On this day in 1984, Children of the Corn was released. The corn cult horror, based on a chilling Stephen King short story, wasn't initially a critical smash nor an overly respected piece of scary filmmaking, though it's gone on to aptly develop a fanbase of dedicated appreciators. Some of those fans even tolerate the long list of mediocre sequels the flick spawned. Whether you like the often useless made-for-tv sequels or not, we can't deny the movie offers enough value in the horror canon to have spurred so many follow-ups. Cults, evil children, and a deadly isolated corn town? It was the perfect recipe for cinematic creepiness. The mere idea sticks with people throughout the course of life. Rightfully, the 1984 film - a minor horror classic - has stood the test of time, remaining a favorite scary flick from childhood for many, and an all-time favorite for others.
In the fictional town of Gatlin, Nebraska, Job (Robby Kiger) shares the tale of how this little corn town became a safe haven for a group of young, violent cultists. Gatlin's economy is dependent on agriculture, as the town is surrounded by vast cornfields. One year the crops fail, and residents turn to prayer to save their harvest. A mysterious boy preacher, Isaac (John Franklin,) arrives in Gatlin and takes all of the town's children into the cornfield to preach his prophecies of a demonic version of the Jude-Christian God he refers to as "He Who Walks Behind The Rows."
Isaac, with the help of his lieutenant Malachai (Courtney Gains), leads the children into a revolution, encouraging them to murder all of the town's adults as sacrifices to "He Who Walks Behind The Rows." In subsequent years, the children kill any adults passing through town.
Years later, Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton) are traveling cross-country to relocate for Burt's new physician job in Seattle. Along the way, somewhere in Nebraska, they accidentally hit a boy who happened to be trying to escape the cult. They seek the help of a local mechanic. Unbeknownst to Burt and Vicky, the mechanic is under the control of the children, forced to direct all adults passing through to Gatlin. They end up in the town governed by Isaac and "He Who Walks Behind The Rows," forced to find a way out and save a couple children in the process.
Children Of The Corn suffers a bit with age, as the film's effects only grow to appear cheesier, but it's still an effectively chilling little creepshow for multiple reasons: The concept, inspired by a Stephen King short story, is fantastically creepy. The film is drenched in atmosphere, with a feeling of isolated terror permeating throughout, despite any and all campiness. Lastly, the film is cast so perfectly that characters are nearly as memorable as the wild concept itself.
Regardless of how dated and CORN-y effects become later in the film, Children Of The Corn is authentically scary off idea alone, and director Fritz Kiersch's execution does the tale justice. A remote town exclusively full of murderous, cultist children who take out any adult who's passing through? That has no choice but to be terrifying in feature film-form, and it for the most part is.
Kiersch makes an audience feel trapped along with Burt and Vicky. That's perhaps not difficult to do when shooting in a nowhere town surrounded by corn, but as viewers even we feel at a loss for hope in this tiny hellish corn town where any sign of normal civilization seems distant.
From the opening diner scene we're left to feel little else but dread, which would be depressing in other contexts, but in the field of horror that's setting a mood to perfection. In this scene, a group of Gatlin's devil-worshipping corn children silently but confidently infiltrate a diner where crowds of adults are talking and enjoying their meals. One-by-one, the adults drop in gruesome ways. Most notably, the diner owner has his hand shoved into a blender, making for one of horror's most memorably repulsive kills. This unforgettable nightmare of an opening sets matters off in amazingly frightening fashion. Though no scene that follows is as outright terrifying, it's an eerie ride the whole way.
The film's casting, particularly in the case of cult leaders Isaac and Malachai, couldn't be more fitting. John Franklin is an uncanny delight as Isaac, the preaching creep, and it's difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role so effectively. Franklin's appearance helps, as the actor's age is weirdly ambiguous at a glance. With the body and voice of a 10-year old, and weathered face of a 40-year old, Franklin looks like he should be preaching demonic sermons to other children in a cornfield.
Courtney Gains is also phenomenally fitting in his role as Malachai, who's the violent brawn to Isaac's evil brain. Gains, like Franklin, simply has the look to play an evil child. He's tall and towering with a giant mouth, empty eyes, and head of flowing red locks. I hope this isn't ginger discrimination when I say Gains was meant to star as a henchman in a cult of murderous kids. The two together are an infuriatingly cunning and controlling pair that draw reaction from an audience without fail. Whether that's fear or pure hatred, the corn cult's leaders successfully evoke a negative feeling and lend to the trapped and fighting for escape mood.
Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton are strong in their leading roles, or as good as a couple of 80s horror victims can be. They're an attractive couple with great chemistry, which is about the extent of necessary presentation in this sort of vehicle, but they're also deep enough to feel for. You can't help but root for Burt and Vicky, even if that's solely because you hate the children. In fact, you don't have to love them - you just have to sort of want them to survive. Their care for Job (Robby Kiger,) a young boy who's looking to escape the cult, is endearing if not an additional layer to the story. A little bit of heart in this aura of dread certainly doesn't hurt.
With a strong cast, some of whom feel like they were made for their performances, and a wonderfully horrifying concept, Children Of The Corn is at worst a passable old horror flick. I think it's so much more. Kiersch takes a slow-build approach, which gives the story a wonderfully grim feel. This could have been an all-out, hack 'em up 80s shlockfest. That may have also worked in its own way, but the slow-burn ride makes for a sinister little trip throughout which you're forced to feel more tense than you have any right to.
The flick's final minutes become comically campy when dated effects come into play, but that's okay. To the credit of Kiersch and his film, it's incredible something that wraps up so ridiculously is genuinely creepy before the cheese ensues. The ending is silly, most would agree. But everything that happens before the corny conclusion is hair-raising, solid horror.
Children Of The Corn inspired a laundry list of nonsensical sequels, and by my count there are 9 movies in the series, including a 2020 remake of the original 1984 flick. Are all of these follow-up flicks unnecessary and for the most part terrible? Yes. Some have fun, redeemable qualities, but they're largely stupid and useless. Still, one must consider WHY a series grew from Children Of The Corn. The 1984 film is a cult classic on its worst day. It's an unsettling chiller that's surprisingly atmospheric given the time and subject matter. It's an eerie ride despite running on a concept that could have translated to horror-comedy or farce. It's a perfectly cast nightmare in which the characters stick with you as long as the hellish idea itself. Children Of The Corn may conclude with camp, though it's anything but campy. It's a thoroughly spooky horror that's at least fun when it's not scary, and effectively frightening when it is. In honor of it's release 37 years ago today, take yourself on a trip to Gatlin and fight these little corn-worshipping tyrants.