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Monday, July 25, 2016
Stephen King's Children of the Corn (1984)
Screenplay by George Goldsmith; based on the short story by Stephen King
Directed by Fritz Kiersch
Peter Horton: Burt
Linda Hamilton: Vicky
R. G. Armstrong: Diehl
Courtney Gains: Malachai
Anne Marie McEvoy: Sarah
Robby Kiger: Job
It's rare that a writer gets to become a brand name. I'm reminded of the doofus editor of the Baltimore Sun talking about "the Dickensian aspect" of a story in The Wire. And, of course, H. P. Lovecraft won immortality when his last name got turned into an adjective. But in the 1980s, there was one name that got used more than any other to describe ordinary days falling into madness and terror, and that's the dude who got his name above the title on that movie poster. We're all used to seeing George Clooney or Matt Damon getting listed before the actual name of the movie, and John Carpenter or George Romero usually have their names in a movie title as a selling point, but how many people got their names attached to a film because they wrote the source material that was adapted? Even J. K. Rowling doesn't have that happen with her movies. King is the top name on what has to be a very, very short list of writers who are expected to sell tickets based on their name alone (literally, in the case of The Lawnmower Man; the short story was about a weird Druid cultist trimming a man's yard in a supernatural and impossible manner, not about virtual reality turning a dumb guy into a genius monster. King sued the production company to get his name off the movie posters because he sure as hell didn't write whatever source material they had for that movie). Speaking of posters, that one up there is a beaut. Red and black, a menacingly raised sickle, and that Stephen King font that's being used for Stranger Things over on Netflix. I bet that poster sold a lot of movie tickets (and the film was a huge success, earning more than fourteen times its budget back during its theatrical release).
And I'm taking time today to watch a movie that I never actually saw before, even though I'm a giant horror nerd and I've read about eighty percent of Stephen King's literary output. It came out when I was nine years old, and my parents figured it was "too scary" for me sight unseen. I'm wondering if they heard it was about religious psychosis (which would have been much more plausible of a horror to encounter in my home town in the brass buckle of the Bible Belt than, say, werewolves). Or they might have heard it was about homicidal children and didn't want to give me any ideas. They may not have wanted to waste their hard-earned money on a VHS rental of a movie that critics ignored or beat to death with shovels. There's plenty of different reasons why I never got around to seeing this flick until I was 41 years old. Maybe by the time I'm ninety I'll have seen all the sequels as well as the inevitable remake.
Creepy children's chorus under the opening credits? Check. Establishing shots of drought in a cornfield? Check. Idle machinery and dusty streets? Check. Oh, hey, it turns out that the movie takes place in Gatlin, Nebraska (exposition delivered via a "Grace Baptist Church of Gatlin" sign as well as a caption on the screen; the opening takes place "three years ago", by the way). The sermon for the day is "Corn Drought and the Lord", according to that same sign. And OH SHIT IT'S NARRATED BY A CHILD THIS IS BAD NEWS. I don't want to listen to a lisping child actor explain the shit that's going on while I watch it. I really don't.
The voiceover tells us that Job the narrator just got out of church, and that he was the only child at the service (the others were with some kid named Isaac in a cornfield, which certainly sounds like the kind of thing a rural Baptist town in 1981 would allow to happen). While the narrator's dad calls home from a diner to see how his daughter is doing (the answer: 104 degree fever) a bunch of local youths file into the restaurant and lock the door. The teenage waitress spikes the coffee pot with some kind of white powder and there's an unintentionally funny ominous shot of her refilling someone's cup. Within seconds every adult who had coffee with their breakfast is down and the ones who didn't are getting shanked by all the kids in the restaurant. Some semi-competent editing means that Job's dad either had his throat cut with a grain sickle or he was hacked to death with a meat cleaver. The dangling pay phone receiver broadcasts Job's mom as she gets murdered as well, which lets the viewer know that the kids of Gatlin don't just have a grudge against everyone at the diner. It also looks like the budget on this one didn't stretch too terribly far: for the big startling murder scene at the beginning, it's mostly just fake blood on people's clothes and getting speckled on actors' faces. This was two years after John Carpenter's The Thing showed exactly what a gifted animatronics guy could do to horrify an audience and depict terrible things happening to the human form, but all we get here is ketchup on the back of someone's shirt.
