I was such a fan of the original CHILDREN OF THE CORN that, as a kid, I used to lie and tell people I had a bit-part as one of the film’s psychotic tykes. Amazingly, no one ever challenged my assertion (hellion that I was), making me a bit of a local celebrity (at least in Jr. High School). I didn’t officially drop the charade until I was in college.
No one ever sites CHILDREN OF THE CORN as their favorite film adaptation of a Stephen King story, which is understandable considering the writer’s impressive cannon. But the movie always resonated with me. As an adolescent, I enjoyed the idea of being part of a sexually active youth gang that scared the hell out of grown-ups! And as I reflect on the film as an adult, I see it as a chilling manifestation of parental anxieties. Creepy kids are a common horror motif, but matricide and patricide are especially devious demons.
I’d heard of various CHILDREN OF THE CORN sequels over the years but had no idea just how many there were until I recently stumbled upon Miramax Classics’ collection of the first 6 sequels (on sale for just $5). In all there are 8 CHILDREN OF THE CORN films (8!), plus a SyFy Channel made-for-TV remake. Obviously I’m not the only one who was impressed by the original film’s wellspring of insidiousness.
I decided to watch and rank all 9 CHILDREN OF THE CORN movies. Of course I had realistic expectations, knowing that most of the sequels went straight to DVD. But a film couldn’t possibly have this many chapters without a loyal fan base, right? And said fan base wouldn’t continue to gobble up sequel after sequel if they weren’t at least decent, right? Right?
The tasked proved arduous at times, but I absorbed all of the films, marathon style, over the course of 2 days. I now consider myself an expert on the fictional town of Gatlin, Nebraska, and the powerful unseen deity known as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows”.
Now, children, gather ‘round the fire as I recap this entire wicked franchise!
CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984, Directed by Fritz Kiersch, Screenplay by George Goldsmith)
Produced for $800K, CHILDREN OF THE CORN grossed over $14.5M worldwide, making it one of the most successful horror movies of 1984. It’s the story of a young couple whose car breaks down in the abandoned farming community of Gatlin, Nebraska. Years earlier, the children of Gatlin massacred all of the adults, establishing a religion that combines aspects of Christian rituals with pagan iconography.
The film takes itself completely seriously and succeeds thanks to the casts’ brilliant acting, which always feels authentic. The standouts are John Franklin as the child-preacher Isaac and Courtney Gains as the imposing ginger Malachai (Isaac’s bloodthirsty lieutenant). In retrospect, the 1980’s era SFX produce a bit of unintended humor, but a great scripts, and (most importantly) genuine, believable characters made this film an extremely chilling home-run! Obviously, the original CHILDREN OF THE CORN is the best of the entire series.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN II: THE FINAL SACRIFICE (1993, Directed by David Price, Screenplay by A.L. Katz & Gilbert Adler).
CHILDREN OF THE CORN II tells a great story. It kicks off in the immediate aftermath of the original: Law enforcement officers stumble upon scenes of gruesome violence as the remaining children are loaded onto buses and shipped one town over. Once resettled, the Gatlin children indoctrinate their new peers with the goal of establishing another murderous army. They introduce the concept of hallucinatory ergot mold as a possible explanation for the children’s lethal inclinations.
While the story is fantastic, the screenplay itself is lazy and flat. Attempts at straight-forward humor undermine the film’s otherwise pervasively dreadful mood. Not a single actor was good enough for an individual shout-out, save perhaps Ryan Bollman who plays Micha (this film’s Isaac). The wise Native American was a common (overused) motif in 1990’s cinema, and the inclusion of this tired stereotype in PART II is embarrassing. Despite its numerous shortcomings, THE FINAL SACRIFICE ties for second best of the entire franchise.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN III: URBAN HARVEST (1995, Directed by James D.R. Hickox, Screenplay by Dode B. Levenso)
With my expectations significantly lowered after viewing THE FINAL SACRIFICE, I actually found CHILDREN OF THE CORN III: URBAN HARVEST quite enjoyable. It has a quintessentially 1990’s vibe that reminded me of THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS. Daniel Cerny plays Eli—the best Isaac since the original child-profit. Set in a Catholic High School, URBAN HARVEST ventures into religious horror in a way that’s reminiscent of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and THE OMEN. The film culminates with the only physical manifestation we ever get of He Who Walks Behind the Rows, and, while the practical FX are laughable, the creature gore is extremely satisfying. The ending hints at a global conspiracy with much bloodshed yet to come.
URBAN HARVEST is also notable as Charlize Theron very first movie, and she receives an awesome dispatching in the cornfield. This chapter ties with THE FINAL SACRIFICE for second best in the franchise. As a trilogy, the first 3 CHILDREN OF THE CORN films are remarkably cohesive and, watched marathon style, have a somewhat triumphant conclusion.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN IV: THE GATHERING (1996, Directed by Greg Spence, Screenplay by Stephen Berger)
At best, THE GATHERING can be called a chilling stand-alone; at worst: A travesty of a film that has nothing to do with the original and thus, no right baring the CHILDREN OF THE CORN moniker. The story takes place in rural Nebraska amongst fields of corn, but there’s no connection whatsoever to Gatlin. It’s about the ghost of a child-preacher (who turns out not to be a child at all) and a litany of dead children who possess their living counterparts. Had this been its own movie, it could have been an effective supernatural chiller, like PUMPKINHEAD, for example. But as a part of the CHILDREN OF THE CORN franchise, it marks the beginning of a disappointing era of straight to DVD releases.
