Retro Review: “Children of the Corn” (1984)

Oh hey, it’s a review. I still do those. So here’s this one.

Netflix’s newest lineup of streaming horror films seems to include a lot of classics, giving me the chance to catch up on some that I haven’t seen. Among them, Children of the Corn, an oft-parodied ’80s horror-ish film, stood out as one that had managed to slip by me (in part because I constantly confuse it with Village of the Damned, which, alas, I did see).

The film, despite whatever flaws it may have, is gloriously 1980s. I could easily see Children of the Corn happening up the road from Craig T. Nelson’s house in Poltergeistand the cult of demon-worshipping little kids as hanging out with the Lost Boys in their downtime. It just has that ’80s mainstream horror feel: not too scary, vaguely wholesome and family oriented even when awful things are going on.

Linda Hamilton plays the female lead, Vicky (in the same year she starred in The Terminator–lucky for her she had that ace in the hole). Vicky is driving across country with her boyfriend, the heroically named Bert, who has just graduated from med school and is about to start his internship. Mazel tov. While driving through endless stretches of cornfield in backcountry Nebraska, Bert and Vicky are squabbling over directions when they plow into a little boy. They rush out to help, but–as we, the omniscient audience, know already, because we saw it happen thirty seconds previously–the boy was already dying from a nasty case of throat-cutting.

The boy was a deserter, y’see, fleeing from the weird child-cult of Gatlin, Nebraska, a town where three years previously the kids rose up and threw off the chains of their grown-up oppressors by, uh, murdering them all like so hard. Their leader, Isaac, is a dapper little televangelist wannabe with a slightly lopsided face and impeccable fashion sense.

Rev. Kain from Poltergeist as a little tyke. Gross.

He’s smiling because he is SO going to McDonald’s after this.

The kids have gone nuts because the town is the territory of a demon known only as He Who Walks Behind the Rows–or so they tell us. The demon doesn’t put in an appearance until towards the very end, which is a shame because essentially nothing happens until then. But I digress. The demon has evidently convinced the kids that it is God, because they refer to him in purely biblical terms, spew fire-and-brimstone bible verses left and right, and basically behave like junior members of the 700 Club. (I know it’s not actually a club. Shut up.) The kids are sacrificed to the demon when they turn 19. (We actually get to see part of the preparation ceremony for one such sacrifice, involving the most ludicrously fake self-cutting ever filmed. It was like the guy was drawing on himself with red lipstick, which he may well have been.)

Bert and Vicky eventually wind up in Gatlin, after stowing the kid’s body in their trunk (which, seriously, is like super dark, right? Like, the kind of thing you’d remember, with a shudder, every waking moment for the rest of forever?). They befriend the only two kids not totally brainwashed by the cult, Job and Sarah (they are immune because they “weren’t in the corn” on the day three years ago when the kids went ballistic, whatever that means). Sarah, luck would have it, is also psychic, and her crayon drawings portray events in the near future.

Together this ragtag band of unlikely heroes overcome all the odds and learn the true meaning of family. I wish I was kidding, but that’s actually about the size of it. There’s a lot of running and hilarious scenes of a grown-ass man wailing on pre-teens, but eventually Vicky gets herself captured and hauled up on a cross out in the cornfield, to be sacrificed to He Who Really Shouldn’t Because It Will Give Him Gas, but Oh What The Hell I’m On Vacation. Finally, Bert rescues Sarah, and with the help of Job and Sarah he rigs an irrigation pump to spray the corn with alcohol, which will help them kill Voldemort or whatever. After the spraying, Bert lobs a molotov cocktail into the field (takes him two tries, the dork), the  corn goes up in smoke, and, I swear to god,  this happens:

Awwww, da poor wittle baby! He wooks so SAD!

Awwww, da poow wittle baby! He wooks so SAD!

After that incredible display of an editing technique I believe is known as drawing an angry emoticon directly on the film with a Sharpie, our heroes troop happily back to their car, which the local cult kids have rendered undriveable by cramming it full of corn stalks. After a mildly amusing scene where one remaining cultist leaps out of the back with a scythe and Bert slams the car door on her head, Vicky suggests they all get the F outta Dodge, and as they start walking away,  the credits roll.

Too flippant? That’s actually part of the problem with the whole film. The filmmakers must have known how ridiculous it all was, from their casting choices (the little Jesus Camp guy up there, or the ginger monster Malachi, who might be scary if he wasn’t so painfully adolescent and also constantly getting the crap kicked out of him by Bert) to the gaping plot holes. An example of the latter is the annoying fact that no satisfactory explanation is given for how the kids were brainwashed, or why Job and Sarah weren’t (maybe I missed it?).

More importantly, and hilariously, Bert and Vicky, by mid-movie, have completely forgotten about the dead twelve year old in their trunk. At the end they literally walk away, leaving the car full of corn, one unconscious and possibly brain-damaged girl, and one very very dead boy.

All of this is ripe for parody, and they make a token gesture in that direction, but it’s halfhearted at best. The entire movie vacillates between horror and (largely unintentional) comedy without ever committing to either, and the end result is something watered-down and frustrating. There’s nothing remotely frightening here, beyond the concept itself–and I like the concept. The saccharine-sweet rural town secretly harboring a cult that sacrifices humans to pagan gods or demons is a cool idea, even if it was done before, and better, by Shirley Jackson (and probably numerous others). The acting, too, is decent, and the long shots and extended scenes seemingly shot in one take (to my unschooled eye) create a sense of continuity and reality that contemporary horror films often lack. But this is not enough to save the film from terrible pacing and general silliness.

See it to see it, to check it off your list. It’s a solid, slow start to the next two months of intense horror craziness that I know you all will be totally engaged in. It’s nothing to write home about, but it beats the pants off Village of the Damned, anyway.

EDIT: I originally made a few jokes about how the character Isaac creeped me out on the basis of how adult-like the actor seemed. Turns out the actor seemed that way because he was 25, and I am an accidental asshole. Apologies all around.

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