Job's sister, by the way, drew pictures of the massacre while semi-conscious with a 104 degree fever, which suggests that one of those Stephen King style psychic kids is in this movie. That makes sense, because the short story was only a few pages long and they're trying to make a 91 minute movie out of it. Of course, the filmmakers also started off by emptying a gun into their left foot because the plot of the short story is two people finding out what happened in the deserted Nebraska town they're in when their car breaks down and the horror develops from what happened there. But creepy drawings of smiling kids murdering their parents plays out nicely under the credits and I'm willing to bet that this extremely budget-friendly depiction of the Gatlin Massacre is going to be the most effective thing in the movie. I also suspect that burning all the TVs and radios in town wouldn't be a plot point in a hypothetical 2016 remake because kids will put up with a hell of a lot but if you take away the internet, it's a matter of seconds before Isaac's head is on the ground as a Pokemon Go landmark.
According to the psychic(?) drawings under the credits, the kids grow corn in the fields around Gatlin and occasionally sacrifice one of their own to ensure a bountiful harvest. Not sure exactly what they're going to do with all that corn, and how they're going to maintain any standard of living once the power goes out and the water gets turned off for non-payment (and, for that matter, I'm not sure how the murders are going to go unnoticed for three years since someone in Gatlin had to have relatives from someplace who start to wonder why they never heard back from their cousin and there had to be banks that sent people in to foreclose on the houses where people stopped paying their mortgages--and even if the Gatlin kids murdered everyone who came into town, that just means more and more people would be known as having gone to Gatlin and then vanishing).
In the present day, Vicky startles her boyfriend Burt awake with a party favor to the ear while he's sleeping in a hotel room. I know I'd hate that, but Vicky is played by The Terminator-vintage Linda Hamilton, and she gets to do whatever she wants and the rest of the world can just deal. Burt blows out a candle on a doughnut and says he wished to live happily ever after. Alas, he has told what his wish was, and now it will not come true. Vicky also gave her dude an engraved cigarette lighter as a birthday present and we learn that his full name is the ungainly mouthful "Burton Stanton". And that Burton's a medical doctor, which is probably going to come into play later. Even though this sequence is nowhere to be found in the story, it's a pretty accurate pastiche of Stephen King's work, especially when Vicky cues up Gary U. S. Bonds on a tape deck and sings along to "School Is Out". That's exactly the kind of song King references in his prose.
This is apparently the tail end of a road trip vacation for Burt and Vicky; he's starting an internship when he gets to wherever they're going and there's plenty of driving through the most boring scenery in America before they get there. A knock on the door from the maid means that it's just a song and some exposition before hitting the road rather than the more interesting and amorous fun that Vicky wanted to have. In the next scene, the couple is on the road (with a paperback of Night Shift, the short story collection that contains the short story Children of the Corn, on the dashboard). Burt's having an argument with Vicky that sounds like it's been going on in a loop for quite some time--he's focused more on his schooling and career than on the relationship. Vicky, proving that she's a better person than Burt, does genuinely understand his focus on the job after going to Extra College for years in order to do it, but still would like some time with her guy. (Well, I know who I'm rooting for and who I hope gets on the business end of a sickle now.)
Meanwhile, in Gatlin, three kids are involve in some kind of plan to make a break for it out of Gatlin. One, Joseph, has got a suitcase and the other two are Job (the narrator) and Sarah. Joseph's plan is to get out of town, find an adult, tell that person about the killings in Gatlin, and hopefully bring in the Nebraska National Guard to put things right. Sarah is the one drawing the pictures (and, in the hyperfundamentalist murder cult that Isaac and Malachai run, that's forbidden, as is listening to music). Joseph has to get through the cornfields of Gatlin to escape, which certainly do loom impressively and fill the screen while he's putting on his boogie shoes. From the way that Job and Sarah talk about the cornfields, one would suspect that there's something more menacing than a kid preacher in there. And when he trips and falls in the field the movie sure does want us to think something supernatural happened, but extreme closeups of corn stalks are, like giant killer rabbits, not inherently scary.
