: FIELDS OF TERROR ** USA 1998 Dir: Ethan Wiley 79 mins

Bearing no direct connection to the previous films other than reworking the same basic plot – this time with religious zealot David Carradine overseeing the kid-cult worshipping you know who – the fifth outing has six thirty-something “teenagers” scattering the ashes of their chum in a rural U.S. town where anyone over 18 tends to meet an abrupt end. Let down badly by a feeble central juvenile villain named Ezekiel (Adam Wylie, whose ears are bigger than his head), this is enlivened by graphically gory murders involving drills and scythes, and a fun-for-the-fans moment in which slumming veterans Carradine and Fred Williamson (as the Sheriff) confront one another, ending with Carradine’s head splitting open for no explicable reason! The 80’s-style shock ending in which the heroine adopts the new-born of one of the cult members, its eyes glowing malevolently before the fade to black, is at least in the spirit of the series. Season Hubley and Kane Hodder have small roles.

CHILDREN OF THE CORN 666: ISAAC’S RETURN * USA 1999 Dir: Kari Skogland 78 mins

“Who the fuck is ‘He Who Walks Behind the Rows?’” asks pretty heroine Natalie Ramsey at a climactic point in this sequel, in which the main gimmick is John Franklin’s helium-voiced villain returning from the 1984 original, his character having been in a coma for 19 years! Travelling to the accursed town of Gatlin to find her birth mother, Ramsey discovers her real mom (Nancy Allen) gave her up so she could be free of the cult into which she was born. Isaac now needs her to conceive a child to be sacrificed in order to revive “He”. Allen and Stacy Keach (as the town doctors) are the bored veterans in an exposition-heavy sequel with only one gore highlight (a girl having her head cleaved in two). Franklin co-wrote the movie, but his performance is one of the weakest elements: approximately three feet tall and with a cartoon voice, he is among cinema’s least convincing representations of evil.

CHILDREN OF THE CORN: REVELATION * USA 2001 Dir: Guy Magar 76 mins

The subtitle of this seventh CORN movie is meaningless, even by franchise standards: it might as well have been called CHILDREN OF THE CORN: VARNISH since the only revelation is how tired the Dimension sequels had become. Director Guy Magar, who helped kill the STEPFATHER series with part 3 but did make the fun 80’s splatter opus RETRIBUTION, resorts to routine shock tactics in a meandering tale of a young Californian woman whose gran was involved in a Gatlin-style kid-cult. She keeps running into pasty-faced, glaring kids who look like their school panto this year is a new version of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, while Michael Ironside’s scarred preacher delivers the exposition. The cops are amusingly flippant about the heroine’s past tragedy (“So they never determined a cause for the fire that killed your parents…!”) but the movie’s only saving grace is that she ends up living near a hot but lonely table dancer played by WRONG TURN 2 / FINAL DESTINATION 3 actress Crystal Lowe, who wears tiny tops and short shorts, and takes a gratuitous bath before snuffing it.

CHILDREN OF THE CORN ** USA 2009 Dir: Donald P Borchers. 92 mins

Having ditched Stephen King’s own adaptation for the 1984 CHILDREN OF THE CORN film, producer Donald P Borchers returned to the original material for this more faithful representation of the “Night Shift” short story, complete with a pleasingly downbeat ending. The remake also reworks Jonathan Elias’ original music score, relocates the action to 1975 (roughly in line with the story’s backdrop) and stays consistent with the theme by casting a real child as Isaac, as opposed to the 25 year old John Franklin (!!) who portrayed him in 1984. Sadly, it’s torpedoed almost immediately by a deeply unsympathetic central couple: relentlessly bickering David Anders – a haunted ‘Nam veteran – and Kandyse McClure (a resentful Preacher’s daughter) are in martial breakdown territory when they get lured into the adult-sacrificing Gatlin child-cult after running into a wounded kid on the rural roads. McClure’s one-note, abrasive performance as the thankfully ill-fated wife is so hard to take that the movie never recovers, though nine year old Preston Bailey’s weak incarnation of Isaac has all the malevolence of a slightly grumpy Amish kid. Misfired new additions include Viet-Cong flashbacks during chase scenes and a bizarre ritualistic sex scene between two teens who orgasm while the other kids fondle their corn (!), though the movie commendably doesn’t flinch from gruesome child-death. Kudos for retaining the mean-spirited mood of the original text, but if anything it’s a step down from a film that was always less satisfying than its first two sequels.

CHILDREN OF THE CORN: GENESIS ** USA 2011 Dir: Joel Soisson 81 mins

The latest Dimension Films CORN movie is, like a lot of their other DVD horror sequels, disconnected from the earlier films until a character is given a monologue to link the vaguely similar events to Gatlin. In the California desert, a young dumb pregnant couple take refuge at the remote home of doll-fondling weirdo Billy Drago, his hot wife (played by Barbara Nedeljakova, from the HOSTEL movies) and their Gatlin-born, telekinetic kid whom they keep locked up as a dirty secret. Beset by peculiar continuity errors, Joel Soisson’s movie might be the most cliché-ridden of all the CORN movies, as the heroine pokes around the sinister house late at night while hubby fails to believe her claims that Drago might not be entirely sane (“Remember when you thought bears were attacking our tent…turned out to be squirrels?!”). The script reaches a low point when the leading lady suggests the answer to all the weirdness might be that they’re actually dead, and Drago phones in his performance like never before, but there are moments of atmosphere and some climactic vehicular mayhem for the faithful.

Reviews by Steven West

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