Children of the Corn begins with a prologue detailing the dark history of Gatlin, Nebraska, a small agricultural town populated by farmers and humble country folk. One year, the town's corn crops begin to struggle, which inspires the town to start praying for divine intervention. A boy preacher named Isaac Croner (John Franklin, The Addams Family) gathers the children of the village and makes a horrible suggestion: if the kids band together and murder all of the adults in town, it will please the savage corn god (referred to as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows”). The kids carry out this violent mission successfully, and over the next few years, they continue to kill any adult who passes through town – thus sating their god's bloodlust and preserving Gatlin's dark secret.
The biggest problem with this set-up is that the story is set in Reagan-era America. If the tale had been set in, say, the mid-18th century, we might have been able to buy the idea that a bunch of crazy kids had taken over a town, murdered all of the adults and formed their own cult. In the 20th century, the notion that they could keep such a thing a secret from the rest of the civilized world is nonsensical. Yes, the movie explains that they simply kill everyone who wanders through town, but surely that would only lead to more people visiting the town? If you kill a mailman, will the post office not begin searching for him? If you kill a cop from the neighboring town, will his fellow cops not follow up on the disappearance? I realize that a movie about a murderous corn god requires some suspension of disbelief, but accepting that these kids have gotten away with this for so long is too much to ask.
Anyway, a few years after the initial massacre, we're introduced to Burt (Peter Horton, thirtysomething) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton, The Terminator), a likable couple taking a long cross-country drive. During their trip, they stumble across the corpse of a young boy. They decide to take the body to the nearest town, which just so happens to be... you guessed it.
While the Stephen King short story the film is based on offered a memorably hellish descent into religious madness, the film itself seems nervous about embracing the fundamental darkness of King's tale. Instead of presenting Burt and Vicky as bewildered victims marching towards their own doom, it turns them into action heroes and tasks them with rescuing a pair of adorable moppets who have somehow managed to resist the indoctrination of this bizarre cult. Likewise, the mysterious force of supernatural evil never comes across as much of a genuine s threat – it's hard to be frightened of an all-powerful being that can't deal with a Molotov cocktail.
The film's only unsettling element is Isaac, played with effective gravitas by Croner (an adult actor who suffers from a growth deficiency). I never quite figured out why Isaac speaks like a 16th century Puritan minister, but his stern face and archaic language certainly make him a memorable figure. Far less interesting is the cruel Malachi (Courtney Gains, Back to the Future), Isaac's violent lieutenant. He looks imposing when we first see him, but the fact that he spends much of his screen time stomping around in a huff and screaming “Outlander!” (the cult's term for “adult intruder”) undercuts his aura of menace.
I realize that a lot of horror is best left unexplained, but so much of what happens in Children of the Corn is so inexplicable that the lack of context becomes maddening. How has He Who Walks Behind the Rows managed to alter the way the kids speak? Why do the kids use a slightly altered version of the Bible as their primary religious text? If the corn god is actually as all-powerful as it seems to be, why does it limit its presence to this one small town? The movie shrugs off these questions, hoping that Jonathan Elias' The Omen-inspired score and images of children committing violent acts will be enough to distract us from its unconvincing, paper-thin plot. However: to date, this movie has spawned seven sequels and a remake, so the corn god's power is clearly legit.
Children of the Corn
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Year: 1984