Stephen King's Children of the Corn: Special Edition Box Set Review
“And a child shall lead them...”
Children of the Corn has always been somewhat of a curate’s egg. Largely forgotten and always overlooked, the original film was made for bargain basement prices, and received a lukewarm reception from critics. It wasn’t until the picture reached videotape, that people began to notice its odd charms. Horror has always flourished on the home format, and in the 80’s, we had enough to choose from. The slasher craze had spread to most areas of popular culture, and with Freddy and Jason slicing up audiences, most of the studios were looking for fresh inspiration.
Is it any wonder they turned to Stephen King? Most of his best work had already been tackled by 1984, leading New World Pictures to Night Shift; King’s collection of shocking short stories. One of them stood out from the crowd - a bizarre tale about middle America, in which children have created their own religion, and laid waste to the adult populace. The story certainly had shock value, and it fell to New World to turn King’s 30 page tale into a two hour movie. The depiction of demonic children was certainly nothing new, with Village of the Damned and Child’s Play shattering that fragile innocence. But there was more than enough life in the material. The youth in Children of the Corn are a scary bunch, stripped of conscience and restraint. It’s a new generation devouring the old, and the formula would spawn no less than 6 sequels. Now, Anchor Bay have seen fit to release the original trilogy in “Special Edition” form. So, the question remains - does Children of the Corn deserve reassessment? I’ll try my best to find out...
Children of the Corn - 6.5/10
“An adult nightmare”
The term “cult” is overused when discussing horror pictures, but it certainly applies to both Children of the Corn’s subject matter and cultural value. In most respects, it will appeal only to niche audiences; the kind that idolise Mr. King and devour slasher movies morning, noon and night. It’s a strange little piece, with a unique atmosphere and dated special effects. Still, people of a certain age will have rented this film at least once, so there is a sense of nostalgia when Children of the Corn begins.
And what a beginning it is. The opening provides the creepiest moments in the film - a fear-laden high that director Fritz Kiersch fails to match or even top. Welcome to the small town of Gatlin, a place surrounded by farmland and little else. We watch as a group of adults sit in a coffee shop. All seems well, until the unnerving sight of Isaac (John Franklin) fills the screen. Suddenly, the children launch an attack on their elders; revealing butcher knives and scythes from under their clothes. They proceed to make mince meat out of the coffee shop patrons (literally), with blood flowing like wine.
Three years pass. Burt Stanton (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton) are on their way through the American countryside, with the intention of starting a new life for themselves. Naturally, their plans are cut short when they hit a boy on the road. However, he was already dying - his throat had been slit. This leads them into Gatlin, where the streets are deserted and adults are nowhere to be found. Soon, they discover Isaac’s religious regime - a cult that worships “He who walks behind the rows”, and treat the corn fields as their playground. Any outsider will be killed, or offered as a sacrifice. A fight for survival ensues...
Anyone reading that synopsis will no doubt register surprise at Hamilton’s name. Before she’d battle cyborgs in the Terminator series, she was playing the damsel in distress, and throughout Children of the Corn, her character is always the victim; waiting to be saved by Horton. With such a name in the credits, the film holds some curiosity value (and might explain why it became so popular on video). A fine actress, she acquits herself well here, whether recoiling in fear, or being tied to a corn-dressed cross. That said, the film isn’t about acting, and the lack of chemistry with Horton barely seems to matter. Indeed, the clearest criticism with the film is that it’s filled with child stars, and therefore features some ropy turns. However, that’s no black mark against the filmmakers, and most of the faults are caused by budgetary restraints.
Children of the Corn really does suffer from its lack of funding. According to Kiersch, it cost just over $1million, $500,000 of which went into King’s bank account. The cheap production values give the film a crude finish, but I have to congratulate the director and his team for pulling off a lot with very little. Indeed, the cinematography is better than you’d expect; with several crane shots, inspired zooms and stilted camera set-ups, which help punctuate Jonathan Elias’s startling music. From the start, it is clear that Kiersch is trying valiantly to make the ingredients work, and to a degree he’s successful. He keeps the scenarios simple and straightforward, with George Goldsmith’s screenplay following a conventional narrative structure. There’s certainly nothing new about the set-up itself. Small-town America has always been targeted by the horror picture. It may not be as grisly as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Deliverance, but there’s definitely something creepy about Gatlin, Nebraska. Luckily, the crew were given access to a whole town, allowing them to film deserted streets and buildings. The “ghost town” quality gives Children of the Corn most of its punch.
