As Stephen King was writing “Children of the Corn,” one of his many short stories, he surely never imaged how popular the concept he had thought up was going to become.
The original story centers on a married couple and the horrors that they encounter in Nebraska while on a cross-country road trip in the summer of 1976.
The marriage between the characters of Burt, who served in the Vietnam War as a medical orderly, and Vicky, a one-time Prom Queen with an aversion to religion, is not working anymore. They spend most of their time together clashing and bickering over everything. If they ever really loved each other, that love has been long replaced with anger and disgust. When Burt makes the mistake of getting off the turnpike during their trip and taking them off on a long drive through the Nebraska cornfields, it becomes just another thing for them to argue about.
Their latest argument is interrupted when a young boy comes out from between the corn rows just in time to be run down by Burt’s car… But upon looking closer at the body, Burt finds that the boy’s throat had been slit in the field, he was going to die whether the car had hit him or not.
It appears that the boy had been attempting to run away, he was carrying a suitcase packed with clothes and a strange crucifix fashioned out of corn husks and cobs. They drive the body to the nearest town to report the incident to the authorities, but when they enter the town of Gatlin, which a sign says has a population of 4531, they find it eerily empty and rundown, like it’s been abandoned for up to twelve years…
Except they still seem to have regular church services… And there is the sound of children laughing in the distance…
Entering the town church, Burt discovers the horrifying truth: the children became dedicated to a strange, corn-revering god called He Who Walks Behind the Rows, a god which required them to kill all the adults and to sacrifice themselves in the fields once they reach the age limit of 19.
The children of the corn are aware of Burt and Vicky’s presence. They intend to kill the adult outlanders. And if the couple can escape the murderous children, there’s still something much worse lurking out in the corn fields, something monstrous and evil…
From the seed planted by this simple, creepy short story, which runs about twenty pages, give or take, and was first published in a 1977 issue of Penthouse before being included in the 1978 Stephen King short story collection Night Shift, has grown a successful and enduring cinematic franchise.
It didn’t take long for the idea to strike that Children of the Corn could work as the basis of a film.
Disciples of the Crow (1983)
Many may not be aware of it, but the first adaptation of the Children of the Corn story was writer/director John Woodward’s short film Disciples of the Crow, a low budget independent production that runs about twenty minutes.
Woodward moved the setting to a town called Jonah, Oklahoma, altered the timeline slightly, and added the sacrality of crows to the children’s corn-based religion, but following a moody opening sequence that depicts the beginnings of the children’s occult practices, he produced what is, for most of the running time, a very faithful, nearly line-for-line adaptation of King’s work.
Burt and Vicky, the couple at the end of their rope who we follow into the nightmare scenario, are here played by Gabriel Folse and Eleese Lester, who come off as much more likeable than their literary equivalents, despite saying a lot of the same things to each other.
There seems to be no information available on the making of Disciples of the Crow, which is a shame because Woodward really did a fantastic job in putting it together. Given the fact that he appears onscreen as one of the children of the corn/disciples of the crow, he was obviously quite young when he made his short.
There is a great, dark, creepy atmosphere to it, and the picturesque small country town locations that Woodward and his cinematographer captured on film are perfect for the story. I can only imagine how awesome a low budget, feature length horror movie from this crew could’ve been.
Woodward displayed a good deal of talent on this short, he might have been able to make a name for himself in the genre if Disciples of the Crow had caught on and he had pursued it. As it is, he’s only credited with directing two movies after this, and neither were in the horror genre.
To this day, Disciples of the Crow remains obscure. It did get a couple official releases, being included in the second volume of the Stephen King’s Night Shift Collection VHS release and put out on DVD in Germany. Now it’s readily available on the internet, where it will hopefully attract more viewers, because it’s definitely worth checking out for fans of King and Corn.
Children of the Corn (1984)
Directed by Fritz Kiersch from a screenplay by George Goldsmith, the first feature length adaptation of Children of the Corn greatly expands on the ideas presented in the short story, beginning with the introduction of a young boy named Job, the film’s narrator and one of the only kids in the town of Gatlin, Nebraska who was able to resist falling under the spell of Isaac, the boy prophet at the head of the He Who Walks Behind the Rows movement.
While the rest of the children were out in the fields with Isaac, Job was at regular church services with his father. His mother was home, tending to his sister Sarah, who was sick with a fever… and unbeknownst to anyone, those strange pictures Sarah was drawing while her temperature was out of control were actually visions of her town’s bloody future.
Job’s father took him for a post-church milkshake at a quaint local diner, and that’s where they were at the time when the youthful members of the corn-revering cult Isaac had established chose to rise up and murder every adult in Gatlin over the age of 19. Love the movie or hate it, the diner massacre is one scene that sticks with almost everyone who watches this film. It’s brutal and disturbing. As throats are slit, people hacked with cleavers, hands put through meat slicers, and elderly people are poisoned, Isaac watches on from the diner window. And what he sees, he deems good.
