Young lovers on a cross-country trip stop in a small Nebraska community and make a shocking discovery. One day, three years prior to the couples' arrival, the town's children killed all of the grown-ups at the apparent behest of a demon simply dubbed "He Who Walks Behind the Rows." Based on a short story from horror scribe Stephen King's "Night Shift" collection, this film spawned a slew of bloody sequels.
Originally premiering at the height of Stephen King's popularity and turning in a decent return at the box office, 'Children of the Corn' was quickly panned by critics as distasteful and long-winded. Today, it's considered one of the worst adaptations in the King canon, with very little scare factor and watched more for nostalgic reasons than for anything else. Still, the horror tale of a town full of psychopathic children has garnered a strong cult following over the last two decades, spawning six sequels and a television remake airing in September. Though it's difficult to figure out the reasons behind the fascination, the movie remains the same chintzy and somewhat fun affair it's always been, only with a strangely perceptive and cautionary eye on religious cults and monomania.
Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton) are a young bickering couple on their way to Seattle, where Vicky, a recent medical school graduate is to begin his internship. As they drive through rural Nebraska, the couple accidentally run over a boy and discover that he had just been murdered prior to being hit by the car. Wanting to report the incident to local authorities, they drive the boy's body to the nearest town called Gatlin, a small, isolated place which appears deserted. After a quick search, they find little Sarah (Anne Marie McEvoy) in her former home, and later encounter her brother Job (Robby Kiger). The kids explain that all the adults in Gatlin have been murdered and the remaining children are under the control of a fanatical boy preacher named Isaac (John Franklin) and his bloodthirsty henchman Malachai (Courtney Gains). Feeling trapped, Burt and Vicky must now escape before they too become the cult's next ritual sacrifice.
Based on the short story from Stephen King's Night Shift collection, the movie starts off very slow, especially for a film in the horror genre. Although maintaining some of the spirit of the original story, this adaptation is still a serious departure from its source. Much of the mystery and suspense in King's bizarre tale, and likely what would've given this big-screen version a little more interest, is purged in the first few minutes by Job's voiceover. Why the film so quickly summarizes all the secrets that would move the story forward is beyond me, but for some reason, studio execs favored this interpretation instead of King's initial script.
The only elements that seem to retain our attention are some surprisingly sound performances, particularly from Hamilton and Horton. They infuse at least a bit of plausibility in their characters' predicament. The fact that they believe themselves to be in mortal danger from a bunch of kids with farm equipment is what keeps us from laughing when Malachai screams, "Outlander", and Isaac gives his sermons. The two young actors, Franklin (the only adult in the clan) and Gains, offer equally entertaining depictions of teenagers as sociopaths. Though heavily lacking in atmosphere, tension, suspense, the thought of being chased by savage children eager to shed blood with sickles and machetes is still rather creepy, and surely the reason for 'Corn's lasting support.
The story also preys upon a combination of public fears shared by most at the time: the fear of religious cults and the occult, only taken to the extreme by involving children. With Burt's little speech in the third act, 'Children of the Corn' takes on a fairly obvious reprimand of blind faith, which severely borders on a contrived delivery that's more comical than sincere. It doesn't help that the movie is supported by some really terrible special effects, even by 1984's standards, and modestly paced by Fritz Kiersch's hackneyed direction.
And yet, this little scary movie which has grown into a popular franchise provides a decent 90-minutes of entertainment, turning it into one of those small exceptions of the "so bad, it's good" school of horror. In other words, at least it's not the 'Witchcraft' series.
Released a few times on other home media formats, this Blu-ray edition of 'Children of the Corn' offers a noticeable upgrade from its standard definition equivalents.
Although not the finest catalog title, the 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer (1.85:1) yields clean resolution and a thin grain structure for an appreciably filmic quality, with crisp contrast levels that give the picture a great deal of clarity. Colors, chiefly red and green, are well-saturated and stable, while secondary hues show nice diversity and flesh tones appear natural. Blacks are accurate but there's not much variance in gradation. Shadow delineation holds up fairly well throughout. Consistency is the largest detractor, as many scenes look much softer than others, reminding viewers of its age. Overall, this is the best it's ever looked and fans will be more than happy with the improvement.