Meanwhile, in the car, Burt and Vicky are learning how uninteresting the back roads of Nebraska are (SPOILER: They are really, really uninteresting). The only thing their car's radio can pick up is an AM radio preacher condemning drug use, fornication and homosexuality. If he was also a busybody about what bathroom transgendered people use, he could have gotten a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention last week.
Joseph gets blindsided by Malachai in the cornfield and comes down with a nasty case of slit throat. He stumbles out into the road just in time for Burt to run him over (right after Grand Island, where the Micro-Brewed Reviews mastermind Chad Plambeck lives, gets a shout-out). Also, just as a safety tip, don't read a map and drive when you're on a road trip. One person out of the two in the car should be a navigator and one the driver--and the driver gets to pick the radio station. But that's a minor concern right now, because Burt figures out that the kid he hit was dead or just about to die before the car hit him (he's a doctor with a degree and everything, so he can tell the difference between a slashed throat and the series of injuries a speeding motor vehicle will cause). He tells Vicky to go back to the car and lock herself in, because even though he didn't kill the poor kid, someone else did and they're almost certainly looking at him, his girlfriend, the dead kid and the car right this second. Also, the dummy car hit and ragdoll rolling were nasty in a way I'd tend to associate with horror movies of the Seventies, not the Reagan years. It was enthusiastically wince-inducing.
A POV shot from the cornfield shows that yes, the guy with the knife was out there watching the aftermath of the car accident. Like a total chump, Burt goes into the cornfield and finds Joseph's blood-spattered suitcase. And since Malachai saw him go into the field, he knows that Vicky's alone in the car right now. Speaking of Vicky, she gets out of the car after hearing something, I think, and the editing in that sequence cheats like hell to keep her from seeing Malachai, who was inches away from her window seconds before she got out of the vehicle. I don't care if he went to the other side of the car, glass is transparent and she should have seen him. Actually, it was a nightmare sequence so 1) Malachai shouldn't have even been in it, and Vicky-in-the-dream should have sensed his presence by the car because it doesn't make sense to dream something you don't notice, and 2) I call bullshit on the editing even more because of that, especially if the viewer was supposed to realize Malachai was in the real world outside the car while Vicky was dreaming of getting out of it. There was no change in the cinematography to clue the audience in to it being a dream.
Anyway. Burt puts Joseph's body and suitcase in the trunk and drives off to look for an authority figure. Meanwhile, Job and Sarah are back at their old house, defying the cornfed Taliban under Isaac's control by dressing up like grownups, playing Monopoly and listening to records. I assume that's a battery powered turntable, because I'd rather think about that than listen to the kids cheat at the board game and act cute. Malachai interrupts by throwing a knife into the game board and the scene goes back to Burt and Vicky in the car talking about what they just saw and whether or not the killer saw them (thankfully the road is open enough that they'd see any pursuit coming from literally miles away).
We get a little glimpse into the town's setup when Malachai takes his two captives to Isaac; music, games and play are forbidden (although it's the Malachai the enforcer rather than the cult's leader who's bent out of shape over what Job and Sarah were doing). Sarah's got a drawing of Burt and Vicky's car approaching Gatlin, and Isaac tells his right-hand adolescent to make sure "the old man" doesn't tell the occupants of that car what's going on in Gatlin. And then it's back to the car, where Vicky rifles through Joseph's suitcase (getting her fingerprints all over potentially vital clues). There's a corncob crucifix in there that looks like the world's creepiest piece of folk art--and some clothes. I think the crucifix was the important thing.
Hey, remember the scene in The Cabin in the Woods where a creepy run-down gas station provides menace and weirdness as a prelude to all the shit jumping off in the main narrative? Well, there's one of those in this movie too. I'm reasonably sure the first Creepy Gas Station In the Middle of Nowhere was in the original The Hills Have Eyes back at the end of the Seventies. There was a creepy gas station in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but I don't think it had a Harbinger parked inside it to be creepy at the main characters before they went off to get killed. Whereas this movie, Wrong Turn, Urban Legend, and a few other spam-in-a-cabin flicks had the same type of location in it performing the same function in the narrative (and Tucker and Dale Versus Evil also parodied the trope). To be fair, this movie's gas station owner has a dog that he's trained to bring tools to him, so it's got a little bit of ramshackle charm to it (and the mechanic is another character not in any canonical Stephen King story but one that could have fit in to any of his novels pretty easily).
