Something unspeakable is alive in the cornfields of rural Gatlin, Nebraska, where a boy preacher has led the village’s children in a slaughter of all the adults. But when a traveling couple (Linda Hamilton of Terminator 2 and Peter Horton of thirtysomething) stumble across this deserted town, they became prisoners of child madman Isaac, his henchman Malachai and their kid cult of unholy believers. Judgment Day has arrived: Will the blood of the ‘outlanders’ flow in sacrifice to their god or is the final fury of “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” coming for them all?
Courtney Gains, John Franklin and R.G. Armstrong co-star in this horror hit that has already spawned six sequels and remains one of the most popular adaptations of any Stephen King story.
eyelights: the plot. Isaac. Malachai. the eerie score.
eyesores: some of the staging. the special effects.
“And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” – Isaiah 11:6
‘Children of the Corn’ is one of the earliest Stephen King movies that I’ve seen; it left enough of an impression on me that I was receptive to watching other films based on his works for years to come – until the mid-’90s, after many lackluster TV movies had disappointed me. I don’t remember if I had read the short story by then, but I still recall just how eagerly I devoured and savoured the collection it was from, ‘Night Shift’.
To this day, I consider ‘Children of the Corn’ a solid horror film.
King’s story takes us to Nebraska, on the road with Burt and Vicky, who are bickering their way to Seattle, where Burt has landed a job as a physician. Bored by the seas of corn stretching out endlessly on either side of the small highway, they become too distracted to prevent themselves from hitting a young boy who abruptly crosses their path. In a panic, they decide to bring the dead boy to the closest town, Gaitlin.
Little do they know that the boy was, in fact, trying to escape Gaitlin. Nor could they ever guess why.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
A few years ago, the children of Gaitlin got together and rid themselves of all the adults in a bloody mass-slaughter. The picture sets up its eerie tone by showing us the cull from the onset, before anything else, with no explanation or background history on the children; they just mysteriously show up and kill every adult in sight. There’s nothing scarier than danger without discernible motive; you simply can’t reason away the incomprehensible.
All we know is that Gaitlin is an extremely dangerous place to be – a notion that is made even more concrete once we see the boy try to escape and realize that NO ONE ever escapes Gaitlin. Because, not only are the children out of control, but there’s something lurking in the corn fields – something that will prevent anyone from getting out alive. What it is, we don’t know, but it will soon be referred to as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows”. Brrr…
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
What I like is that, after its first volley of terror, ‘Children of the Corn’ takes its sweet time setting the mood, sparingly adding to the disquieting vibe as Burt and Vicky get lost trying to find Gaitlin, going around in circles, claustrophobically trapped between walls of corn, only to find themselves in a desolate rural area that feels very much like a ghost town. Except that we know it isn’t: the silence is merely an omen of what lies in wait.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Personally, I find the core concepts utterly chilling: Based on some peculiar religious belief, all adults must die, as do kids who hit their 19th year – who are then sacrificed to “He Who Walks Behind the Rows”. It takes zealotry to an almost surreal level, something I consider scary as Hell; religion is based on faith, not logic, so if that faith can be ingrained and then twisted, planted there is the root of any number of ills and evils.
The same can be said for any cultish behaviour, actually (ex: the cult of personality).
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
One of the key components in creating the picture’s mood is Jonathan Elias’ score, which crosses children’s lullabies with atmospheric choirs à la ‘The Omen‘. It was his first film score and remains his most famous. And rightly so: it’s simple, but perfectly eerie and effective: when the older children creep up on their prey to this music, there’s nothing more chilling – you know that all sorts of foul deeds are planned, and will likely take place.
Another one is the cast. Filled mostly with non-actors or actors making their feature-film debuts, as one might expect from a cast that consists mostly of children, the filmmakers made two very judicious choices in the casting of Malachai and Isaac:
- Courtney Gains is scary as heck as Malachai, the group’s enforcer, with his feral eyes and massive gaping mouth (which is only second to Steven Tyler’s). He’s not an excellent actor here, but he would manage a respectable career afterwards, which one would assume means he learned his craft. For all his weaknesses as a performer, he has a terrific presence in ‘Children of the Corn’; I can’t help but shudder the moment that he’s on screen. I’m also quite impressed by that awesome fiery mane of his.
- John Franklin is veritably eerie as Isaac, the group’s leader, with his sharp gaze and screechy voice. He also isn’t superb, but he has an intensity that belies his character’s age (the fact is that Franklin was 24 at the time, but suffers from GHD, which is why he is so short and looks so young). One can see why he has totally captured and rules the rest of children: he has that same maniacal conviction that would sway weaker, less defiant minds.
The filmmakers made a wise decision in picking tested actors for the parts of Vicky and Burt, however; as the people we must relate to the most, they need to be convincing, real. They struck gold with Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton, both at the beginnings of their careers and soon to make it big on television (she with ‘Beauty and the Beast’, he with ‘thirtysomething’). While neither are exceptional, they are both solid enough to do the trick.
‘Children of the Corn’ is not particularly proficient technically, however. There are editing errors here and there along the way (ex: the boy changes positions while lying on the highway), some of the staging is weak (ex: how the boy was hit by Burt and Vicky), and the special effects leave something to be desired (let’s just say that He Who Walks Behind the Rows is better in concept than in execution) but it’s a pretty excellent horror film by ’80s standards.
In fact, even though it rates poorly in many avenues (including the imdb), I never knew anyone who wasn’t left with a strong impression by it: it’s too unusual to be easily forgotten, which is pretty telling. Plus which it’s developed quite the cult following over the years (oh, irony!), spawning a series of films that includes seven sequels and a 2009 television remake.
In my mind, ‘Children of the Corn’ remains very effective. Even as it falls prey to the slipshod production quality of late ’70s-early ’80s horror cinema, it does a fine job of setting up and sustaining a feeling of unease. There is little chance that anyone could pass through a desolate town without feeling echoes of this picture after having seen it. And cornfields will forever remind one of He Who Walks Behind the Rows.
Date of viewing: October 20, 2013