But naturally, these fear tactics fail next to the religious commentary found in King’s work. Goldsmith does an admirable job with the material, and there is a lot here that will set you on edge. Isaac’s cause is so anti-Christian and destructive, that hating him isn’t difficult. Indeed, it isn’t too hard to compare Franklin’s character to a certain German dictator; with his grasp placed firmly over the children, polluting their minds. At his side, is the evil Malachai (Courtney Gains), who never balks at killing a person or two. Gains and Franklin may get into their roles with passion, but their relative inexperience gives some of the outbursts a stilted feel. Gains does have an edge though, and clearly enjoyed his character’s bloodlust. Despite this, Children of the Corn isn’t a movie for gorehounds. Kiersch uses many Hitchcockian techniques, believing that one’s imagination is more potent. No cuts are shown, and the blood is spilt sparingly (a far cry from Part II’s excessive violence). While I enjoy horrific make-up effects, I think Kiersch made the right decision. His picture works on a psychological level, and while the themes are more successful than the eventual product, he gets points for effort.
It’s just a shame that he didn’t show this restraint with the films bloated (and ludicrous) conclusion. After generating some genuine tension, Kiersch and his effects team destroy their hard work with a laughable supernatural coda. The being known as “He who walks behind the rows” makes his entrance, but is never seen; personified by a POV camera (ripping off those Evil Dead moments) and a phoney storm. The visual effects don’t work at all, and now seem more funny than terrifying. It might have worked in written form, but in motion picture terms, the monster tactic was a mistake - it would have been much more interesting if Isaac had made up these stories in order to gain power. The budget, unfortunately, was too inadequate. No wonder King turned his back on the film, and its subsequent franchise.
So, is Children of the Corn worth seeing? Die-hard horror fans will no doubt enjoy the film for what it offers - a creepy premise, a few decent kills, and a pre-celebrity Linda Hamilton. It succeeds more than it fails, and is probably better than many of the slasher pictures made during its era. Despite the ending, Children of the Corn remains a cult classic. Not exceptional, but enjoyable all the same. And boy, are those corn fields eerie...
Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice - 4/10
Sequels. The horror genre sure does love them. Few rarely satisfy, yet we continue to part with our cash. After Children of the Corn became a heavy-weight on the rental shelves, the need for a follow-up was addressed. It certainly wasn’t demanded - the first film had acquired a loyal following, but no one expected to see a Part II. Indeed, the gap between them was substantial; nearly a decade since our first trip to Gatlin. Like it or loathe it, Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice appeared across cinema screens in 1993. Of course, there was nothing “final” about it, but horror films are rarely logical.
None of the original cast or production team would return, with the directorial duties passing to David Price, who does surprisingly well with the material. In most respects, The Final Sacrifice is not a bad film. It has a fair share of shocks and surprises, yet the pacing is languid and the fear factor decidedly low. As a horror movie, it simply doesn’t work (which is probably why it’s rated #78 on the IMDb’s worst). While I find such criticism a little harsh, most will admit that Part II beats its predecessor on a technical front. A bigger budget means better visuals, and in the hands of Price, the gore quotient is raised quite a bit. It may be disposable entertainment, but there is some fun to be had.
The story is a virtual retread, and like Halloween II, it picks up where we left off. The authorities have discovered the deceased adults in Gatlin, and proceed to move the children to the neighbouring town of Hemmingford. Arriving on the scene is failed journalist John Garrett (Terence Knox), who brings his annoying son Danny (Paul Scherrer) along for the ride. Unfortunately, they choose to stay in the same house as Micah (Ryan Bollman), who has been possessed by “He who walks behind the rows”. Soon, the troubled teen is recruiting his Gatlin cohorts, and painting the town red...