At the gas station, Burt gets told pre-emptively that there's no gas at the station and that he can't use the bathroom without buying gas. When he tells the owner he just needs to make a phone call, the old man tells him there's no phone either. He gives directions to the considerably-far-away Hemingford as a consolation prize and says there's no phones at all in Gatlin (which is supposed to be a lot closer)--he also says the Gatlin folks don't like outsiders, which is a bit of an understatement. His dog Sarge barks nervously at the omnipresent cornfields as the wind starts to pick up. Burt leaves, following the instructions that are supposed to get him to Hemingford as nasty storm clouds roll in (twice!) and Malachai eventually shows up with some assistants to shank the gas station owner with a meat hook, chisel and butcher knife for essentially no reason (he also kills the man's dog to establish a threat, which is the mark of a true asshole--both for the character and filmmakers).
On the road, the sign for Gatlin from Sarah's drawing shows up; looks like the corn flakes in Gatlin have interfered with them in order to misdirect travelers. During the increasingly rough drive, Burt's car bumps and thumps over lots of obstacles in the dirt roads before circling back to the gas station (complete with reveal to the audience, but not Burt or Vicky, that the owner's deader than disco). Back in Gatlin, Isaac is giving a sermon (complete with a handheld corncob Jesus prop) about "He Who Walks Behind the Rows", the new god they worship in lieu of the old one from the Bible. The new deity apparently is just as fond of bloodshed as the one that ended the life of everyone on Earth except for Noah and his family, so the sermon's about properly serving He Who Walks Behind the Rows through the deaths of properly chosen victims. In the background of this scene is a crucified skeleton wearing a police uniform. Either He Who Walks Behind the Rows likes cops, or he really doesn't like cops.
The sermon continues; He Who Walks Behind the Rows has summoned outsiders that need to be bled dry for His satisfaction. I think that's supposed to be Burt and Vicky. It better be, since they're the only other characters in the movie. An interminable sequence of creepy kids spying on the Burt-and-Vickymobile as it drives through the town ensues. The diner from that opening murder sequence is deserted and the pay phone doesn't work. There's a rat on the diner counter, so rat enthusiasts will enjoy at least a couple seconds out of the tedium and perfunctory scares in the film. After seeing three kids goofing with his car Burt and Vicky pursue and lose them and decide to take off for Hemingford since there weren't any people willing to talk to or help them in Gatlin. Fatefully, though, Burt sees someone in a house and leave Vicky in the car like an idiot when he goes to see if there is a person willing to let him use a telephone in the house. He goes inside and finds it to be just as deserted as every other building that he's seen in Gatlin. There's only so much I can say about scenes where two people walk through an empty house, and I think I've already said all of it. Though there's a noticeably non-creepy scene where Burt sees a bunch of Sarah's psychic crayon drawings on the wall and a false scare where he and Vicky bump into each other (complete with musical sting).
Then they find Sarah in a room listening to Del Shannon's "Runaway", so at least something happened in this part of the movie. Vicky tries to establish rapport with Sarah and find out what the heck is going on in Gatlin. The first piece of useful information Sarah gives out is that all the grownups in town are "in the cornfield", which Burt and Vicky probably take to mean that they're farming instead of fertilizing until Sarah starts to clarify things. I don't know how much of Sarah's unwillingness to talk about Isaac and what's going on in the town is the character doing it and how much is the script keeping things vague to pad the running time, but I'm suspecting it's a lot more from Column B than it is from Column A.
Like a complete dipshit, Burt goes off to look for a working phone and leaves Vicky alone in the deserted house full of creepy drawings. At least he gives Vicky the car keys before taking off. Vicky asks Sarah to draw her a picture (and promises not to tell Malachai or Isaac, both of whom get a mention for being in charge and dangerous if crossed. While Burt walks around not noticing some pretty obvious goddamned danger signs, Malachai and some of his young thugs surround the house while holding sickles and baling hooks. The kids advance on the house, and break in quietly, but en masse. Burt keeps looking for a working phone (and disregards all the dried cornstalks all over everything far past the point where it makes sense, or even looks sane).