On the audio side, the movie's sound design doesn't seem to lend itself well to the higher resolution codecs. Despite Anchor Bay providing the horror flick with a lossless Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, the sound quality is limited by those original elements, but it still makes for an enjoyable stereo presentation.
In their defense, the studio rightly avoids artificiality to give fans a front-heavy mix (as it should be) with only some mild enhancements in the soundscape. The front soundstage is nicely balanced with random ambient sounds and a dialogue reproduction that's clear and intelligible. The haunting and eerie musical score by Jonathan Elias fills the surrounds for envelopment and is properly supported by a low-bass response. Dynamic range, unfortunately, isn't very extensive, as the audio noticeably clips in higher frequencies, but is decently stable nonetheless. In the third act, activity in the rears picks up as the sounds of wind and debris offer a final moment of action and immersion, but even then, audio quality feels forced rather than convincing. All in all, it's a nice improvement but nothing impressive.
For its 25th Anniversary celebration, Anchor Bay equips Children of the Corn with a great set of bonus features. Likely to please fans looking for an upgrade, the Blu-ray disc also arrives with a few exclusive features, all presented in hi-def, while still porting over the same material from previous releases, mostly in standard definition quality.
Audio Commentary - Director Fritz Kiersch is joined by producer Terrence Kirby and actors John Franklin and Courtney Gains in this amusing but slightly dull commentary track. It's a fairly straightforward and conventional piece, as each person participates in the discussion with recollections on the locations and minor difficulties with props. The track is more interesting when they start divulging humorous anecdotes during production, express their thoughts about some thematic elements, and the movie's reception since its release. For those with a mild curiosity, this isn't a complete disappointment.
Fast Film Facts - This is pop-up trivia track offering fans and casual viewers some fun behind-the-scenes info about the movie and its production.
"Harvesting Horror: Children of the Corn" (SD, 36 min) - Taken from an earlier edition, the featurette is a look back at the horror flick and its impact on the genre. Kiersch, Franklin, and Gains are interviewed while clips from the movie are interspersed throughout. Each gentleman is given ample time to share memories on casting choices, filming on location, character motivations, and directorial decisions.
"Welcome to Gatlin: The Sights & Sounds of Children of the Corn" (HD, 15 min) - Another retrospective discussing the movie's production value, this time with production designer Craig Stearns. It's an interesting enough piece as he talks about starting his career alongside John Carpenter and the design challenges of creating an inoffensive horror feature with strong religious overtones. He also reveals a few secrets in the special effects, how he came to gather many of the props, and the difficulties of shooting during harvest season. In the last half, first-time composer Jonathan Elias sits down to share his experience of working on the movie's memorably haunting score and the challenges he faced. Fans will definitely enjoy this short segment.
"It Was the Eighties" (HD, 14 min) - Actress Linda Hamilton is interviewed for this featurette, where she relates what the cast had to go through while filming and praising the acting abilities of others. Towards the end, she offers her thoughts of the movie's cult following and advice for young actors today.
"Stephen King on a Shoestring" (HD, 11 min) - Featuring an interview with producer Donald Borchers, this piece takes a look at adapting King's story on a limited budget. He discusses becoming VP of Worldwide Production for New World Pictures and 'Children of the Corn' was to be his first project. He also shares his thoughts on the story's motivations and subtexts, and decisions made for filming the movie with money and time constraints.
Still Galleries (HD) - This featurette houses a compilation of posters and production stills ("Poster & Still Gallery"), storyboards ("Original Storyboard Art"), and a collection of Sarah's prophetic drawings ("Original Title Sequence Art").
Trailers (HD) - The original trailer is also included and really shows its age.
Though far from genre-defining or scary, 'Children of the Corn' has spawned a strong cult following in a quarter of a century, which is surprising for a movie with so many faults. This low-budget feature remains mildly entertaining as an admittedly, if not proud, B-movie horror flick, offering plenty of chuckles and cheap thrills. The Blu-ray edition of the movie comes with very nice picture and satisfying audio, while the supplements give fans the same material as before, along with some exclusives. Overall, the package should make for a fun watch during a stormy Friday night in the Halloween season.
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