Children of the Corn was released the same year as Firestarter, and the two share the fundamental problems that plague many, many Stephen King film adaptations. They have compelling setups but disappointing executions. They’re brought down by pedestrian direction, and a lack of narrative development. Where most King novels have you turning the page in anticipation, fear, excitement, or some combination of the three, too many of their corresponding film adaptations have you checking the runtime to see how much more longer you have to endure the mediocrity.
Based on King’s short story from the Night Shift anthology, Children of the Corn is set in the fictional town of Gatlin, Nebraska. The opening scene has a young boy named Job (Robby Kiger) narrating the Sunday morning the town lost its way. Him and his father left church and went to a local diner, like they did every week, only this time, a group of kids entered the restaurant and slit the throats of every adult inside.
When the town’s corn crops failed one year, the adults in the community prayed for a bountiful harvest. A sinister young boy named Isaac (John Franklin) took the opportunity to become a preacher. Isaac and his subordinate Malachi (Courtney Gains) gathered the children of Gatlin into the corn crops and indoctrinated them to carry out a mass-murder of all the adults in town. It was all in the name of a deity referred to as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” Three years later, the town has no adults and the children work in servitude to appease their God, and His alleged human mouthpiece in Isaac.
It’s about this time that Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton) are driving through Nebraska on the way to Seattle for his new job as a physician. On a long, lonely backroad, they discover a murdered boy, and wind up inadvertently driving in circles in an attempt to find some help. They wander into Gatlin where they unexpectedly become the hunted, all while trying to wrap their minds around what kind of higher power has overtaken these kids to commit such heinous acts of violence.
The themes of blind faith, cultist mindsets, and the irony inherent to religion. But you don’t get more than a flavoring of that with George Goldsmith’s script, which, despite a commitment to suspense, leaves too many details fuzzy. King’s framework of letting this story unfold from the perspective of two straight adults is a logical one, but Goldsmith does nothing to make Burt and Vicky a less charismatic version of Brad and Janet. If anything, Job and his sister Sarah (Anne Marie McEvoy) would’ve been the ideal gateway into this world, even if have resorted to spending the bulk of their lives in their parents’ cellar. How nobody has thought to open those cellar doors in over three years is a mystery you’d have to ask He Who Walks Behind the Rows himself.
Children of the Corn excels at one major element, however. Its suspense is routinely strong, a credit to clear editing by Harry Keramidas, unnerving chords by composer Jonathan Elias, and director Fritz Kiersch. The opening scene is filled with the type of dread you experience when something about your surrounding just feels off. The scenes amidst the rows of corn are underscored by a region so isolated, you ostensibly hear the precocious pipes of Franklin’s preaching reverberate for miles. Shot mostly in a handful of sleepy-and-or-desolate Iowa farm-towns, João Fernandes’ camerawork is put to great use. If only the screenplay carried its own weight in the process.
Children of the Corn‘s climax fails not due to its special effects — which I admittedly found pleasant, given the era — but because of the problems that handicap it leading up to the denouement. Goldsmith’s script is patchy in the trenches, specifically when it comes to justifying the faith the young children have in this corn-based deity (His doctrine is flimsy to say the least, at least insofar as Isaac communicates it). It’s rare to find an unsuccessful horror movie that’s best attribute is its suspense, but consider momentarily eerie scene-setting or the unsettling nature of Gains’ performance as build-up for a payoff that might’ve worked had more care went into the foundation holding the entire project up.
The idea of watching the nine sequels (!) this thing managed to produce off of said foundation frightens me more than being called an “Outlander” in a yee haw town.
NOTE: As of this writing, Children of the Corn is available to stream on PLEX, Tubi, YouTube, and various other platforms, free of charge.
Starring: Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton, John Franklin, Courtney Gains, Robby Kiger, Anne Marie McEvoy, and R. G. Armstrong. Directed by: Fritz Kiersch.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!