Stephen King remains as prescient a cultural force in 2019 as he was back in the 80s when a substantial body of his work was adapted to film. This year alone, there are several new properties in development or on the cusp of release (here’s looking at you, Pet Sematary). It seems appropriate, then, that one of the early seminal film adaptations of a King property is celebrating a milestone: Children of the Corn is 35 years young.
Adapted from a 1977 short story of the same name, Children of the Corn debuted in theatres on March 9, 1984. The film stars Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton as Vicky and Burt, a young couple on a cross country road trip en route to Seattle. In rural Nebraska, the pair are involved in a traffic accident: they hit a young boy who runs onto the highway with their car. In an attempt to save his life, Vicki and Burt stumble into the unusual town of Gatlin, where there are no adults and the only inhabitants are cult-worshipping children beholden to an unseen deity named He Who Walks Behind The Rows.
Children of the Corn preys on horror’s pervasive fear that children will become malevolent and turn on their parents. It’s a not uncommon theme, though it is more often relegated to a single nefarious individual (The Bad Seed, The Good Son, Orphan, etc) or there is some kind of extraterrestrial or viral element (Village of the Damned, Cooties).
Where Children of the Corn differs is in the unconventional nature of the relationship between the age groups: Vicki and Burt don’t know the children of Gatlin so they have no qualms about fighting for their survival (typically parents will attempt to negotiate or reconcile with their kids, which never goes well for them). Of course, since it is 1984, there’s an obvious gendered dynamic in the way that Kurt is more outwardly aggressive, whereas Vicki takes a shine to Job (Robby Kiger) and his sister Sarah (Anne Marie McEvoy), the sole children who refuse to follow cult-leader Isaac (John Franklin) and his right-hand lackey, Malachi (Courtney Gains).
Arguably one of the film’s most enduring and impressive scenes is its opening, in which the citizens of Gatlin exit church and head to the local diner for food. As Isaac watches from outside, wearing his trademark wide brimmed black Preacher’s hat, the children inside lock the doors and go to work dispatching the adults in a variety of gruesome ways (poison, stabbings and even a hand in the meat grinder!) In this short five minute scene, the power and influence of Isaac is laid bare, the age discrepancy between victims and aggressors is established and Sarah’s prophetic dreams are introduced.
Rewatching Children of the Corn 35 years later produces a bit of an odd disconnect. While the foundation for a solid horror film is evident, particularly the idea of murderous child cultists and a paranormal-religious antagonist who manifests in the corn, the film itself isn’t particularly memorable.
There is a lot of residual goodwill for Linda Hamilton, who at the time was on the cusp of her big break-through in The Terminator the same year. Her character Vicki, however, is unexceptional; Vicki is a fairly one-dimension character regulated by fairly traditional gender norms. For most of the film, she acts as the stand-in mother for two orphaned children and then she is relegated to a typical damsel in distress when she is abducted by Malachi so she can be sacrificed (This leads to one of my all-time favourite horror lines, when Malachi yells to Burt: “Outlander, we have your woman!”)
Horton is even more forgettable. Burt is an aggressive hot-headed bore and Horton plays him without much charisma or likeability. He’s a generic action lead…except that he’s in a horror film.
The villainous children fare best. With his shock of red hair, puberty-cracking voice and significant height difference over Franklin, Gains is memorable for a variety of reasons. As an antagonist, Malachi is an inherently hateable character whom audiences can root against, although his desperation for power and lack of patience for Isaac is surprisingly relatable.
The most striking element of Children of the Corn, however, is John Franklin’s performance as Isaac. The actor suffered from growth hormone deficiency as a child, so his height as an adult was barely five feet tall, which allowed him to play the villainous head of the Corn cult when he was 24 years old (Fun fact: he’s also Cousin It in The Adams Family). The aforementioned hat and preacher’s costume, as well as Franklin’s mature and commanding performance, establish the character as a legitimate threat to the more physically imposing adults. Isaac’s unwavering self-confidence, his moral superiority as the supposed human avatar of He Who Walks Behind The Rows and his authoritative religious hysteria is highly watchable (contrast this with the less compelling performances by Kiger and McEvoy, who are clearly novice child actors).
Thirty-five years later, it’s still a little surprising that Children of the Corn heralded the start of a ten film franchise that continues to churn out new entries every few years. Not unlike other belaboured horror franchises caught up in intellectual property loops (ie: Hellraiser), the majority of the far-less ambitious Corn sequels share only the slightest connective tissue with the original film or King’s source material. And yet, there’s an undeniable appeal in the idea of murderous children lurking in the corn rows, waiting to murder unsuspecting adults who wander into their midst.
Perhaps one day we’ll bear witness to the return of He Who Walks Behind The Rows in a film that does the premise justice. Until then, stay away from the corn if you should find yourself in rural Nebraska.