In this edition of The Silver Liningwe’ll be covering Fritz Kiersch‘s Stephen King adaptation, Children of the Corn!
Having grown up in an extremely protestant environment, I’ve always found the phenomena of child preachers and religious indoctrination to be a particularly terrifying subject. It’s likely that Stephen King thinks the same, as there’s no shortage of faith-based terror in the author’s half century of writing. From fire and brimstone fanaticism to bible-thumping antagonists, it’s clear that the writer has a knack for stories about folks who use faith as an excuse to commit atrocities.
One of the most notable of these religious tales is his infamous Children of the Corn. Part of the Night Shift collection, this 1977 short story describes a couple that comes across a small Nebraska town that has been taken over by a horrific cult of pious children led by a maniacal preteen. Trapped in the middle of nowhere, the couple is forced to fight against the murderous youngsters lest they be sacrificed to “He Who Walks Behind the Rows”.
With the rising “King Fever” of the 80s, it makes sense that the screen rights to Children of the Corn were eventually purchased by Hal Roach Studios, with first-time director Fritz Kiersch set to direct the picture. King himself actually turned in a draft of the script, but it was ultimately rejected by the higher-ups and George Goldsmith was hired to replace him. While the writer ultimately delivered a relatively faithful adaptation of the story (minus a few Hollywood embellishments and a more up-beat ending), he has gone on to claim that his adaptation is secretly a metaphor for the Iranian revolution.
With the script in place, a pre-Terminator Linda Hamilton was cast as our leading lady alongside Peter Hortonwith the 23-year-old John Franklin famously earning the role of the villainous Isaac by threatening a casting assistant with a prop knife. Hot off the heels of other successful Stephen King adaptations like Carrie, Christine and even The Dead Zoneit makes sense that fans were excited for another cinematic scare-fest from the Master of Horror.
SO WHAT WENT WRONG?
While Children of the Corn ultimately made an impressive $ 14.6 million off a production budget of less than a million (which I think justifies the fact that it’s currently the Stephen King property with the largest amount of sequels and reboots), the movie currently sits at a woeful 36% on Rotten Tomatoes. As it stands, most contemporary critics agree that the flick’s cheesy stylings end up sabotaging a genuinely interesting premise.
After all, a cult of homicidal children is an inherently better idea for literature, with the scary child trope being a lot less effective when we can see the ridiculousness of their religious revolution. Many of the film’s “action” scenes border on comical, as it takes more than the element of surprise to convince me that the children of a small town could easily overpower their elders without suffering any considerable losses along the way. This kind of imagery may be suitably creepy in the written word, but it just does not translate well to the screen.
While Linda Hamilton and John Franklin are definitely standouts, even the biggest fan of the film has to admit that the performances are all over the place. It’s not exactly fair to expect Oscar-worthy performances from an ensemble of B-movie child actors, but the inexperienced thespians certainly take away from the story’s proposed horror (especially that corny narration).
There’s also the issue of much of the story feeling a lot like a Sunday stroll through a rural Nebraska town. While the lonely midwestern atmosphere can be creepy, the film suffers from severe pacing issues that keep it from being consistently interesting. There’s quite a bit of cheap padding here, with the filmmakers having been forced to cut and simplify several important scenes in order to finish the production. This is reportedly due to the picture’s original $ 1.3 million budget being unexpectedly reduced when Stephen King demanded a larger fee after his script was rejected.
Overall, Children of the Corn is a bit too cheap to be taken seriously, with bizarre tonal shifts and soundtrack choices combined with questionable effects resulting in a less-than-satisfying adaptation.
THE SILVER LINING
I only recently found out about the film’s negative reputation, having always just assumed that it was a horror staple due to its considerable cultural impact and the seemingly never-ending franchise that it spawned. In hindsight, Children of the Corn is definitely no masterpiece, but I’d argue that its low-budget thrills make it worth revisiting as a campy classic.
The experience is certainly far more “spooky” than “scary”, with the flick often feeling more like a cheesy 50s picture than something from the mid-80s, but these trashy elements grow on you after a while. The film is also a rare example of daylight horror that does not rely on extreme gore in order to be creepy, preferring to deal in subtle scares and plenty of atmosphere rather than diving into what could easily have turned into a child-centric slasher flick .
The mythology behind the cult is also just as interesting here as it was in the short story, with the constant unseen presence of “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” tying the whole experience together. The poignant commentary on how even innocent children can be pressured into violence if faith leads them to think that they’re doing the right thing is terrifying enough, but the added element of a Lovecraftian entity driving these kids to madness serves as horrific icing on an already-disturbing cake.
Of course, there’s no discussing this movie without bringing up John Franklin’s iconic take on Isaac. While I admit that the actor is hamming it up in the role, this is oddly appropriate when you consider the character’s real-world inspirations. You definitely get the sense that this child is simply emulating the chaotic energy of the fire-and-brimstone preachers that he’s seen before, ultimately becoming an unwitting vessel for the true evil of the story. That’s why I honestly think that Isaac stands out as one of the most memorable Stephen King antagonists out there.
It may be an excessively literal adaptation with a hefty amount of low-budget cheese, but Children of the Corn is still an entertaining b-picture. This particular Stephen King story works better on the page, but the film boasts enough retro charm to make it worth slogging through a couple of by-the-numbers scares to get to the good bits.
Watching a bad movie does not necessarily have to be a bad experience. Even the worst movies can boast a good idea or two, and that’s why we’re trying to look on the bright side with The Silver Liningwhere we shine a light on the best parts of traditionally maligned horror flicks.