King's "Children" Revisited

This is part 1 in my series: The Decade Long Stephen King Cinematic Orgy

By 1980 Stephen King's was one of the single most marketable names in all of entertainment. To this day, perhaps no one man can claim as large an influence on the direction of horror literature or even film as King. This fact is made all the more interesting when one considers that most of his best work had been published and brought to the screen by the time the first Clinton took office.

I don't want to dwell too much on my love of King now, there'll be plenty of time for that later, but I do want talk a little bit about one of my favorite King stories that was adapted to film, one that came toward the end of what I've lovingly called The Decade Long Stephen King Cinematic Orgy.

Let me set the stage quickly: Although he had published some work before then, King would eventually emerge as a literary powerhouse in 1974, when his first full-length novel, Carrie sold over a million copies in paperback. Two years later Brian De Palma would bring that story to the screen in an excellent adaptation. The strong reception of Carrie opened the doors for a decade worth of non-stop King adaptations, which really picked up steam in 1980 with Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (a film that King, to this day, does not approve of). Between 1980 and 1986, King's name would drive the release of 11 theatrical releases by my count. The TV adaptation of Salem's Lot in '79, along with Carrie, round out the Decade (from '76 to '86) at a fitting 13 films.

Today though, I wanted to spend a little time with Children of the Corn, a movie I had the chance to revisit this weekend. The short story on which the film is based originally appeared in Penthouse magazine in 1977, and was published as part of the outstanding collection Night Shift a year later. The story was hands down one of my favorites growing up, and the film was actually an early horror favorite as well.

For the uninitiated, the plot centers on a town where the kids have murdered all of the adults at the behest of a god they call "He Who Walks Behind the Rows." The setting is one of those sleepy Midwestern towns surrounded by seas of corn, which creates a nice ambiance of isolation. When two unwitting adults stumble into the town, they are forced to reckon with these religiously smitten children and their creepy-ass leader, Isaac. As you can see in the picture above, things don't go so well.

On re-watching the movie for the first time in probably ten years, I was a little disappointed that it didn't hold up better. It shouldn't have been that big a surprise though, as it featured a screenwriter and a director with virtually no other credits of note to their names. I had always wondered why Children doesn't get more love among the community, but there's plenty of reasons why.

One thing that always stuck with me was the opening sequence:

As a kid, that scene creeped me the hell out, and even today, it's not a bad effort, but the voice over by the little boy, which persists throughout the film, really destroys any hope of maintaining an unsettling aesthetic. The two "good kids" were the main additions to the film adaptation from the original story, and they are also the main detractors from what King had originally created. While the little girl's ability to "see," largely serves to explain why Isaac doesn't just offer the pair up to "He Who Walks Behind the Rows," that ability originally rested with Isaac in the story, and went a long way toward explaining his power over the town's children. Ultimately, the two serve as a point of identification for the audience, and a focal point of the adult visitors' attempts to save the children.

In reality, the film holds its own for the first two acts, probably because they hew closest to the source material. It's in the finale, where Peter Horton and pre-Terminator Linda Hamilton do battle with "He Who Walks...," that everything comes undone. As you might imagine, this was a Hollywood addition: King's story contains little of the optimism we find at the end of the cinematic Children.

Beyond the unsatisfying nature of this new finale, the film's ending also shoehorns a lot of poor special effects into the proceedings. In this way, the film breaks cardinal rule one of horror, which is to always show less when possible. Most will remember the gopher-like bump moving through the corn. If that were the end, it likely would have been fine, but instead, "He Who Walks..." becomes an amorphous, neon blob, and later an enormous neon cloud. Thank god filmmakers got these things out of their system in the '80s because I have a hard time believing they were scary then and they definitely aren't scary now.

Children of the Corn will probably be remembered as one of the lesser films of the Decade Long Stephen King Cinematic Orgy, which is a shame, because the story itself is one of King's better short pieces. There's certainly some things to like here, and for anyone who's a fan of King, it's probably a must see, if only for a chuckle. Children, in 1984, really may be seen as a turning point in the Decade: other than Stand by Me in '86, the best films of this period were already in the past. One can only wonder though, what this film might have been with more talent behind the camera. Despite the fact that Children spawned an incomprehensible six sequels, the promise of the story is almost enough to make one dream of a remake.

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