Back at the house / art gallery, Sarah draws a picture of Vicky that we don't get to see; there's plenty of ominous creaking floorboards but the homicidal kids take a good long while to reveal their presence. They eventually take Vicky away (unharmed, at least for now, because He Who Walks Behind the Rows doesn't like damaged goods when it's sacrificin' time. Burt has a psychic flash, I guess, that Vicky's in danger and runs back to the house where they found Sarah (and we belatedly see that Sarah's picture was of Vicky being sacrificed in the cornfield). Burt questions Sarah at great length about where his girlfriend was taken, and we join our sacrifice ritual in the cornfield, already in progress.
Isaac's chewing out Malachai in the field; the knife-happy teen didn't make a proper offering when he killed Joseph. On top of that, he didn't make a proper offering when he killed Sarge the dog or the gas station owner. He Who Walks Behind the Rows is apparently sick of Malachai's shit and Isaac delivers this message (or Isaac uses his religion as a convenient cudgel to verbally beat someone bigger and stronger than him--and who also is very good at stabbing).
After getting a look at the psychic spooky kid drawing Burt heads off to the cornfield, where a row of stalks parts so he can enter. Back in the cornfield, an indeterminate distance and direction from where Burt ran off (thanks to indifferent editing we have no idea whether or not Burt's running in the right direction or how long it'll take him to get to the sacrifice), Vicky's been tied to a cross and anointed with cornstalks. The kids are all chanting "Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!" but at least at this point nobody's doing anything more that that.
At the church, Amos (a true believer that I don't think we've seen in the movie yet) is slicing a pentagram in his chest and gathering the resulting blood flow in a corn-kernel lined bowl. There's a lot of corn and corn-based handicrafts in this film, making it look like the worlds least safe state fair exhibit. Burt kicks in the church door and asks what the heck is going on; Amos says it's his birthday so it's his turn to get sacrificed to He Who Walks Behind the Rows (which makes me wonder what kind of special revelation Isaac is going to have to pull out of his ass when he turns old enough to smoke, vote, and buy Penthouse in order to avoid getting sacrificed).
We get a little bit of exposition when Burt asks Amos what's going on, but only a little bit until the kid who was going to drink some of Amos' blood in an unexplained ritual shanks him with a corncob-handled switchblade. Yes, it's as goofy-looking as it sounds. Also, I guess maybe that girl was just really thirsty. Burt pulls the knife out of his chest and escapes the church, virtually every child in the building running after him in hot pursuit. For once it's the guy in a horror movie that trips and falls for no reason when the menace is after him. Surrounded by the Kellogg Youth, he makes a second run for it and hides out in a garage until Malachai sees him and enters. Burt wallops the kid with a crowbar and dashes off a third time. Job the narrator leads Burt to the fallout shelter that Job and Sarah's dad built as a hideout for when the Soviets took over Nebraska. Burt patches himself up with a first-aid kit while Job explains that Isaac used to be a child preacher of the holy rolling Old Testament type until he picked a new and slightly more bloodthirsty deity.
Back at the cornfield, Malachai decides that he's bigger, stronger, carrying a knife and tired of putting up with Isaac's ceremonial speechifying when there's so much killing to be done (and, at least to my mind, setting up a Reformation in time for him to live longer than one day past his 18th birthday). He orders the other kids to cut Vicky down from her cross and tie Isaac up as the night's other sacrifice to He Who Walks Behind the Rows. As another part of his takeover of the Gatlin Corn Shuck Satanic Youth Cult and Pottery Workshop he hauls Vicky out to an indeterminate part of downtown (all those parking lots look the same, and we don't get an establishing shot of, say, the diner so we know that he's at a place the viewer would know about). After some preliminary yelling for Burt to give himself up he slices Vicky's cheek so she'll scream and draw her boyfriend out of hiding.
