How “Children of the Corn” Lost Itself in the Weeds

Children of the Corn John Franklin & Courtney Gains in Children of the Corn (New World Pictures)

A look at the highs & lows of Stephen King’s killer kid cult classic.

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we ring in the release of It: Chapter Two by exploring the various adaptations of the master of horror, Stephen King. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Few things can be as nauseatingly mundane as long car rides through the midwestern United States. Even if you stick to superhighways, your vistas will be, by and large flat, isolated, semi-claustrophobic, and endless seas of the crop du jour: corn. Then, what once was boring, mile after mile, in the setting of the harvest sun, becomes a black and rustling abyss that could contain any myriad of things from evil deities to hyper-religious cults to maybe a particularly pissed-off squirrel. 

Such is the setting in the 1984 film adaptation of one of Stephen King’s seminal short stories, Children of the Corn. The film’s director, Fritz Kiersch, does a phenomenal job embracing the confusion and anxiety felt by the extremely urban protagonists Burt Stanton (Peter Horton) and Vicky Baxter (Linda Hamilton), as they delve further and further into the small town madness of Gatlin, Nebraska. The rows and ears of corn tower over them from the asphalt and dirt roads as they lose their way through the town’s buildings and corpses. Dried and rotting corn litters locations like the long-abandoned diner and the elementary school, fresh and growing corn rustles and shines green ominously just out of frame, and cobs and ears of corn are shoved into the faces and bodies of the murdered adults.

Similarly, equal care and thought appear to have gone into the showcasing of the film’s central element of fear and terror: the almost feral, semi-sociopathic behavior and mob mentality that exists dormant in the minds of children.

The character of Isaac (John Franklin) has a commanding and uncanny presence throughout. Franklin’s extremely adult facial features and commanding, Old Testament way of speaking causes a deep discomfort on an almost primal level. We know we’re seeing a child, but everything about him says otherwise. His hollow eyes and piercing stare only add to his imposing nature, and his influence is felt intensely throughout the film even when he has a fairly short amount of screen time. Honestly, the climactic image of Isaac as a reanimated and possibly possessed corpse as he stalks Malachai (Courtney Gains) has always struck me as less terrifying than his original corporeal self, even in all his open sored and demonic voiced glory.

Gains’ performance as Malachai is also frightening, though on an almost opposite side of the coin. He’s one of the eldest children, and certainly the most violent and unpredictable, but his face reads as more childlike as well as a more “rural” looking boy that became ingrained into the fears of the city-dwelling populace through films like The Hills Have Eyes and Deliverance. Additionally, his stature, age, and aggression make him the most feared member of the cult to the children, perhaps because of his status as an enforcer figure similar to the police or, “blue men” that the children murdered as false gods and recognized as the strongest and most powerful of adults before the arrival of Stanton.

His network of violent supporters also serve to spread his influence through the film like Isaac spreads the influence of “He-Who-Walks-Behind-the-Rows”; peeking in windows, brandishing farm equipment, and whispering across rooftops and through long-vacant homes, calling for death and slaughter with all the reckless abandon of an American Lord of the Flies.

In a movie that the marketing tagline was, “an adult nightmare,” about how terrifying children are, why spend so much time backpedaling away from that and sanitizing the story as much as humanly possible?

Maybe this is the reason for a weak addition to the film that wasn’t in the short story: the children Job (Robby Kiger) and Sarah (Anne Marie McEvoy). In a film full of evil mobs of children hell-bent on slaughtering any and all adults, even their own parents, perhaps a choice was made that there had to be two “good” children to balance out the immense evil of Isaac and Malachai. Unfortunately, because they seem to only exist as feel-good foils, and in Sarah’s case as info dumps, they don’t really accomplish or do much besides watch things happen and run around and as a result the scenes dealing with them or the odd, forced parental behavior of Vicky and Burt slows the film in parts to a snail’s pace, and undercuts the horror entirely.

In a movie that the marketing tagline was “an adult nightmare” — about how terrifying children are — why spend so much time backpedaling and sanitizing the story? It leaves the film with a hokey, saccharine ending that made the children more slasher villains than real-world relatable threats. Maybe that’s why it ended up spawning many sequels and became, in essence, just another ’80s slasher series. 

Hopefully, in this era of King remakes and the increasing tolerance for brutality in horror films, someone will come along and revisit this film, flesh out the claustrophobia and the animalistic ferocity of the children in Gatlin, and give us a Children of the Corn film that doesn’t end up being, well, corny.

Children of the Corn Trailer:

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