THE GATHERING is not without merit; if stars the beautiful and talented Naomi Watts as a med student returning home to care for her mentally unstable mother. It’s also beautifully shot; an interlude of the sun setting behind the corn is absolutely stunning. But the fact that there isn’t a connection to the original CHILDREN OF THE CORN means THE GATHERING ranks near the very bottom of the entire franchise: 8th out of 9.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN V: FIELDS OF TERROR (1998, Directed and Screenplay by Ethan Wiley)
While it isn’t exceptional in the slightest, FIELDS OF TERROR is (at least) a return to the true CHILDREN OF THE CORN cannon. This entry ventures into slasher territory when a car full of promiscuous young adults crosses paths with the puritanical yet murderous decedents of the original Gatlin youth cult. FIELDS OF TERROR is notable as Eva Mendez’s very first film; it also features a captivating (if confusing) sequence starring David Carradine as the “leader” of the children, as well as a great performance from a pre-transition Alexis Arquette.
If you’re into horror b-movies and films that are so-bad-they’re-good, chances are you’ll appreciate this film for what it is: Bubblegum. As neither extraordinary nor abysmal, FIELDS OF TERROR ranks dead center: 5th out of 9.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN 666: ISAAC’S RETURN (1999, Directed by Kari Skogland, Screenplay by Tim Sulka & John Franklin)
Having John Franklin returning as Isaac was initially intriguing, but it didn’t feel right. It was similar to when Robin Williams returned to Never Never Land as a grown-up in HOOK: Adults don’t belong in Never Never Land and they don’t belong in sinister youth cults either. Even if he had been lying in a coma since the end of the original CHILDREN OF THE CORN, the Isaac I know, the original child preacher, would have killed himself the moment he realized he had passed the “age of favor”. It’s what He Who Walks Behind the Rows would have wanted, am I right? It’s interesting yet inconsistent seeing multiple generation of the cult existing in harmony, considering “Youth vs Maturity” is the core conflict of the entire franchise.
While I appreciated the producers’ attempts to bolster mythology, the changes seem to jive with established CHILDREN OF THE CORN concepts as opposed to enhancing them. For these and other reasons, ISAAC’S RETURN ranks near the bottom of the list: 7th out of 9.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN: REVELATIONS (2001, Directed by Guy Magar, Screenplay by S.J. Smith)
I have mixed feelings about REVELATIONS; like THE GATHERING, any connection to the original CHILDREN OF THE CORN is tangential at best. But at least in this film, they mention Gatlin and a deity referred to as He Who Walks Behind the Rows. Jamie, played by Claudette Mink, is looking for her missing grandmother, a woman with ties to a child-cult.
REVELATIONS has a style that’s unique within the franchise: Nightmarish and surreal. It takes place in a crumbling tenement (surrounded by a field of corn, of course) that’s as moody and unnerving as the hotel in BARTON FINK. Fans of the SILENT HILL movies will probably quite enjoy this entry. The film may be “by-the-numbers” and filled with stereotypical archetypes (the grumpy pensioner, the smoked-out stoner, and the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, for example)—but it’s professional at every level. The acting is completely competent and the cinematography is great. So while I quite enjoyed this entry, its nebulous connection to the original CHILDREN OF THE CORN puts REVELATIONS on the bottom half of the list: 6th out of 9.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN: REMAKE (2009, Directed and Screenplay by Donald P. Borchers)
While most of the CHILDREN OF THE CORN remake feels identical to the original, it’s actually a truer interpretation of Stephen King’s short story. Unfortunately, this makes the adult protagonists completely unbearable. In 1984, Burt and Vicki were a likable couple with a great relationship; they were the kind of people you could bond with root for. As for the dysfunctional Burt and Vicki in the 2009 version: They couldn’t meet with the business end of a scythe fast enough! But the film is very well done overall and it’s great to see old Isaac and Malachai back in action (even if they’re portrayed by different actors).
It may be second only to the original CHILDREN OF THE CORN in terms of its entertainment value, themes, and execution, but it’s no match against the combined strength of the first three chapters (which, to me, feel like a cohesive Trilogy); it ranks 4th on the list.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN: GENESIS (2011, Directed and Screenplay by Joel Soisson)
The most recent chapter of the CHILDREN OF THE CORN franchise, 2011’s GENESIS, is hands-down the worst of the bunch—and that’s really saying something. It honestly feels like the producers dumped a bunch of equipment and actors on a remote set and told them: “Just make it up as you go.” It’s not just unforgivably lazy, it’s painfully boring. The plot makes no sense and, most unforgivably, there’s only a cursory connection to Gatlin. The film is set in California for pity’s sake! Horrible pacing makes this 75 minute flick feel like an eternity of suffering. Obviously, GENESIS ranks dead last, bottom of the list: 9th out of 9. Miss it at all costs.
- CHILDREN OF THE CORN
- CHILDREN OF THE CORN II: THE FINAL SACRIFICE
- CHILDREN OF THE CORN III: URBAN HARVEST
- CHILDREN OF THE CORN: REMAKE
- CHILDREN OF THE CORN V: FIELDS OF TERROR
- CHILDREN OF THE CORN: REVELATIONS
- CHILDREN OF THE CORN 666: ISAAC’S RETURN
- CHILDREN OF THE CORN IV: THE GATHERING
- CHILDREN OF THE CORN: GENESIS
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