Price gives the film a great look, starting off with a nasty discovery in an old cellar, and proceeds to move though the usual clichés with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, he really isn’t helped by Gilbert Adler and A.L. Katz’s workmanlike screenplay, which often treads the waters of sheer tedium. Instead of creating tension, the story asks us to care about Danny and his father, who are going through a family crisis. It simply has no place in a film about demonic worshippers. Also pointless, are two romantic subplots, which provide an excuse for some on-screen flesh. Naturally, Price fails to extract engaging performances, and only Bollman seems interested (though his black contact lenses do most of the acting). As a sequel, the film falls down badly, resorting to formulaic stalk n’ slash thrills, that bypass Kiersch’s religious imagery and brooding ambience.
In fact, the only compliment I can pay The Final Sacrifice, is for one of its bloody kill sequences, which really got me squirming. Played out in the town church, we watch as Micah cuts at a voodoo doll, which has unfortunate effects on a member of the congregation. Blood spills from his nose, his ears, and his mouth, before drowning in his own innards. It’s a memorable moment in an otherwise mediocre film. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last...
Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest - 2/10
The law of diminishing returns is present and correct, with the truly diabolical Part III, wittily dubbed Urban Harvest. And the title pretty much gives away this sequels only shred of originality - it’s set in the city, rather than the rural pastures of Nebraska; opting for the bustling streets of Chicago instead. It’s an idea that could have gone far, but by this point, the formula had well and truly run out of steam. Originality is hardly a factor, which is why Children of the Corn III went straight-to-video. Be afraid, be very afraid...
Horror aficionados should be familiar with the name Hickox. A genre mainstay, this family has repeatedly unleashed awful movies; which you’ll find gathering dust at Blockbuster, or playing once on the Sci-fi Channel. Urban Harvest is helmed by the inept James D.R. Hickox, who would later show us true suffering with Blood Surf (2000) and Sabretooth (2002), films that didn’t help his reputation. Indeed, two many cooks spoil the broth, and Urban Harvest has the distinction of Anthony Hickox’s involvement (the man who would destroy the Hellraiser franchise, with the woeful Hell on Earth). Therefore, you can hardly blame me when I entered this third instalment with a great deal of trepidation.
Merely an excuse for blood and guts, the plot barely deserves discussion; so low is this picture’s IQ. “Children of the Yawn” indeed. For those who care, it follows the death of a farmer in Gatlin, who leaves children Eli (Daniel Cerny) and Joshua (Ron Melendez), orphaned. However, they are soon granted foster parents in the Windy City, but that ancient evil is still afoot. The disturbed Eli has brought a suitcase full of corn to the city, and proceeds to create his own field. Meanwhile, he pollutes the minds of those at school, creating a new cult in the process. Only Joshua can help, after he discovers a way to eliminate the evil once and for all...
Urban Harvest drags on beyond belief, with little life invested in the film-making or the performances. Everything in the film inspires laughter - the exaggerated acting; the phoney make-up, and the ludicrous death scenes. Seeing someone get attacked by floating corn is never impressive folks, and the director really needs to learn a thing or two about pacing. This film has none. Before you know it, the venture has collapsed into incomprehensible silliness - a woman lighting a cigarette sets her head on fire; another flees from a patch of corn only to trip and impale her head on a broken pipe; while a couple has large insects burrow through their skulls. Still, nothing is wackier than the conclusion, in which that old chestnut “He who walks behind the rows” makes his appearance. As one reviewer described it, the manifestation “looks like nothing more than a giant Lovecraftian puppy dog”. In fact, the only fun I received from this garbage, was to see the familiar faces of Nicholas Brendon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and an uncredited Charlize Theron along the way. Even they are little compensation here.
Despite the tired efforts of these sequels, I still recommend the original film (which Anchor Bay have released separately). It’s far from the best King adaptation, but certainly warrants a rent. And what of this box set? Only Children of the Corn devotees need apply.
The subsequent films were:- Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996), Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998), Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return (1999) and Children of the Corn: Revelation (2001).
Anchor Bay once again go beyond the call of duty to give these films the best possible presentation. A neat three-disc box set, fans of the franchise should be happy with the outcome.