Burt doesn't hear the yelling from either character in the bomb shelter, but Job decides that it's an opportune time to tell the grownup from the outside world that "the lady" has been taken to He Who Walks Behind the Rows' preferred snack spot. So as night falls and there's a corn-stalk-thumping procession that demands a singalong of the chorus to "Have I the Right?". Isaac is already strung up on a cross and yelling at everyone for their blasphemy in their choice of victim (this time) but Amos is really chill about getting to be eaten by whatever monster is hanging out in the cornfield. In this scene, by the way, Isaac sounds like a furious prepubescent Joe Pesci.
Burt and the two heretic siblings run to a barn so the kids can hide and Burt can try to charge in like the cavalry to save his girlfriend. Night falls instantaneously and Burt grabs a lead pipe, one of many preferred weapons for doomed last charges in horror movies. Amos, in the clearing, senses the approach of He Who Walks Behind the Rows while some pretty boss matted-in storm clouds fill the sky. And, to be fair, the burrowing shape under the soil that shows where He Who Walks Behind the Rows is moving is quite cool. I'm sure if this story was adapted today it'd be an indifferent-to-shitty CGI effect but at the time this film was made they just rigged up a trench with some sort of thing in it, covered it loosely with dirt, and pulled it along via a rope or chain to make the presence of the monster known. The sound design as it tunnels through the earth is also great, but the glowing cartoon effect that shows up seconds later pisses away all the good will that the admittedly cool practical gag brought to the audience. Then Isaac's cross gets launched into the air like a Stomp Rocket(TM) and the movie's cheese has slipped well and truly off the cracker.
Then, as the movie staggers and lurches to its ending, Burt gives one of those Captain Kirk speeches about how wrong everyone around him is. Sadly, the kids don't bum-rush him and poke him full of holes (although Malachai beats on him with a chain briefly before Burt slaps him stupid). There's still too much movie to go before the actual ending, so a possessed Isaac comes back and says "He wants you too, Malachai". Which is nonsensical--if He Who Walks Behind the Rows was speaking through His prophet, He should have said "I want you," instead. If Isaac isn't possessed he shouldn't be speaking in Constipated Batman Voice, and if there's more than one demon, halfway through the third act of the film is a dogshit time to introduce that concept after having a sole supernatural threat established since the fifteen minute mark or so.
Anyway, Malachai gets necksnapped by Possessed Isaac, lighting from a storm out of nowhere strikes the barn (to absolutely no effect), and Sarah says all the weird shit going on is He Who Walks Behind the Rows manifesting in person. After a goddamned hour and change Job is a fountain of exposition, telling Burt that a Bible passage (helpfully underlined) is the secret weapon against the monster, and that the cop we saw crucified earlier was goofing with the still when he got taken and sacrificed. So...Bible verse, engraved lighter from the first scene, 7-Up bottle and still full of flammable liquid in the middle of a dry cornfield hooked up to the irrigation sprayers. I think we all know how this is going to end up. Okay, the corn stalks and leaves wrapping around Burt shows that the director saw The Evil Dead, but it turns out that a pocket knife can get Burt out of that hazard.
When He Who Walks Behind the Rows finally does show up, it's an orange cloud rolling in from the horizon. I know that nothing a cheap movie from 1984 was going to live up to the demonic potential of that idea, but it's like the filmmakers didn't even try. Anyway, the cornfield catches on fire and we get to see a mushroom cloud with an evil face screaming when the demon finally checks out. Less than fifty seconds onscreen for a ninety minute movie? I feel ripped off, and I watched this on Netflix.
One final "hey the killer kid is after you" popup scare and everyone walks off to Hemingford to summon police and wrap up whatever dangling plot threads nobody even cares about at this point. Theend.
What a piece of shit. The sequel rights to this one must have been traded away for a hot lunch and a pint of off-brand paint thinner; that's the only way I can imagine a movie this rote and uninspired could have inspired a remake and more than half a dozen sequels. It was tame (other than the transgressive shock value of showing killer kids) to the point where it could likely be shown on TV without having to bleep more than a couple words of profanity. The gore was minimal, and the cinematography ranged from uninspired to confusing. Well, I finally got around to seeing this one, so I guess I can scratch another Eighties franchise startup flick off the list, but that's literally the only positive I've got out of the experience.
That's not entirely true. I've got the best excuse imaginable to throw a link up about a chainsaw sculpture of Ronald McDonald that some friends of mine stumbled across in Iowa.