Hollywood's obsession with Stephen King has produced some great movies. Children of the Corn is not one of them. It starts out with a brief short story as inspiration, then stretches it like saltwater taffy in order to support a 90-minute running time. You can accomplish such a task -- witness the underrated 2009 version of the same tale -- but the feckless, almost uninterested way this one goes about it makes you wonder why they bothered in the first place. Money seems to be the primary factor: sleazy, fly-by-night money of the sort that bargain basement horror movies thrive on. Considering the improbable spate of direct-to-video follow-up to this one, the investors did well for themselves. The rest of us, unfortunately, aren't so lucky.
King certainly started out on solid ground. His brief, elegant tale echoed Shirley Jackson's The Lottery in its depiction of fanaticism and intolerance, with a few creepy nods to HP Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. Somewhere in the heartland of Nebraska, in one of those shitsplat towns no one notices, the young folks hit upon a novel notion: butcher all the adults like hogs and commence to worshipping an enigmatic entity called He Who Walks Behind the Rows. This is not a happy god: sacrifices are demanded and the town's few visitors will fit the bill nicely. Enter Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton), happily passing through on their way to a wonderful life when a stabbed child wanders right into the path of their car. They need to get help, the nearest town happens to be the one full of evil kids, and all of a sudden, the rumble is on.
The tired nature of the set-up reflects an overall lack of imagination, which has doomed better horror movies than this. Putting the central couple in pointless jeopardy for ninety minutes followed by a ridiculous finale involving a throwaway showdown with a badly conceived monster isn’t exactly the path to horror immortality, and yet Children of the Corn pursues it with the enthusiasm of the truly deluded.
Even worse, while it tries to stretch out the content of King’s thin short story, it blatantly ignores the more interesting elements. For instance, in the King version, the main couple is slowly losing their marriage: snapping at each other as a matter of course and grimly staring the reality of divorce in the face. Putting those two in imminent peril from a gaggle of murderous children holds far more potential than the happy heroes here, since they have little to play off of and thus glumly go through the motions.
The monster falls into the same trap, as does any other element that might have produced a worthwhile experience. With the basic set-up in place and the kiddie cult aptly deployed for maximum creepiness, director Fritz Kiersch promptly falls asleep at the wheel. He has no interest in mining the notion of religion as a force of evil, or what might happen if the god worshipped by the isolated fanatics out in the hinterlands turned out to be real. Those are the components that make for great horror, and which turned the King tale into one of his better short stories. Children of the Corn blithely ignores them in favor of trite non-scares and a gaggle of pint-sized villains who you frankly want to smack rather than flee.
And yet from this rather sad little acorn, a hideous franchise oak was borne, whose ranks clogged the direct-to-video shelves for many years and which most horror movie fans have at least a basic familiarity with. I’m hard-pressed to come up with a series that has lasted this long on a less promising beginning than this one. Children of the Corn lingers for reasons known only to the horror movie gods, though I confess that getting the 2009 version out of it provided at least one silver lining. As for the first version, the less said the better. Send it to the cornfield, Anthony. That’s where it belongs, after all.