“ME AND LIL’ STEVIE”
THE CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984)
By Peter N. Dudar
(Camera pans along a long, desolate Nebraska road, lined with miles and miles of man-sized late summer corn stalks. Creepy soundtrack music rolls, as the camera zooms in on a strange happening within the rows of corn. The corn suddenly starts moving and bending, as if making a path for something big and terrible coming. The camera freezes and zooms in on a patch of corn just at the side of the road. The corn spreads apart and a figure steps through. It is a man carrying a ventriloquist dummy that resembles Master of Horror, Stephen King.)
Peter: Phew, I thought we’d never get out of there!
Lil’ Stevie: I told you we should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque! Welcome, Constant Viewer, to another addition of “Me and Lil’ Stevie”…
Peter: Hey, that’s MY line!
Lil’ Stevie: I’m your host, Stephen King, and I’ll be…
Peter: You are NOT Stephen King! You’re a puppet! And besides, I’M the host of this. You’re just my sidekick.
Lil’ Stevie: The REAL Stephen King wouldn’t like you. Not even a little bit!
Peter: Would you like to do this review by yourself?
Lil’ Stevie: (Bowing his head) No.
Peter: Then let’s get started. Today, we’ll be discussing Fritz Kiersch’s 1984 film, CHILDREN OF THE CORN.
Lil’ Stevie: That should read “Stephen King’s CHILDREN OF THE CORN”. It’s right there in the opening credits.
Peter: Fine. After all, it’s based on King’s 1977 short story of the same title, which appears in his first collection “Night Shift”.
Lil’ Stevie: An excellent read, by the way. And Christmas is coming, if you suddenly felt the urge to buy a copy for the horror-reading loved one in your life.
Peter: Quit pandering…we’re not making any money out of this. Now, this story is just one of the many King gems that doesn’t take place in his home state of Maine. This one takes place in Gatlin, Nebraska…and for all you King geeks like me, there’s even mention of close-by Hemingford in the movie, which is where Mother Abigail is waiting for all her children in THE STAND.
Lil’ Stevie: “I’m a hundred and four years old, and I still make my own bread!”
Peter: You’re a dummy, and you have my hand up your kiester!
Lil’ Stevie: I really hate you sometimes!
Peter: The plot centers around Burt (Peter Horton: television actor, writer, and director, who has appeared on such shows as THE SHIELD, GREY’S ANATOMY and 30-SOMETHING) and Vicki (Linda Hamilton: Sara Conners from THE TERMINATOR films); a doctor and his girlfriend (who wants to be his wife, although he seems to has a phobia about commitment). The two are traveling cross-country for a job that he’s about to begin. They get lost in Nebraska and, on the verge of an argument, manage to run over a little boy who runs out of the cornfield.
Lil’ Stevie: In my story, the two are already married and on the verge of a divorce. They are on a last-ditch effort to save their marriage when they get hopelessly lost in Nebraska, and Burt accidentally runs the little boy over. Of course, the little boy has already had his throat cut and was a goner anyway…
Peter: At the beginning of the movie, we’re offered a voice-over narrative from Job (Robby Kiger of MONSTER SQUAD, 1987), a little boy who explains exactly what happened in Gatlin in an opening montage, and will subsequently serve as the lead source for exposition throughout the movie. Job and his sister, Sarah (Anne Marie McEvoy, INVITATION TO HELL, 1984), are the youngest of the kids in Gatlin to remember the massacre, when all the grown-ups of Gatlin were murdered in cold blood by the followers of Isaac and worshippers of “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” As the movie progresses, we’ll discover that the town of Gatlin is inhabited solely by children, and that all of them are brainwashed by this mysterious Isaac (played by John Franklin, who played “Cousin Itt” in the ADDAMS FAMILY movies in ‘91 and ‘93), who wanders around in an Amish hat and preaches an Old Testament message of bloodshed and sacrifice.
Lil’ Stevie: It bears mentioning that, in my story, Isaac is only 11 years old, but is in fact played by a 24-year-old in the movie.