The story then jumps ahead three years, not the twelve of the short story. Job and Sarah are not part of the corn religion, in secret they endulge in forbidden things like board games and record players, but like every child in Gatlin they live under the rule of Isaac and his main enforcer Malachai. They aren’t the only ones who aren’t fans of Isaac and Malachai, they’ve found a kindred spirit in a boy named Joseph. Joseph has decided to try to escape from Gatlin and get help from the outside world… and it’s he who gets his throat slashed (by Malachai) and stumbles out of the corn, onto the road, just in time to get run down by a vehicle containing a young couple who have made the poor decision to take the back roads through Nebraska on their cross-country trip. Burt and Vicky.
Burt and Vicky have a copy of Stephen King’s Night Shift on the dashboard of their car, if they would crack that open to the Children of the Corn short story they could save themselves a lot of trouble.
Played by future Side Out/thirtysomething star Peter Horton and future Terminator fighter Linda Hamilton, Burt and Vicky are not on the edge of divorce in this version of the story, they’re not even married yet, and that is the source of their problems. Vicky desperately wants to be married to Burt, she’s waiting for him to propose, but a proposal doesn’t seem to be coming any time soon. Burt is commitment phobic, seems to have issues with intimacy, and is more focused on his burgeoning medical career than on Vicky. When things go down in Gatlin, he’ll get a chance to prove how much he cares for her.
Heading toward Gatlin with the body in their trunk so they can report the incident, Burt and Vicky encounter character actor R.G. Armstrong as the owner of a rundown auto shop on the outskirts of town who tries to deter them from going to Gatlin – they won’t find any help there, they should instead go to the town of Hemingford, slightly further down the road. This is a bargain the old mechanic has made with the children of Gatlin; he will try to keep outsiders away from their town, and in exchange he’ll get to continue living. Unfortunately for him, Malachai has decided that he is no longer useful… While the death of the mechanic pads out the bodycount, the running time is padded out with Burt and Vicky’s efforts to get to Hemingford. The directions on road signs don’t make sense, they get lost on dirt roads, they’re going in circles… Getting to Hemingford proves to be so difficult that they give up and continue on into Gatlin.
There, of course, they find a town seemingly deserted, religious items desecrated and altered to include corn in their iconography, corn stalks strewn all over the place. Eventually the truth about what’s going on becomes very clear. The followers of He Who Walks Behind the Rows, Isaac, and Malachai attack the outlanders. Burt, with an assist from Job and Sarah, is going to have to kick some pubescent asses to save the life of his beloved. But even if they can handle the murderous children, there’s still something else out there in the fields. Something supernatural. Something evil.
When I was viewing my way through the horror sections of my local video stores as a youngster, Children of the Corn was the one movie that I was not allowed to rent. My mom wanted me to wait until I was a little older before I watched it. I could watch all sorts of horror movies in the meantime, I could see backwoods families torturing and eating people, undead slashers hacking up promiscuous teenagers, all of that, but a movie in which children were the killers was off limits. That made it all the more enticing to me. I was fascinated by the cover of the VHS sitting on the store shelves. The silhouette of a hand holding a sickle rising up out of the dark corn field. Based on a story by Stephen King. I had to see this movie! I didn’t have to wait long, I had already seen and was very familiar with the movie by the time the sequel was released when I was 9, but it was a bit of a wait, so when I finally did get to rent the movie, I was hyped. I wasn’t disappointed, either.
I’ve been a fan of the movie since the first time I watched it. At times it can feel a bit cheesy and silly, but I’ve also always found it to be somewhat unnerving. The tone of the story, the atmosphere of the country locations, the choir chanting in the musical score, even the quality of the film stock, it all works together to put me slightly on edge, to disturb me.
One of the major ways the filmmakers expanded the story to feature length was by giving the audience some insight into how the He Who Walks Behind the Rows cult operates, we get to know its leader Isaac and his right hand man Malachai as characters. That’s where the film really shines, those roles were perfectly cast with two actors who give very memorable performances, John Franklin and Courtney Gains.
Although he was around 25 years old when he played Isaac, Franklin still passes as a teen with his short (he’s five foot tall) stature and youthful face. As a bonus, when he gets really amped up his voice still sounds like he’s going through puberty.
Isaac may be the mouthpiece that got this all this started, but he’s still got an easygoing, sensible, lenient side to him. Malachai is the really dangerous one, a strict and bloodthirsty hardliner. Gains makes his character very easy to hate.
Franklin and Gains are the standouts, but Horton and Hamilton aren’t too shabby themselves. Horton has some particularly strong moments when he tries to reason with the children and get them to see through their brainwashing. “Any religion without love and compassion is false!” It’s good stuff.
Children of the Corn did well when it came out, and though it has caught a lot of grief from critics and horror fans alike over the years, I think its reputation has improved as time has gone on. With age, it has become a classic… At the least, a classic of its time.
Children of the Corn (2009)
While the Weinsteins hold the rights to make sequels to the 1984 film and have long expressed interest in producing a remake of it themselves, Donald P. Borchers, the producer of the ’84 adaptation, also retained the right to remake Children of the Corn. So with the twenty-fifth anniversary approaching, that’s just what he set out to do. This time he did more than produce, also handling the screenwriting duties and directing the film.
Borchers felt that his first try at Corn had been too Hollywoodized, and he took the blame for that on himself. He had made the call for the tone that was lighter than the short story’s and the happy ending. This time, he wanted to stay faithful to King’s text.
His second version of the Corn begins in 1963, at a tent revival being held in Gatlin, Nebraska. All of the faithful gathered in the tent are children, the preacher sermonizing in the center is a young boy, dressed in his cowboy best. Gatlin is in the midst of a devastating drought, there will be no corn harvest in ’63, but God has come to this child prophet in his dreams and told him how the land can be revitalized, what needs to be done before the rain will return. The time of Old Testament style sacrifice is again at hand, the children must rise up, take control, and wipe out the sinners. The adults.
This Preacher Boy is played by Robert Gerdisch, who totally rocks his role over the couple minutes that he gets to monologue. The rest of the film would’ve benefited from having him, with his energy and delivery, at the head of the cult throughout. Instead, this is his only scene, as the film then jumps ahead twelve years, by which time his character has presumably aged past the limit and been sacrificed.
Children of the Corn 2009 is very faithful to the short story, which is both admirable and yet a detriment to its overall level of entertainment. Borchers bulks the short up to feature length by sticking to King’s words and expanding on everything that was brought up in the story, mainly through dialogue. He not only has Burt and Vicky have the arguments they had on the page, but he also has them vocalizing the thoughts and information that was given about them in the descriptive passages.
David Anders and Kandyse McClure handle the roles of Burt and Vicky very well, the problem is that they are absolutely miserable to spend time with. They certainly are at the edge of divorce in this film, they are not very fond of each other at all. Everything is a reason to fight and berate each other. Burt constantly antagonizes Vicky and she readily takes the bait to verbally rip apart his entire being. They are a really hateful couple of people, and it’s not pleasant to watch.
Because of the added dialogue and all the attention paid to the leads’ bickering, it takes Borchers around fifty minutes to cover the same ground John Woodward covered within the twenty minutes of Disciples of the Crow. There’s also some re-used lines from the ’84 script, which works fine, and the theme music from the original feature is also part of the score here, which was a very smart decision.
Lesser decisions were made in the casting of Isaac and Malachai this time around. Preston Bailey and Daniel Newman just cannot live up to the memory of John Franklin and Courtney Gains in those roles. I don’t want to pick on a little kid’s performance, but like I said, I would’ve much rather had Robert Gerdisch as the child leader throughout the film, maybe switch parts with Bailey. Bailey just comes off as too young as Isaac, the lines he’s given don’t work well with his voice and delivery. The fact that he’s wearing such a large hat that it looks like a flying saucer has landed on his head doesn’t help him out. Meanwhile, Newman seems too large and growly as Malachai.
There are also questionable directing and editing choices here and there, with speed ramping and slow motion “No!”s making for some goofy moments.
Even Burt’s history in Vietnam that was mentioned in the short story is expanded on here; when he’s running for his life through the fields in the last third of the movie, he not only has to contend with the murderous children who are out for his blood, but also with visions of Vietnamese and American soldiers stalking and firing machine guns at each other… It’s a unique approach. Burt’s military training also comes in handy when he has to kill these little punks.
Borchers knows that sex sells, so when the children have to call off their hunt for Burt at nightfall (nobody stays in the corn after dark), they head back to church for a “fertilization ritual”. A couple of the older teenagers disrobe and have sex on the altar, with all the other children standing around to watch. It’s a very odd, awkward and uncomfortable scene, shot and edited carefully because obviously no children would’ve really been allowed on set with the nude performers, but it gives the viewer some breasts to look at.
However, those breasts were not on display for the first viewers to see the movie, because it made its premiere on the Syfy Channel. It was “must see TV” for me that night, I was sat in front of the television and ready to watch that first airing.
The 2009 version of Children of the Corn has its flaws, plenty of them, but I still enjoy it. I really have a soft spot for every one of these Corn movies for some reason, even when the sequels weren’t particularly good, I still liked them and was glad to have them. That openness to all things Corn extends to this remake, and while I don’t think this was the franchise’s finest hour, I definitely don’t find it to be its darkest hour, either. It has some merit.
It’s interesting to have all these different adaptations of the same short story, to see how different writers and directors handle bringing what King wrote to life. Even now, I think there’s room for another cinematic take on the story. I would love to see what it’d be like if the Weinsteins were to get their remake made on a slightly bigger budget than most of the Corn movies have had and then give it a wide theatrical release. I would be there opening day, munching away on popcorn as another batch of children praise He Who Walks Behind the Rows.