The Look and Sound
All three films are anamorphically-enhanced at 1.85:1, and they look as good as can be expected. Naturally, I was more concerned with the original film, but was pleasantly surprised with the quality of these ageing materials. Due to the budget, and twenty years of use, the first film will never look extraordinary. It does however, improve upon previous releases. The picture is clear of any major artefacts, and print damage is non-existent. A light coating of grain does cover the image (and noticeably so), but most will dislike the weakness of colour throughout. The outdoor scenes fare better, but there’s a washed-out look to the proceedings. That said, Children of the Corn is given a sharp overhaul, that should impress long-time fans. The transfers for Final Sacrifice and Urban Harvest are stronger, with a deeper colour palette, and few problems. Ultimately, AB have done another commendable job.
The audio (as always) is a mixed bag, and there’s only so much you can do in this area. Anchor Bay once again introduce a variety of different options, most of which seem pointless considering the materials at hand. All of the films are given Stereo 2.0 tracks, along with the customary 5.1 and DTS mixes. The first film really doesn’t benefit from such recent technology - there is a lack of surround activity, with the action mainly coming from the front speakers. The sequels are a little more active, with a nice atmosphere generated. Still, only the 2.0 option seems valid, with the other mixes thrown in for good measure. The sound for all three is clear, vibrant and reasonably exciting, so you’ll definitely be happy. In most respects, Children of the Corn looks and sounds the best it ever has.
Highly stylised, the menu scheme is similar across all three discs. They’re also animated, with sound effects and film footage used to spruce up the proceedings. AB have always done well in this area, and the box set continues their high standard.
For Children of the Corn’s 20th Anniversary, Anchor Bay have put together a decent package, which showcases their usual care and attention. It’s not crammed, but definitely better than expected.
Audio Commentary by Fritz Kiersch, producer Terence Kirby, John Franklin and Courtney Gains
Recorded recently, the group are clearly jazzed about doing an audio commentary. Kiersch certainly has plenty to say about the film - sighting its influences and core inspiration (King’s reaction is kept to a minimum, but Night Shift is discussed). Kirby acts like a moderator, keeping the group involved, and throwing several questions into the mix. Meanwhile, Franklin and Gains add much of the humour, giving the track a jovial feel. Fans will be well-served with this track, which covers a fair bit of ground and never falls into silence.
“Harvesting Horror: Children of the Corn”
AB wunderkind Perry Martin once again dons his producing hat, for this mildly diverting half-hour documentary. It features Kiersch, Kirby, Gains and Franklin, who share some interesting anecdotes and insight. There’s quite a bit of repetition with the commentary (and some professional backslapping), but it remains enjoyable. Martin oversees the featurette with a keen eye, inter-cutting the interview footage and film clips well. Definitely worth a look.
The first disc also includes the pretty bad vintage trailer (which spells King’s name incorrectly), biographies for King, Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton; a “Kid’s Artwork” title sequence gallery, and finally, a collection of storyboards and stills.
Audio Commentary by David Price, Ryan Bollman and filmmaker Mark Jones
The Final Sacrifice is given an hilarious lambasting by the commentators, who treat the affair well. There is never a dull moment, with Mark Jones probing his fellow filmmaker for insight into the production, between the piss-taking. Price takes the jokes well, and is well aware of the films weaknesses, which makes this commentary highly enjoyable. Bollman also chimes in with humorous insight, and it is clear that the group enjoyed making this picture. One of those rare tracks that gives the film a much-needed boost of life...
The second film is complemented by biographies, film notes, the theatrical trailer, and a stills gallery.
Unfortunately, Urban Harvest is given the barebones treatment (which was hardly a shock). All we have here, are some biographies, film notes, and the trailer.
On another note, the discs are housed in an impressive “moving scythe” lenticular cover, which includes a fairly insightful booklet of liner notes. Another cracking job from Anchor Bay.
An above-average slasher film is given a golden release here, and fans of Children of the Corn will be well served with this comprehensive box set. The sequels may be too bad for words, but the original makes an ideal viewing at those post-Halloween parties. Just pray you don’t live next to a cornfield...