There’s a couple of things you had to put up with if you were a Stephen King fan in the 80’s with the first being that you’d better save your cash because the Maine Man was crazy prolific back in the day. The other was that a slew of adaptations of insanely varied quality, seemed to attack cinemas or TV every other week with virtually every major novel the author wrote (and quite a few short stories) being filmed in some form of other.
While King constantly challenged the laws of reality in his books, one thing the movie adaptations usually couldn’t overcome is the law of averages and for every classic example like Carrie or The Shining, we got a stunning amount of middle of the road iffiness that usually didn’t have the budget to realise the book’s original vision or missed the point of the story altogether. This brings us to Children Of The Corn, King’s punt at the killer kid genre that appeared in the short story collection, Night Shift, which took a hugely creepy premise and made it as vaguely irritating as being forced to watch a badly produced kid’s play for a kid that isn’t yours.
Vicky Baxter and Burt Stanton are two young adults in love and on their way Seattle so Burt can get work as a physician, but as they pass through Nebraska their trip takes a ghastly turn when they plow through a young boy who suddenly pops out of the endless sea of cornfields that lie on either side of the road. Figuring out that the kid must have been fatally slashed in the fields and then staggered out in front of their car, Burt and Vicky put the body in their boot (interesting choice) and try to find a phone in the nearby town of Gatlin in order to call help.
Yeeaaah, bad choice – because it seems that three years ago, almost all the children in Gatlin suddenly went and murdered every adult in town under the orders of Isaac, a religiously pious brat that follows the whims of “He Who Walks Behind The Row”, a malevolent force that lives out in the corn fields and demands sacrifices.
As the couple try to stay ahead of a whole town full of adolescent antagonists, they’ll have to watch out for Isaac’s second in command, the overwhelming ginger Malachai, but thankfully they have help in the form of Job and Sarah, two siblings apparently not in the thrall of the corn-based deity when all the murdering shit originally went down.
With Vicky eventually kidnapped for sacrifice and Burt on the run from a horde of blade wielding brats, tensions arise between evil mouthpiece Issac and an almost 19 year old Malachi (He Who Walks Behind The Rows is apparently only age appropriate for kids between 5 to 18), events are laid out that are going to get horribly… corny.
Despite the fact that describing a particularly unnerving child as a “Children Of The Corn” entered the common lexicon and the fact that the movie spawned an ungodly amount of sequels, the original movie isn’t exactly worthy of its indamous reputation.
The first problem is the script, which takes the slow burn story of a couple stumbling across a deserted town and gradually discovering the chilling events that befell it before it claims their own lives; and bizarrely decides to remove every bit of mystery it can. Starting with a play by play of the events that befell Gatlin the day every kid decided that the next cool new fad was becoming a kill crazy religious fanatic, tension is all but removed by having the character of Job explain exactly why and how everything is happening in an excruciatingly clumsy voice over. Another issue that plagues the movie is that there somehow simply isn’t enough material here to adequately fill the hour and a half runtime with the movie resorting to more aimless wandering than a back to back play of the entire Silent Hill video game franchise which is made even more boring due to the fact that we’ve already been told in great detail exactly what’s going on already.
The final issue and something that really doesn’t translate that well over from the book is the fact that the while the villains carry scythes and blades, they’re are still just fucking children and therefore quite easy to outrun or simply take down with a particularly vicious shove. It doesn’t help that the principle baddies Isaac and Malachi are not so much terrifying as inherently punchable and are more liable to evoke cringey chuckles than screams of terror – in fact Malachi, with his screams of “Outlander! We have your woman!” may actually be the least intimidating villain in the pantheon of Stephen King wrong doers and Isaac may be one of the alarmingly oldest looking children in movie history (he was 25 at the time).
The movie manages to score the occasional, haunting image; Linda Hamilton’s Vicky getting hoisted up on a crucifix made of corn husks definately stands out and the initial scene of the mass killing at a diner on a sunny day after church is legitimately a chilling concept. But the movie simply can’t make the idea of evil corn starting an extremist cult anything more than a hokey goof, with “He Who Walks Behind The Rows” eventually being exposed as “He Who Is Extremely Difficult To Visual Realise” as the sinister force is represented by either some dodgy visuals or the sight of something large burrowing beneath the plowed earth that suggests that maybe the cause of all this hullabaloo is simply an oversized groundhog.
Horribly dated virtually months after it’s release, Children Of The Corn may now be seen as a cult classic, but even when compared to other Stephen King movies from the decade it comes up as short as the diminutive Isaac. It isn’t doesn’t evoke cheesy, violent, small town horror as well as Silver Bullet, or is as sweetly fun as Cat’s Eye, or as cool as Christine or even as batshit insane as the flame flinging stupidity of Firestarter and therefore is oddly forgettable despite it’s notoriety.
Maybe this is one of those rare occasions where a big, expensive, slick remake is actually just what the cornfield ordered to make the concept finally achieve the promise that the original short story so chillingly provoked – because to say this movie is scary, you’d have to be kidding…