‘Children of the Corn’ (officially entitled ‘Stephen King’s Children of the Corn’) is a 1984 horror film based on Stephen King’s 1977 short story of the same name. An American production, it was directed by Fritz Kiersch, and starred Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton, John Franklin, Courtney Gains, Robby Kiger, Anne Marie McEvoy, Julie Maddalena and R.G. Armstrong.
“In the drought-stricken prairie lands of Nebraska, the corn crop has failed. Nothing survives in the arid soil and people pray for rain. Into the small community of Gatlin comes a sinister boy preacher, with a message for the children – only human blood will restore life to the parched earth and revive the dying corn. So it is that all the adults perish one hot Sunday, as their sons and daughters obey the savage commands of Isaac and his bloodthirsty executioner Malachai..
..three years later a young couple on their way through Nebraska get lost on the maze of roads around Gatlin and stumble into the seemingly deserted township. But here every adult must die..“
The film tells the story of a religious cult of children who worship a malevolent entity known only as ‘he who walks behind the rows’. Under the direction of one of the children, the others have been lured into ritually murdering all of the adults in the (fictitious) rural town of Gatlin, Nebraska, in return for a successful corn harvest and ultimately salvation.
Although King himself wrote an original draft of the screenplay, it was rejected in favour of one by George Goldsmith. King was keen to focus on the characters of Burt and Vicky and the uprising of the children in Gatlin. Goldsmith wrote a more conventional narrative, which was more violent and ultimately won the favour of the producers. The film was mostly shot in Whiting (see this page from Google maps) and Salix, Iowa with some filming taking place in California.
Although largely panned by the critics upon release, the film has amassed a cult following, has spawned several sequels and is arguably better known than the original short story.
I first remember seeing ‘Children of the Corn’ at my friend’s house in late 1985. It must have got a quick release on VHS, as this was only a year or so after its theatrical release. He must have got his dad to rent it and had kept going on about how good the short story was. I think we must have watched it late on Friday night, as I remember we had come back from town and got a bag of chips on the way home, which was a bit of a routine in our early teenage years.
I really didn’t know what to make of it at first, it was unusual to say the least.. ..but I was intrigued right from the ‘bloody‘ start and we carried on watching. By the end of the film I was gripped and wanted more Stephen King stories in my life.. ..I had also recently watched ‘Salem’s Lot’ and thought that was fantastic as well.
It was at this point, due largely to my mate, that I got into reading King.. ..so I have a lot to thank my friend for.. ..you know who you are!
Synopsis (contains spoilers)
Set in the fictional, rural town of Gatlin, Nebraska we are introduced to a small agricultural community whose entire livelihood seems dependent upon the extensive cornfields that surround the town for miles. Apart from the clean, but basic church, the town of Gatlin seems somewhat neglected.. ..religion is clearly important to the residents as the children have Biblical names in favour of more contemporary ones.. ..one year the corn crop fails and we see the townsfolk leaving the church, having prayed for divine intervention to ensure a better harvest.
However, a small and somewhat creepy 12 year old, who we later find out is called Isaac Chroner (John Franklin), indoctrinates all of children in Gatlin into a religious cult, performing alternative ceremonies in the corn fields. This cult is based around a bloodthirsty deity known only as ‘he who walks behind the rows’. Isaac and his subordinate, a blood thirsty 18 year old named Malachai (Courtney Gains), lead the children in revolution against all of the adults, sacrificing everyone who is aged 19 or above. Only two children, Job (Robby Kiger) and his sister Sarah (Anne Marie McEvoy) don’t take part in the meetings as Job’s father is distrustful of Isaac and Sarah is at home suffering from a sudden fever. After the church service Job is taken to the café as a treat by his father but ends up witnessing the murders taking place.. ..his father is on a pay phone to his mother, checking in on Sarah when he is struck down and we hear the same thing happening to his mother on the other end of the phone.
Through Job’s narration we begin to understand what happened that day, adding that his sister started to have visions, which she began to draw. As the titles roll, Sarah’s drawings show that all of the adults across the town were murdered that day and then sacrificed in the cornfield.. ..including those in positions of trust and authority such as the priest and a police man, who’s skeletal corpse is later introduced as the ‘the blue man’. Telephones, TV’s, radio’s and other forms of entertainment were also destroyed and the children began to tend to the corn. The final picture is of a yellow sedan outside of a motel.
Three years later we are introduced to a young couple, Vicky (Linda Hamilton) and Bert (Peter Horton). It is October 31, 1983, Burt’s birthday and they are staying in the motel drawn by Sarah. Vicky and Burt are travelling through rural Nebraska (in their yellow sedan) headed for Seattle, where Burt will soon start working as a newly qualified physician. They soon get lost on the roads surrounding the vast corn fields, receiving only religious broadcasts on the car’s radio. It becomes apparent that after a while they have inadvertently started to drive around in circles, it being obvious that someone has been tampering with the road signs, which all seem to mention Gatlin.
At the same time a boy named Joseph (Jonas Marlowe) attempts to flee from the cult in Gatlin, but is attacked in the cornfields.. ..he stumbles into the road and is hit by Burt’s car as he and Vicky are distracted looking at a map. At first they fear that they have accidentally killed the child, but when Burt takes a look at his corpse he has obviously had his throat cut. They place the boy’s body in the trunk of their car and drive off to look for a phone to report the murder.. ..Burt had briefly looked into the cornfield and although the audience gets a glimpse of the murderer Burt does not see them, but senses someone is there (they must be, as the boy had only just been killed).
Driving off they are still being diverted by road signs, but eventually come across an old gas station and an elderly mechanic (R. G. Armstrong), seemingly the last adult in Gatlin. He refuses them help stating that “I ain’t got no telephone” and “I ain’t got no gas or diesel fuel”, neither. He warns them to ignore Gatlin stating, “There ain’t nothing in Gatlin.. ..folks in Gatlin have got religion!”, they don’t take to outsiders and wouldn’t have phones, either. He suggests they go to Hemingford, which although further away would be a better destination. As the couple leave with their unfortunate cargo, we see that the mechanic is stalked by an unseen assailant.. ..until now he has been spared by the child cult because he supplies them with fuel. However, Malachi suspects that he discussed the cult with Burt and Vicky and kills him, breaking the pact against Isaac’s commands.
Finally, they enter Gatlin, after following more amended road signs and ending up driving along dirt tracks surrounding the corn. Vicky and Burt explore the abandoned town, it seems deserted and neglected save for corn stems covering everything. They then see some children at their car who run off when they give chase.. ..driving on they come across a house on the edge of town and stop to find Sarah playing alone, after Burt sees a door closing. Sarah tells the couple about Isaac their leader and Malachai and they see her drawings.
Burt goes back and searches the town, while Vicky stays with Sarah. Malachai and his followers appear, capturing Vicky. They take her to the cornfield, where she is placed on a cross to be sacrificed. Meanwhile, Burt enters a church where a congregation of children, led by a girl named Rachel (Julie Maddalena), are performing a cultural birthday ritual for her boyfriend (John Philbin). His name is Amos and he has cut his chest in the shape of a pentagram, collecting his blood for the congregation to drink. Since Amos has now turned 19, he is now considered an adult and will be sacrificed. Burt horrified by what he is witnessing scolds the children for participating in an abhorrent blood ritual. This enrages Rachel and Burt is chased by Malachai and the other children, who are intent on killing him. Job then rescues Burt and they hide in a fallout shelter with Sarah, learning that Vicky has been captured by the cult.
After losing Burt, the zealous Isaac scolds Malachai for his treachery with the old man at the gas station and for killing Joesph, neither of which were sanctioned. Malachai has tired of Isaac’s preaching and overthrows him, demanding he be sacrifice instead of Vicky. Isaac warns Malachai that sacrificing him will break their pact with ‘he who walks behind the rows’ and the children will be severely punished. At night, Burt sneaks into the cornfield to rescue Vicky and during Isaac’s sacrifice, a supernatural light appears and devours the screaming Isaac. Burt then emerges from the corn and fights Malachai, but Isaac suddenly reappears, his corpse revived by ‘he who walks behind the rows’. He approaches Malachai stating that “he wants you too, Malachai!” and breaks the terrified Malachai’s neck.
A storm suddenly appears over the cornfield and Burt takes Vicky and the children to shelter in a barn. They read a passage in the Bible that implies the cornfield must be destroyed to stop the false god. Burt then rigs the irrigation system and sprays the cornfield with gasohol (as seen in Sarah’s drawings at the start of the film; also apparently what the ‘blue man’ was planning before his demise); tossing a Molotov cocktail into the field . The corn is set alight and destroys ‘he who walks behind the rows’, along with Isaac.
Vicky, Burt, Job, and Sarah return to their car to leave Gatlin, only to find it ruined and full of corn husks. As a final jump-scare, Rachel suddenly appears and attacks Burt, but he quickly knocks her out using the car door.
Burt and Vicky decide to adopt Job and Sarah as they start walking out of Gatlin, to their freedom and new lives together.
What did the critics think?
Upon release the film got largely panned.. ..Roger Ebert from the ‘Chicago Sun Times’ stating, “By the end of Children of the Corn, the only thing moving behind the rows is the audience, fleeing to the exits“.
However, in the intervening years it has received more mixed scores and has garnered somewhat of a ‘cult’ status.. ..indeed it has created a horror franchise with several sequels, of varied quality.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the ‘Children of the Corn’ holds an approval rating of 36% based on 25 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 4/10. Metacritic, which assigns a normalised rating to reviews, gives the film a weighted average score of 45 out of 100, based on 6 critics, indicating ‘mixed or average reviews’.
Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote, “As such movies go, Children of the Corn is fairly entertaining, if you can stomach the gore and the sound of child actors trying to talk in something that might be called farm-belt biblical“. Ian Nathan from Empire Magazine gave the film 3/5 stars, commending the film’s originality, but criticising the film’s obvious budgetary constraints, poor effects, and “ludicrous monster movie denouement“. Rolling Stone ranked the film at #7 in their list of ‘Top 30 Stephen King Movies’, calling it “a lean, brutally tense slasher film“.
Remade for TV
In June 2008, it was confirmed that Donald P. Borchers would begin writing and directing a TV remake of the first film, which would premiere on the ‘Syfy‘ channel. Production began in August, filming in Davenport, Iowa; however, it was later moved to Lost Nation, Iowa.
The cast includes David Anders, Kandyse McClure, Preston Bailey, Daniel Newman and Alexa Nikolas. The movie aired on September 26, 2009, and the DVD was released on October 6, 2009, by Anchor Bay. The television remake closely follows the story line from King’s original the short-story.. ..not that of the original film. I think it is a good remake and I would recommend you give it a watch, but I still prefer the film version reviewed here.
‘Children of the Corn’ was soon released on VHS and Betamax, probably due to the poor responses to the theatrical release. Indeed, in the UK it was (along with ‘Salem’s Lot’ and many others) released to video, pre-certification.. ..so you can find ex-rental tapes for sale without the familiar BBFC roundel.
Of note for the DVD releases is the Anchor Bay ‘Special Edition Boxed Set’, which was released in 2004, when Anchor Bay were doing some really nice horror boxed sets (really they started a current trend). It contains a 16:9 anamorphic version of the film and a DTS soundtrack, with a host of extras.. ..it also comes with ‘Children of the Corn II: the Final Sacrifice‘ and ‘Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest‘, which also receive the same treatment as the first film. At the time of release this was probably the premier version of the film and some editions even feature a lenticular cover with the scythe in poster image moving in a downwards ‘chop’.
In recent years the film has been released on Blu-ray and there are two versions of note. The version by 88 Films, as volume 13 of their ‘Slasher Classics Collection’, which is a really nice package and can also be brought with ‘Children of the Corn II: the Final Sacrifice‘ and ‘Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest‘, as the ‘Children of the Corn Trilogy‘.
However, it is the Arrow Video ‘Special Edition’ which really ‘packs a punch’, although it remains unfortunately, only a region ‘A’ release. It features a new 4K restoration from the original 35 mm camera negative and the results are generally very good, if a little grainy in darker scenes. Detail is very high in all respects and whilst the colours pop when given the chance, Arrow is always careful to ensure that skin tones and textures appear suitably natural. There are two audio options available; English 2.0 LPCM and English 5.1 DTS-HD. I personally find the stereo track to be a more pleasing as the 5.1 surround doesn’t offer much in terms activity. Some occasional low-frequency work is to be found, particularly during the film’s final moments. The 2.0 track is as immersive with clear dialogue reproduction, good sound effects and plenty of room for the score to breathe; without any perceptible distortion or hiss.
However, where Arrow really shines is their extras.. ..and on this release there is loads. Nearly everything from previous releases has been included, but also so much more. There’s an audio commentary by director Fritz Kiersch, producer Terrence Kirby and actors John Franklin and Courtney Gains. An audio commentary with horror journalist Justin Beahm and film historian John Sullivan. ‘Harvesting Horror: Children of the Corn‘ is an interesting retrospective documentary. ‘It Was the Eighties!‘ is an interview with actress Linda Hamilton. ‘And a Child Shall Lead Them‘ interviews actors Julie Maddalena and John Philbin. ‘Field of Nightmares‘ contains an interview with writer George Goldsmith. ‘Stephen King on a Shoestring‘ is an interview with producer Donald P. Borchers. ‘Welcome to Gatlin: The Sights and Sounds of Children of the Corn‘ contains interviews with production designer Craig Stearns and composer Jonathan Elias. There is an excellent ‘Return to Gatlin: The Filming Locations of Children of the Corn‘, hosted by John Sullivan. ‘Cut from the Cornfield‘, interviews actor Rich Kleinberg about the lost ‘Blue Man’ scene. Finally, there is an animated storyboard gallery as well as the original theatrical trailer, a short film adaptation of ‘Children of the Corn‘ called ‘Disciples of the Crow‘ which was made one year prior to the release of the film, a beautiful double-sided poster and a 28-page insert booklet with essays by John Sullivan and Lee Gambin, which include restoration details.
It’s not perfect.. ..there are a couple small things missing, including the original script via DVD-ROM which was included in the Anchor Bay DVD release and ‘The Life, Legacy and Legend of Don Borchers‘ documentary from the 88 Films Blu-ray release.. ..but that’s about it!
For long-time fans of ‘Children of the Corn‘ I would obviously recommend you get the Arrow Video release, but it is region ‘A’ only.. ..so if you don’t have a multi-region player, the 88 Films version is a more than decent alternative.
‘Children of the Corn‘ is clearly not a classic film, neither is it a classic horror film.. ..but I certainly would’t recommend you ignore it. The pacing, some of the dialogue and special effects in particular can be poor, especially from a contemporary perspective. However, for me this film is simply more than the sum of it component parts and what it delivers, it delivers well.. ..it is a brutally tense slasher movie.. ..one of the best, in my opinion.
It’s easy to see why the film has gained such a ‘cult’ following, spawned a seemingly endless number of sequels and been released on nearly every video format known to woman, or man. This is a film that starts as it means to go on and it comes highly recommended from me!
The 2009 made for TV remake is also entertaining and interesting.. ..but for different reasons, it certainly follows the original Stephen King short-story more accurately, but that doesn’t mean it’s the better film.. ..both this version and the original story are arguably less well known than the 1984 film reviewed here, which is a testament to its quality and enduring fan base.
Ironically, although it strays away from King’s original short-story.. ..this was this film which led me into a very long love affair with Stephen King novels.
- If you look closely, there is a copy of Stephen King’s ‘Night Shift’ on the dashboard of Burt and Vicki’s 1977 Buick LeSabre. King’s original short-story version of ‘Children of the Corn’, was first published in this book.
- In the original trailer for the film ‘Stephen King’ is miss-spelt as ‘Steven King’.
- “And a child shall lead them” is an amended version of Isaiah 11, verse 6 found in the Old Testament.
- The effect of ‘He who walks behind the rows’ was made using an upended wheelbarrow, with extra wheels attached to the ‘bottom’. It is was set on rails in a trench and dubbed the ‘Turtle’. Covered in a tarpaulin, soil and vermiculite, a tractor would then pull the device along, creating the effect. Special effects supervisor Wayne Beauchamp has also revealed that the trench was dug by a local Boy Scouts group, who were interested in film special effects.
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