October Horrorshow: Children of the Corn (1984)

This is a film that gave birth to ten, count them, ten, sequels and reboots? This mediocre, slapdash, and, at times, lazy film made enough money to spawn a franchise? There really is no accounting for taste.

From way back in 1984 comes the original Children of the Corn, an adaptation of a Stephen King short story. King worked up a draft for a screenplay, but producers ultimately went with a pile of pages written by George Goldsmith, with first-time director Fritz Kiersch at the helm. Kiersch was handed a budget of around $800k, and his gobbledegook somehow managed to rake in over 14 million bucks at the box office. That’s on us, folks.

So, it’s clear that I don’t think this is a very good movie. But, is it shitty? Yes, it is.

The film follows the worst day in the lives of Burt and Vicky (Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton), a young couple on a cross-country journey to Seattle, where Burt is set to begin a medical internship. They decide to stray off of the beaten path, into the corridors of tall corn that dominate the rural, Midwestern landscape in late summer. Too bad for them, then, that their route takes them near the fictional town of Gatlin, Nebraska (exteriors and locations were mostly shot in the small town of Whiting, Iowa, which, oddly, has a flagpole smack dab in the middle of its main intersection).

Gatlin has suffered from a deadly bout of religious fanaticism, when a teenage zealot from out of town, Isaac (John Franklin in his debut, and most iconic, performance), began preaching to the children of Gatlin about “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” — some sort of Children of the Corn 1984 movie posterdemon or demigod who demands that everyone in town over the age of nineteen be killed.

It’s three years later when Burt and Vicky wander on scene, and find their lives endangered by Isaac and his followers, but not before they manage to drive around and around. And around some more.

By the time all this driving around happens, Children is already on thin ice because of terrible narration. The narration is provided by one of the children, Job (Robby Kiger), and commits the worst sins of film narration. That is, it is superfluous. It adds no understanding to the narrative that audiences might have missed otherwise. It’s also poorly written, and Kiersch must have known this, because the narration is never heard again after about the halfway mark.

But back to the driving.

There was potential in this first act. Kiersch could have structured Burt and Vicky’s drive through the rural roads around Gatlin as a case study in tension. As they grow more lost, they grow more frantic. Every road they turn down seems to lead them in the direction of Gatlin, and every stop along the way shows them new horrors. There seems to be no escape. But this potential is lost when Kiersch chooses to cut to other scenes. Some of these cuts make no sense.

For example. At one point, Burt and Vicky are stopped nearby a sign that tells them Gatlin is a mere five miles away. They are being observed from a corn field by this film’s second bad guy, Malachai (Courtney Gains, also in his debut). Burt and Vicky set off again, in a car, remember. After they set off, Malacahai returns to Gatlin, scoops up a couple of kids there, takes them to Isaac’s chapel, has a conversation with Isaac, then has enough time to travel back through the fields to witness Burt and Vicky pull into a gas station a mile down the road from where they were. Then, after Burt and Vicky drive away again, there’s enough time for Malachai to return to town and join in one of Isaac’s sermons, where Isaac warns that these outsiders are on their way to Gatlin. This entire sequence is plagued by poor storytelling decisions that fail to take into account time and place of characters. If a viewer pays even marginal attention, it rips them right out of suspension of disbelief.

The idea behind this sequence is that no matter how far Burt and Vicky drive, they only get closer to Gatlin. But it’s an idea poorly executed. Oh, and the special effects stink, too.

Those types of missed opportunities amount to a style in this film. This is what it is. The character development is also rushed. Even though audiences are presented with backstory, it’s done away with so quickly that third act ramifications seem to come out of nowhere. From a shitty movie perspective, this can be considered a good thing, as this 92-minute-long film never bogs down.

Then there’s Franklin. His performance is not all that good, but it has since become his crowning achievement in film. It’s iconic in the horror genre, even. Franklin had a hormone deficiency as a child, resulting in stunted growth. This, combined with a natural effeminacy, gives Franklin an androgynous and ageless aspect. The character of Isaac is a living example of the uncanny valley. He’s one creepy fellow.

Something about this movie clicked with audiences in a way it has not with me. I see a movie that fell far short of its potential, with little good to recommend it. Children of the Corn falls into the bottom half of the Index, supplanting Steel and Lace at #250. Now, pardon me while I go watch all of the sequels.

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