Peter: That happens a lot in movies and television. You just have to suspend disbelief. And that is really easy for this movie, because Franklin DOES look like a little kid. Even in the Amish hat and coat. It also bears mentioning that this fanatical religion culminates in each of the children sacrificing themselves to “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” on their 19th birthday. It’s important because the little boy that Burt and Vicki are about to run over is a kid that is running away to find help and bring a stop to Isaac and his heathen religion. Only, Isaac is forewarned of the traitorous child (Sarah has the gift of sight, demonstrated in her crayon drawings) and sends Malachi (Courtney Gains, who played Hans Klopeck in THE BURBS, 1989) out to stop him. Malachi slits the boy’s throat and sends him sprawling out into the road, and into the path of Burt’s moving car…
Lil’ Stevie: Squish!
Peter: Being a doctor, Burt realizes that the boy was already dead before his car ran him over, and becomes obsessed with getting the kid to the police as quickly as possible. Vicki, on the verge of hysterics, wants them to just get out of Nebraska as quickly as possible.
Lil’ Stevie: Another deviation from my original story. In my story, the two are at each other’s throats, and when Burt runs the child over, Vicki does nothing but punish and degrade him. She wanted to stay on the highway, and in his subsequent obsession with finding somebody, anybody, to report the accident to, she fights him at every possible opportunity. She’s terrified, distressed, and when he doesn’t cater to her every possible request, she acts like a total bitch.
Peter: Yeah. In the real King story, I actually wanted Burt to hand her over to the kids. But we’re reviewing the movie at the moment, so none of this really matters.
Lil’ Stevie: It matters to ME.
Peter: So the boy with the slit throat stumbles out in front of them, Burt runs him down, and then they spend the next ten minutes driving around Nebraska, confused by signs for Gatlin that are misdirecting them and sending them in circles. They finally manage to find a gas station, operated by veteran actor R.G. Armstrong (who has appeared in just about everything in the latter half of the 20th Century), who tells them that there is nothing in Gatlin, and that they should just press on for Hemingford……
Lil’ Stevie: Yay, Hemingford!
Peter: …because the children have an agreement with the old man at the gas station. They need his fuel, and in return they let him and his dog, Sarge, alone. Armstrong sends them on their way, but Malachi and his pals off the old man anyway (they even kill his dog), and will later get chastised by Isaac for it. The point of this whole series of events is to let the viewer know that there aren’t any grown-ups for miles and miles, and that Burt and Vicki aren’t just lost, but have been manipulated into a trap that has been laid out for them.
Lil’ Stevie: I just want to go on record here that I actually wrote the original screenplay for this movie, but my treatment was dismissed for the screenplay written by George Goldsmith. None of this is MY concept for what was supposed to happen in the movie.
Peter: Duly noted, Lil’ Stevie. In fact, I don’t recall there even being a mechanic in the original short story.
Lil’ Stevie: Thank you!
Peter: But it works here. And, as Isaac will later inform us, they needed the man to keep supplying gas for their generators, and that Malachi’s murdering him was sinful pride, and “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” is most displeased as a result. And here is the pinnacle plot source of this movie: There is an obvious power struggle going on between Isaac and Malachi. Isaac is all about pleasing “He Who Walks Behind the Rows,” the fictitious version of God in the eyes of Isaac and his followers. This whole cult following came as a direct result of Isaac (according to Job’s narrative), but Malachi is the actual enforcer, so to speak. He, too, wants to please the god that keeps providing corn and life to the kids of Gatlin, but where Isaac’s lot is to preach, Malachi is the actual leader of the children.
Lil’ Stevie: And what of Burt and Vicki???
Peter: I’m glad you asked. After driving around in circles, Burt finally convinces Vicki that they should just go to Gatlin and find somebody to report the murder to. They roll into Gatlin and find it deserted. But there seem to be children here, so there must be grown-ups around to talk to…
Lil’ Stevie: Not necessarily!
Peter: We know that! Burt and Vicki are soon pursued by Malachi and his band of child-thugs. They kidnap Vicki and leave Burt to escape the murderous mob and figure out what the hell actually happened in Gatlin, so that he can try and rescue her. And possibly put an end to “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.”
Lil’ Stephen: And none of it actually happens in my story. In my story, they enter Gatlin, Burt finds the Grace Baptist Church, where he manages to uncover the history of the town, and by the time he solves the mystery Vicki has already been abducted and brought into the cornfield to serve as a sacrifice. In the movie, Burt and Vicki work together through most of it, and what information they are lacking is given through Job’s exposition.
Peter: True. But what makes this movie compelling is the fact that Burt and Vicki are likeable characters. As are Job and Sarah. We want them to survive, to thwart the terrible Isaac and the all-out frightening Malachi. In previous columns we’ve discussed the idea of “Good-enough” child actors. This movie offers some great child actors (even though Franklin is in his mid-twenties, he’s frightening and compelling to watch, as is Gains’s version of Malachi), and the whole premise of murderous children always makes for disturbing fiction. On a personal note, I tend to really dig on stories based on religious fanaticism, which makes this enjoyable fodder for me.
Lil’ Stevie: Yeah, but enough to spawn six sequels and an actual remake? Was my story THAT compelling?
Peter: You didn’t write it, Lil’ Stevie!
Lil’ Stevie: Of course, I didn’t. In my story, there was no struggle for power between Isaac and Malachi, there was no sibling bond between Job and Sarah, and there was no happy ending. In MY story, Burt enters the cornfield to find Vicki crucified, with her eyes plucked out and corn stalks buried in her empty sockets and shoved down her throat. And “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” comes out victorious when he claims Burt before it’s all over. In the movie, we’re offered another crappy happy ending, when Burt and Vicki basically adopt Job and Sarah after smiting the God of the Corn and seeing both Isaac and Malachi brought down.
Peter: Way to spoil it for everybody. Yeah, Burt saves Vicki and together they put an end to “He Who Walks Behind the Rows,” but not before we see some really, really crappy animation at the movie’s climax. There’s a brief glimpse of “He Who Walks” in the form of an underground predator that, when in motion, pushes the earth up like some kind of monster gopher…and that is kind of creepy and disturbing to watch. But this gives way to a cartoon beast that detracts from the overall impact of the movie, and relegates the film to eternal 80’s schlock rather than being a timeless classic of horror fiction. And that’s too bad because I recall watching this movie as a kid and having the wits scared right out of me. But upon watching again as an adult, I’m sad to discover that this movie just didn’t hold up under the test of time.
Lil’ Stevie: It would have if they’d just followed MY screenplay!
Peter: I guess we’ll never know. Overall, this is still a fun movie to watch. There are some really good performances, at least by Franklin and Gains as the respective Isaac and Malachi, but in the movie, the fictitious happy ending and the cartoonish “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” detract from what this movie could have been. These factors alone whitewash the brutality of child violence and blasphemous devil-worship the short story actually succeeds in capturing. And again, I find myself stuck in the dilemma of having a fondness for the movie out of personal recollection, but am hard-pressed to give it my recommendation as a fan of horror. I guess the Stephen King geek in me tells me that I should give it a pass, if only as a means of regarding King’s history in the cinema (primarily towards the beginning of his career) and giving it some historical context.
Lil’ Stevie: Did you hear something?
Peter: Hear what?
Lil’ Stevie: Something’s coming. Look at the cornfield!
(The corn begins to part again, as if something monstrous is barreling down right at them. The corn suddenly parts and L.L. SOARES walks out, wearing a “Motorhead” shirt and drinking a beer).
L.L. Soares: Oops, wrong column. I guess I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque!
Peter: Holy Crap! It’s “He Who Walks Behind the Rows!” Let’s get out of here!!!
Lil’ Stevie: (With tears of absolute terror in his eyes) Goodbye, folks! See you next time!
© Copyright 2011 by Peter N. Dudar