Worst to First: Children of the Corn

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2018-10-29 19:30
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In one of the oddest turn of events in horror history, Children of the Corn has become the lone enduring franchise inspired by Stephen King’s work. Sure, some titles have inspired a sequel or two here and there, but something about this premise has seemed appealing enough to warrant ten movies. At this point, it’s even outpaced genre stalwarts like Freddy, Chucky, and Pinhead, though I’ll wager only a small handful of people are aware of that. Hell, I’d wager most people don’t even realize it’s even a thing, which makes it all the more incredible that this thing keeps going 25 years after the last entry to earn a big screen release bowed in theaters. Even more astounding is that it was inspired by a film that didn’t make much of splash when it was released, as the original Children of the Corn did middling business at the box office before becoming a video store staple, where its title must have entered the vernacular and become synonymous with creepy kid horror movies—or at least that’s my guess.

How else do you account for a franchise that continues without any sort of rabid fan base to speak of? In fact, I’m guessing you have to belong to a very specific generation to even hold fond memories of it: if you were the type of kid who was virtually raised in a video store throughout the 90s, your path likely crossed paths with He Who Walks Behind the Rows quite often, placing you in an exclusive club of folks who can even remember watching these things, much less enjoying them. I mean, someone else kind of enjoyed these things, right? Or is it just me, the type of person who’s predisposed to liking just about anything involving cornfields, harvest moons, barns, and scythes being wielded as murder weapons? Maybe don’t answer that question.

10. Children of the Corn: Genesis (2011)

    After a decade-long layoff for the “proper” series (if you could really even call it that), Dimension dusted the property off, albeit with one sobering caveat: it’s not that someone at the studio suddenly caught a spark of inspiration—rather, Dimension had to produce a new sequel to retain the rights. Whether this was true of previous entries is unclear, but, either way, the obligatory nature of this one is evident in every frame of the dreadful Genesis. Weirdly enough, it is oddly ambitious on paper, as the familiar setup involving a couple breaking down on the road leads to a surprisingly intimate, psychologically-driven ordeal when they turn to a preacher (Billy Drago) and his wife (Barbara Nedeljakova) for help. Far removed from the typical series lore, Genesis mostly revolves around one child that’s been “blessed” with various mind-bending powers. It’s just too bad nothing seems to happen for long stretches, and whatever wrinkles are introduced to the mythology are explained by Drago’s cryptic, expository mumbling. Props to Joel Soisson and company for not trying to overstep their very meager bounds, but Dimension apparently didn’t even bother to scrounge up enough resources to make an interesting movie involving one child of the corn, much less several of them. Easily the franchise nadir, Genesis sets a pretty low bar that the rest of these offerings clear fairly handily.

9. Children of the Corn: Revelation (2001)

    I’m not sure we talk enough about how Children of the Corn managed seven sequels in the span of nine years, a remarkable feat made all the more remarkable that it really didn’t spiral out of control until towards the end of that run. Revelation is where it bottomed out, though: after the first handful of Dimension sequels sent audiences on a delirious ride through some legitimately unhinged (and often gore-soaked) efforts, this was the sobering comedown. Say what you want about those films, but at least they left some kind of impression. On the other hand, Revelation is a total black hole of a movie that practically erases itself from your brain as you’re watching it. In this one, you snooze your way through a girl’s return to Gatlin to seek out her missing grandmother, only to—you guessed it—run afoul of a group of weird kids that may be connected to the old woman’s disappearance. Nothing about this really works, at least not until the climax, when the movie springs to life with some silly embellishments.

    Up until that point, though, nothing really works: the death sequences are uninspired, the characters are forgettable, and Michael Ironside (appearing in a handful of scenes as Exposition Priest) is utterly wasted. By the time you do reach the climax—which features young children speaking with adult voices and awful CGI corn stalks sprouting to foil our protagonists—you can’t bother to be roused. I’d like to think there’s a reason Dimension put this franchise out to pasture for several years following Revelation, but something tells me they didn’t suddenly grow a conscience about the quality so much as they must have seen declining rental sales.

8. Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return (1998)

    Some credit is due to this franchise for making it six movies in before things get too dicey. It was a good run, but, again, you can only expect so much from a series that churned out entries on a near-yearly basis. Weirdly enough, 666 has one of the more interesting hooks: where the previous sequels largely ignored any semblance of continuity, this one acts as a direct sequel to the original film, complete with John Franklin’s return as Isaac. It turns out his encounter with He Who Walks Behind the Rows merely left him comatose for nearly 20 years, a fate he shakes off as a minor inconvenience once he wakes up here. His recovery coincides with the arrival of a girl seeking answers about her mysterious birth in Gatlin two decades ago, right around the time Isaac commanded his cult to murder their parents. Unfortunately, there’s just not a whole lot of intrigue to be found here: props to Isaac’s Return for attempting to recapture the spirit of the original CotC, but it falls flat at just about every turn, squandering whatever potential it might have (not to mention appearances by Stacy Keach and Nancy Allen).

    Gnarly gore—a bisection via machete is especially brutal—can’t outpace a story guided by increasingly lame twists and turns that eventually bring the revelation that He Who Walks Behind the Rows has taken the form of an asshole 90s kid sporting a bad leather jacket. Even worse, this is the lone entry technically set around Halloween, yet there’s absolutely no holiday trimming to be found, thus firmly cementing Isaac’s Return as the first true dud in the series. Cool titling convention, though—I’m sure legions of grandparents clutched their pearls as they strolled past the box art during their weekly trip to Blockbuster.

7. Children of the Corn (2009)

    Don’t let this film’s placement towards the end of this list fool you: there’s a huge gap in quality between this redux and the aforementioned films. You could be forgiven for assuming otherwise, given this new adaptation originally premiered on the SyFy Channel, a network whose reputation definitely precedes it at this point. But even now, nearly ten years since its release, it remains surprisingly decent, if not still a little rickety around the edges. For one, Vicky and Burt (David Anders & Kandyse McClure) aren’t nearly as likeable as their predecessors, nor do they seem to be as smart, so the whole affair quickly degenerates into watching this new batch of creepy bastards stalk them. Unfortunately, since this take removes a lot of the on-screen carnage that helps to make the original so indelible, and director David P. Borchers (who also produced the original film) attempts to compensate with a CGI car explosion and various scenes of Burt obliviously rummaging around this ghost town in search of people. To its credit, this Children of the Corn does seek to separate itself with a bizarre climax, which finds Burt witnessing a ritual where two older teenagers have sex in front of an entire congregation. It’s…something else, let’s just say that. Ditto for a strange, elongated post-credits scene that really feels like it should just be the final scene of the actual movie.

6. Children of the Corn: Runaway (2018)

    I’m of two minds when it comes to the latest entry in the CoTC saga. On the one hand, I have to respect that John Gulager sought to do something different with this series by returning to the original’s more grounded, dramatic approach. But on the other hand, I also can’t deny it sometimes leaves me wishing for more of the franchise’s signature carnage. Sometimes, a man just really wants to see farming tools wielded as murder weapons, you know? Call it a split decision, so I’m placing it right here, towards the middle of the list—I could see it rising in stature as the years go on, assuming I ever bother to revisit this franchise again (current status: unlikely!), and it has lingered fairly well in my mind since watching it. As you’ll soon see, this won’t be the first time this list forces me to wrestle with the choice between honoring basic decency (well, as much as there can be any in this case) and just embracing pure schlock. For now, the latter is winning out—while, again, I’m happy to see Gulager’s measured attempt to make a Children of the Corn film that’s about something, I’m not sure it can supplant the 90s DTV efforts in my heart just yet.

5. Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996)

    Speaking of which, here’s the point that the series pretty much figured out what it really is: a thinly veiled excuse to have hapless victims fall prey to homicidal kids. To its credit, The Gathering at least tries to cling to some pretense of a story, as it centers on a girl (Naomi Watts!) returning to her hometown to care for her sick mother (Karen Black!), only to find that the entire town’s population of children is succumbing to a mysterious illness. Because she’s actually home from medical school, it puts her in a perfect position to resume her old post at the town clinic, where she quickly discovers a supernatural menace. In this case, it’s actually not He Who Walks Behind the Rows, who takes a complete break from the series, meaning The Gathering is one of the more odd entries. However, it’s also a perfectly serviceable one that’s loaded with terrific gore and some fresh lore for once: in fact, the scene where the heroine discovers the town’s sordid history is genuinely eerie. Toss in that patented mid-90s Dimension sheen and a weirdly great cast, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a perfectly fine Children of the Corn movie.

4. Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)

    Much of the same can be said for Fields of Terror, only it sports even less pretense: abandoning any notion that these movies really need to be about anything, Part V recognizes that Children of the Corn is the perfect vehicle for a dumb splatter movie. The plot—so much as there is one—involves a group of super disposable college students (among them: Alexis Arquette and Eva Mendes, fulfilling the “recognizable stars” quotient) rolling through Gatlin and becoming mincemeat for the newest batch of killer tykes. Sure, one of them technically discovers that her runaway brother is amongst the pack, so the film feigns some interest in that.

    But let’s be real—it’s not like it exactly begs you to give a shit about that when it’s more concerned with indulging absolute nonsense, like a subplot that involves a dude leaving behind a trail of blow-up dolls for his friends to follow. Nothing quite captures Fields of Terror quite like that: this is a terminally silly entry, one that has local police tossing dismembered body parts onto piles and characters falling into the pit of an eternal flame. Truth be told, it’s pretty close in quality with its predecessor but earns the nod via crucial tiebreaker: when in doubt, go with the movie that boasts the likes of Kane Hodder, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, and David Carradine. Besides, I’m pretty sure this is the only movie where you can see the latter’s head split right open and blowtorch the former’s face off.

3. Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1992)

    Props to Children of the Corn for working “final” into the subtitle of its second film. Most franchises at least make it a few movies in before baiting its audience with such bullshit that it’ll walk back soon enough. CotC obviously followed suit there’s eight goddamn more of these things after The “Final” Sacrifice. Anyway, it took nearly a decade for Miramax to capitalize on the original film, at which point they started turning it into a cottage industry of DTV splatter nonsense—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Vaguely following the events of the original film, Part II finds a news reporter (with his asshole teenage son in tow—shades of Return to Salem’s Lot!) investigating the mysterious events in Gatlin, only to discover the horrors are continuing a few towns over, where the remaining children of the corn have been relocated, ready to unleash hell on more adults. Gleefully wicked and mean-spirited in a way its predecessor isn’t, The Final Sacrifice charted the immediate course for the sequels, most of which indulged the killer kid premise as an excuse to stage gory nonsense.

    Just about everything you need to know about this one can be found in a scene where these demented little bastards commandeer an old lady’s wheelchair and maneuver it to the center of a road, where an oncoming 18-wheeler plows into her, sending her flying through the window of the local bingo parlor. Yes, there’s a game in progress, and, yes, of course someone hits bingo right before the lady crashes the party. It might be the series high point, and the good news is there’s plenty more to go around: a chintzy Lawnmower Man-inspired sequence, killer sentient corn, and another old lady being crushed to death by her house propel this genuinely insane sequel to the upper echelon on the series.

2. Children of the Corn (1984)

    The original film ranks among the best of this series, if only because it’s one of the very few trying to be an actual movie. Yes, it opens with a Grand Guignol bang, as the original psychotic kids from Gatlin brutally massacre a slew of adults, spilling blood and severing body parts galore. But from there, it settles into this genuinely eerie tale of two unfortunate tourists (Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton) who cross paths with what’s left of Gatlin—namely, the group of kids now firmly under the sway of Isaac (John Franklin), an enigmatic child preacher whose Old Testament brand of justice is inspired by the mysterious “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” Unlike so many of the other Corn movies, Fritz Kiersch’s take respects the quiet stillness of King’s original story (even if the producers did discard his original screenplay); it’s less a splatter movie and more an unsettling Twilight Zone episode embellished with potent Wicker Man vibes. There’s genuine intrigue in the way the creepy kid concept intertwines with religious hysteria, plus Isaac and his rival Malachai are easily the closest this franchise ever came to producing iconic antagonists. They’re not just little shits—they’re insane little shits amped up to pulpy levels of hysterics by the time the wild climax unlooses the sort of nonsense that would come to define this franchise.

1. Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995)

    Determining the top spot here once again had me wrestling with my conscience: do I show reverence towards the original film’s sincere attempt at crafting a creepy, atmospheric, and mostly faithful adaptation of King’s work, or do I just abandon all sense of decency and crown Urban Harvest? