The Series Project: Children of the Corn (Part 1)

 

I've been trying to track down the genesis of the “evil child” subgenre of horror. As far as I can tell, it all hinges on Patty McCormack's performance as the murderous li'l Rhoda in 1956's The Bad Seed. There was also the creepy original British version of Village of the Damned (1960) wherein a group of platinum blonde children with glowing eyes control the minds of the adults around them. And there was that one episode of The Twilight Zone  from 1961 wherein Bill Mumy was a 6-year-old with magical powers (later played by Jeremy Licht in the ill-advised 1983 film The Twilight Zone: The Movie). But it seems that the early days of horror (i.e. The Universal era) left children out of the equation. It wasn't until Stephen King came along that evil children experienced a boom. The 1980s not only saw Drew Barrymore in Firestarter and Miko Hughes in Pet Sematary, but was the origin of one of King's most resilient and oft-adapted stories Children of the Corn, which has been adapted to film 10 times from 1983 until 2011 in a film series that, like The Amityville Horror, has persevered longer than it has any right to.

Yes, ten times. I was as shocked as you were. Well, seeing as I am your stalwart reporter, and it's been a while since I've covered a horror series for The Series Project right here on CraveOnline, I thought it was high time that I tackle Children of the Corn. Strip yourselves down and grease yourselves up, kiddos, 'cause this one ain't gonna be pretty.

The canonical Children of the Corn series is eight films long, including the 2011 prequel Children of the Corn: Genesis. In addition, there was an amateur short film made in 1983 called Disciples of the Crow also based on the original Stephen King short story (and which I will also be covering) and a 2009 made-for-TV remake. I have also heard rumors of a second remake in the works, intended for theaters, but I severely doubt that film will ever get made. This means ten whole films to enjoy.

Each of the films takes place mostly in a remote part of the U.S., somewhere in one of the plains states, usually Nebraska. Each of the films concerns an evil cult of children who, for varying reasons, lash out at their elders, committing horrible acts of violence. The children are often led by a particularly wicked, demonic cult leader, also a child, whose identity will change in each film (with the exception of the sixth). Their masses are often held in a clearing in a cornfield, and in most of the films, they seem to worship a mysterious deity called He Who Walks Behind the Rows. Corn plays a large part in their rituals.

Is it me, or is corn not that scary? Seriously, I don't see it. Getting lost in a field of corn stalks, as high as an elephant's eye, may be scary if there's an evil deity following you, but was that enough to warrant ten films' worth of scares? Corn, man. Corn. Perhaps it was King's comment on the ever-growing corn lobby, and how Americans are becoming bulkier and less healthy due to their constant consumption of high-fructose corn syrup. Children of the Corn Syrup. That's us.

But I'm getting distracted before I've even started. Let's begin with a little-seen 30-minute short film that predates the first theatrical feature by one year…

 

Disciples of the Crow, a.k.a. The Night of the Crow (dir. John Woodward, 1983)

This film is hard to find on home video, so I had to watch it on YouTube.

Disciples of the Crow is a delightfully low-fi amateur production, replete with all the accoutrements of zero-budget student films. The Super 8 film stock is grainy and cheap. The sound is echoey and unclear. The acting is bad. The editing is clunky, and seems rushed. And the central idea, taken directly from the Stephen King story, feels a little dumb. Even the film's pacing is off, as the short is clearly divided into two parts: In the first part, which may serve as an extended prologue, we see a young boy named Billy (Steven Young) plotting something sinister with a few other children in his hometown of Jonah, Oklahoma, in 1971. They have a wicked dagger made from a corncob, and sporting a crow head. The children will eventually all stab their parents to death over the course of a single night. In the second part, we cut to a bickersome young couple named Burt and Vicky (Gabriel Folse and Eleese Lester, both of whom are still working) who are driving through Jonah. They accidentally hit someone running through the road. They find that they had also been stabbed. They put the body in the trunk (!) and go looking for help in Jonah where they are beset by some evil children, still being led by the now-adult Billy (director John Woodward) still carrying his wicked crow knife. There is an altercation, and they escape.

Fans of zero-budget horror (and there are a few of you out there; I can't be the only one) may like this one. Every technical element of the film is so classically bad, it's hard not to be charmed. I've often complained in recent reviews that new bad movies are still competently made, and often look as good as good movies. There was a time when bad movies looked bad. Luckily for me, I cut my teeth on the offerings of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Something Weird Video, so I am used to this kind of shoddy language. As a result, I kind of dig bad framing, bad editing, and bad acting, all rolled into a handily-consumed nugget of 1980s joy.

Indeed, the low-fi nature of the filmmaking can make the material all the more disturbing. Think of something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or the early works of Herschell Gordon Lewis, or the recently unearthed classic Things. These are movies that have a raw, amateurish look to them, and seem to have been constructed by criminals and madmen. The blood may look fake, but the intent is gut-wrenching. Disciples of the Crow isn’t nearly as good or as delirious or as gory as Things or Blood Feast, but it does possess a similar charm. If you're up late on the computer, and you punch it up on YouTube, you'll be hypnotized.

I kind of wish the 1984 feature film had been as charming.

 


Children of the Corn (dir. Frtiz Kiersch, 1984)

I had actually seen Children of the Corn many years ago, and it stands as a minor (perhaps very minor) horror classic. At the very least, it is notable for its many unholy sequel spawn, and for its association with Stephen King. King was, in the early 1980s, just becoming a hot commodity for film adaptation. Films like Carrie, The Shining, Creepshow, Cujo, The Dead Zone and Christine had all been big hit A-productions for some very talented directors (DePalma, Kubrick, Cronenberg, and John Carpenter are all in there). We of the current generation have probably become so familiar with King's oeuvre that it's hard to picture a horror landscape without him. Indeed, I'll be addressing some of his well-known clichés. Children of the Corn was, perhaps, his first B-picture. And while it was a hit, it doesn't have nearly the same amount of cinematic clout as, say The Shining.

The structure of Children of the Corn is markedly similar to Disciples of the Crow. The film opens with a calm young boy named Job (Robby Kiger) narrating the events of the previous summer; evidently an evil boy preacher named Isaac had somehow managed to enlist the demonic aid of every child in the town of Gatlin, Nebraska, to murder every adult over the age of 19 on the same day. The opening scene is the bloodiest, as a group of brutal Nebraskan teens poison, stab, and otherwise murder an entire diner full of people. Job is spared by virtue of his age.

We then cut to a young couple named Burt and Vicky (Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton from The Terminator) who are moving from New York to Seattle. Burt has just graduated from med school, and Vicky is not-so-patiently awaiting a marriage proposal. Burt is the kind of horror movie male that you hate, and you hate to hate. He's a dismissive yuppie douchebag who berates his girlfriend and spends the bulk of the film doing the stupidest possible things. He's the one who will venture into dark rooms where we know the killers to be lurking. He's the one who will leave his girlfriend alone out in the car. He's the one who, more than once throughout the course of the film, says things like “An abandoned house! Let's check it out!” In short, Burt is the one you'll be yelling at.

Anyway, as in Disciples of the Crow, Burt runs down a child in the road, killing him. The child, he finds, has been stabbed and was dying anyway. Phew. We saw earlier than the child was attempting to run away from Gatlin, and was killed by the evil redhead Malachai (the prolific Courtney Gaines in his first film role), who looks more than a little bit like Chris Owen, who played Sherman in five of the American Pie movies. Leaving the body in the road, Burt and Vicky are advised to go to Hemingford, Nebraska, and to stay away from Gatlin. The road signs, however, had been rearranged, and they unwittingly find themselves in Gatlin anyway. Hemingford, by the way, is a real town, so if you're a big Children of the Corn fan, you can drive 19 miles east of Hemingford, and try to look for Gatlin.

The town is deserted, and our heroes see creepy groups of kids running around. We occasionally spend some time with little Job and his little sister, and it's here that's we're finally introduced to the mythology of the series: a preacher named Isaac (a pretty good John Franklin), dressed in Mennonite togs, has convinced all the children – perhaps through demonic possession – that adults are evil, and that the purity of children is what will save the world. Gatlin has been living under Isaac's cult for a year. When the kids turn 20, they're sacrificed to the mysterious being called “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.”Malachai is Isaac's enforcer who does all the dirty work. Fun things like music and fancy clothes have been banned. There is a hard-edged austerity to this cult. Each of the Children of the Corn films will have an evil preacher, and a call for the death of adults. This sort of wicked religious-flavored hysteria is a common theme in Stephen King. I don't think he necessarily has it in for any particular church (indeed, I learned that his daughter is a Unitarian minister), but he does seem to have a beef with dangerous, riotous groupthink. As do we all, I think.

Anyway, the couple is chased a lot. Vicky is kidnapped then rescued. Burt is a dumb douche. Malachai eventually turns on Isaac and crucifies him (yikes) just as Burt and Vicky rescue Job and his little sister. Isaac, by the way, is eventually possessed by a wicked red light, and his cross is rocketed into the air. We'll see him again, in the sixth film. The four of our heroes pump gasahol (sic) into the local sprinkler system, and spray down the corn crops, which they intend to light with a Molotov cocktail. In a cute detail, Burt's first attempt to chuck the cocktail is unsuccessful, causing Job, rather practically, to run after the flaming bottle, and bring it back to Burt for a second try. We also get to see a terrifying burrowing beast of some kind, presumably He Who Walks Behind the Rows himself. It's a pretty goofy effect. It looks a lot like Bugs Bunny when he burrows.

As the corn burns (and, I imagine, smells amazing) we see a cloud of roaring evil dissipate. There was a demon involved. Burt and Vicky decide to adopt Job and his sister.

I'm a little hazy as to whether or not the children were all possessed by a supernatural spirit, or if they had been legitimately convinced by their cult to commit murder. I think the latter is more chilling, but the former is what the rest of the series will be based on. I suppose the former is a just a metaphor for cult murder anyway. Indeed, in the first sequel, someone will mention Jonestown. Let's get to that…

 


 

Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (dir. David F. Price, 1993)

Isn't it cute when a film series uses the word “final” when you know it's not the final chapter? Indeed, we're just getting revved up.

Nearly a decade after the first, someone thought to make a sequel. It's unclear, now, as to when these films take place. Children of the Corn II picks up immediately where the first left off, showing the police infiltrating the town of Gatlin, Nebraska, finding all the dead adults, and carting off the children. Burt and Vicky, by the way, will not appear in the series again. I assume the first film took place in the present of 1984, which would set this film during the same year, or perhaps a few months later. Early 1985 at the latest. However, the fashions and hairdos are most definitely from the early 1990s (high-waisted jeans shorts, Keds, and flaming bikini tops abound). I'm guessing we're entreated to ignore the chronology.

Our hero this time is John Garrett (Terence Knox) a father traveling through Nebraska with his estranged teenage son Danny (Paul Scherrer). John is a reporter for a Weekly World News-like tabloid who is distracted by the goings on in Gatlin, and decides to stop there. The children are all being taken to nearby Hemingford. In their ranks is another Mennonite-dressed kid named Micah (Ryan Bollman) who, as we saw earlier in the film, was possessed by something out in a cornfield. It's not long before Micah is convincing the local Hemingford kids that killing adults is a good idea, and that He Who Walks Behind the Rows is a dandy deity. Throughout the film, we see Micah and his flock teaming up on various adults and killing them. They crush an old lady under a suspended house and stab a doctor to death with hypodermic needles (yick). In a particularly hilarious kill, Micah takes control of an old lady's electric wheelchair, and uses a remote control to pilot it in front of a truck. She flies through a shop front window. Snicker. In another hilarious kill, Micah uses a voodoo doll to make a fellow's face explode. In the harshest kill, the kids lock a bunch of adults in a church and burn it down.

John, meanwhile, has become friends with Angela (Rosalind Allen), the local owner of a B&B. They will, in a truly gratuitous scene, have some chaste nookie. Angela has a comely and busty teenage daughter named Lacey (Christie Clark) who forms a romantic bond with Danny. There are a few titillating scenes of Danny and Lacey making out and swimming together. The film takes place in a small town in Nebraska, but the director still managed to get Christie Clark into a bikini. God bless him. Lacey gives several speeches about wanting to get out of Nebraska, which is why, I suppose, she wasn't indoctrinated into Micah's new cult. There is a cool scene wherein Danny and Lacey are making out in a cornfield and find a severed hand.

There's also an Indian in the film in the form of Frank Red Bear (Ned Romero) who explains that He Who Walks Behind the Rows may be a Hopi demon, and that it may be possessing the kids. The Hopi tribe, by the way, is located in Arizona. Western Nebraska is the home to the Arapahoe tribe. But whatever. Indian demon it is. Why the Hopi demon's cult manifests itself using Mennonite and Baptist imagery is not explained. The film's preview (below) posits that He Who Walks Behind the Rows is from another dimension. We'll see some more menacing burrowing mounds, but will not get a clear shot of the monster. That won't happen until the third film.

Eventually Frank and John use a big Maximum Overdrive thresher to interrupt a sacrifice. Lacey, who was kidnapped, is rescued. Frank dies, but so does Micah. As he's being sucked under the thresher, we see the demon leave his body. In an epilogue, we see Frank in the Hopi (Arapahoe?) afterlife in full Indian regalia.

Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice is wicked cheap fun, but is, like the first, supremely stupid. I suppose there are a few creepy shots of waving corn (akin to the whispering grasses in Onibaba), and the killer child theme is still in full force, but it's not really that scary. Luckily in the next chapter, we'll at least have the buoyancy of weirdness to keep up afloat.

The following films will, I believe, all feature escapees from the original film's cult.

 


 

Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (dir. James D.R. Hickox, 1995)

This is the first of the straight-to-video Corn films. The setting is now Chicago.

Yes, there is another Mennonite-dressed youngster who wants to amass a cult of kids to kill adults and, uh, I dunno, take over the world? This time around, it's Eli (Daniel Cerny) who has a demonic bible made of corn, black corn kernels full of evil magic, and a magical corn crop that he grows in an abandoned factory. This is the first film in the series that actually features the consumption of corn and corn products. Indeed, the eating of corn is an actual plot point. I could go for some cornbread, couldn't you? Here's a good cornbread recipe. I recommend you substitute the vegetable oil with butter.

Anyway, how did Eli get to Chicago? Well he and his adopted brother Joshua (the unbelievably hunky Ron Melendez) lost their father in Gatlin during the massacre. It's possible that the events of the Corn movies all take place over the same time frame. Anyway, Eli and Joshua have been placed with Foster parents in the big city. The parents (Jim Metzler and Nancy Lee Grahn) are oversexed yuppie types who are baffled by the piety of their new wards. When they are introduced into a Chicago school, Joshua immediately takes to the new social structure, and changes his dress, plays basketball, and begins necking with a hot black chick named Maria (Mari Morrow). Eli, meanwhile, sneaks into an abandoned factory at night and plants his demonic corn crop. He also begins preaching to his fellow students, once again amassing a cult. In contrast to the other films, the kids don't actually gang up on any adults to kill them. Only Eli does the killing this time, often using magical corn. Well, Eli's mom has a nightmare about children killing adults, but it's just reused footage from Children of the Corn II.

The coolest kills come in the form of several corn decapitations. Corn stalks come to life early in the film and rip off a homeless man's head. We see that, weeks later, the head is being kept alive by the corn. It's weird and cool. Later on, Maria's brother Malcolm (Jon Clair) will not only have his head ripped off, but his spine will come with it. His head will remain alive as this happens. Again, good and weird. Why so weird? Well, it turns out the special effects in this film were done by none other than Screaming Mad George, the genius behind Freaked, Initiation: Silent Night, Deadly Night 4, Arena, and Faust. With all respects to Sam Winston and Rick Baker, Screaming Mad George is one of the finest creature designers in film. His effects are bizarre and cartoonish, and resemble the more twisted corners of Robert William's imagination. Any character that this film has is due to him. It'll be his design when we finally see He Who Walks Behind the Rows. Oh yes, we will finally see the monster.

A note: a teenage Charlize Theron has an uncredited, non-speaking role in this film as a cultist. There are a few close-ups of her face. She rocked that '90s makeup well. Another note: There's a makey-outey scene between Joshua and Maria wherein she introduces him to the various “bases,” and it's actually pretty sexy.

Why is Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest so weak? I blame the casting of Daniel Cerny in the lead role. He does not seem menacing at all. He is too gentle-featured and soft to be threatening. Even the way he pronounces “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” seems forced. I don't see a demon when I look at Eli. I see a cute nerdy Jr. High theater kid. This is the kind of actor you get to play a younger kid on a sitcom, not the villain in a straight-to-video horror flick.

Anyway, in the film's climax, Eli has gathered his initiates to his contraband cornfield, about to give them the order to murder. Joshua, however, has caught wise to Eli's demonic murder plan, and, indeed, we saw in an earlier montage that Eli has been pulling these shenanigans for a century. He's remained young this whole time with his corn bible. When Joshua pins the bible to Eli's chest with a scythe, it angers He Who Walks Behind the Rows, and he emerges from beneath the ground…

…and we all laugh. He Who Walks Behind the Rows, it turns out, is a 30-foot-long naked mole rat with several eyes and a slimy, worm-like hide. Not really the kind of demon I was picturing. Still, thanks to the bizarre effects, it's still a pretty neat looking monster, and I loved the scene of it picking up a woman with its spindly front limb and swallowing her alive. She'll be okay, though, as Joshua will carve her out of the monster's alimentary canal. The scything will kill the monster and break the spell. All the teens will go back to being teens.

In an epilogue, we see that Eli's dad had shipped some of the demonic corn overseas to Germany. Sadly, we don't see what the possessed corn will do there in the next movie. I guess the Germans could handle it. You know what would go well with those corn muffins? Some red beans and rice. Good and spicy.

Onto the dull one…

 


 

Children of the Corn: The Gathering (dir. Greg Spence, 1996)

The evil possessed teen this time is Josiah (Brandon Kleyla), who may or may not be one of the original Gatlin cultists. It's eventually revealed that he is the ghost of a wrongfully murdered child preacher from, uh, I guess before the events of the first film. The chronology is becoming clear: The cult of He Who Walks Behind the Rows started over a century ago, and has regularly turned violent over the years. Children are the only ones susceptible to its spell. It's still unclear what the demon wanted from death; it didn't swallow souls or eat adult flesh or anything. Wait a sec. How did it get to Chicago in the last film? That was weird. Anyway, Josiah, unlike his forbears, is already clearly demonic, speaking as he does in a monster voice, and sporting a series of oozing pustules down his face. He still wears the Mennonite garb, though, including one of those cool Amish hats.

Children of the Corn: The Gathering seems far more intimate than the previous films. It's slowly paced and only involves two real major characters. There are a few kills along the way, and a few are cool (one guy gets severed in half by a speeding hospital gurney), but the filmmakers are shooting more for mood. They're a little successful, mostly thanks to the presence of Academy Award nominee Naomi Watts in the lead role. Watts is a professional who brings her all to every role, even before she took the world by storm in 2001 in Mulholland Drive. So even though she's in a straight-to-video horror sequel, she still manages to be soulful and real. In a way, an actor shouldn't be considered great until they can prove capable of surviving schlock. Ryan Gosling is great, but how would he handle, say, I Know What Those Other Kids Did About Four Summers Ago?

Watts plays Grace, a big city doctor who has moved back to her hometown of Grand Island, Nebraska (also a real city) to look after her ailing mother (Karen Black). Her mom has been having nightmares of killer kids, and has developed a wicked case of agoraphobia. Grace is welcomed back home and is given her old job with the local doctor (William Windom). At about the same time, all the children in town seem to have a mass fever, including Margaret (Jamie Renée Smith), Grace's little sister, and James (Mark Salling), Grace's little brother. Soon thereafter is when the killings start.

Aside from Watts, there's little that registered about Corn IV. The new model seems to be that Josiah is killing people by remote, and then psychically enlisting their kids to be part of his cult. He needs cultists to resurrect himself in a new body. Of course Josiah targets Margaret to house his soul. The cultists cut themselves over a trough, and Margaret is drawn into the water. It's kinda neat looking. Oh, here's something kinda fun: it's only mentioned briefly, but Grace quietly reveals at one point that Margaret is not her sister, but her daughter. The way Watts reads the line gives the film an extra level of dimension that you wouldn't expect from a film like this. For a brief moment, Corn IV is soulful.

But then there's the predictable climax wherein the monster is slain. I have nothing to say about the climax. It's already gone from my mind.

So how many demons are there? We saw He Who Walks Behind the Rows in the last film, and that monster was, presumably, the one possessing and influencing all of the children, as well as using corn to kill people. We still don't know its exact agenda; does it long for the death of all humanity? Does it really hate adults, or is that just a side project? What is its interest in Mennonites? Is it trying to bring about the apocalypse? Breed with Earth women? And was it at all responsible for the events in The Gathering? Indeed, the events of The Gathering seem unconnected to anything that came before. No one even mentions the phrase “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” Maybe that's why this film has no roman numeral in its title card. It's a spinoff rather than a sequel. Although the video box sported the “IV.” I dunno. I'm just rambling now.

 




And that's where we'll leave it this week. The first five films. I've noticed something about many long-running straight-to-video horror series: the longer they run, the less continuity there seems to be. Look at the 11-film-long Amityville series. No continuity at all. Or the nine-film Hellraiser series. Not so much there either. Children of the Corn at least taps into a central mythology, but the actual continuity is shaky. We'll see how well the rest of the series fares next week, as I cover parts five through eight, and the little-seen made-for-TV remake. Be sure to bake some of those corn muffins, 'cause you'll need 'em.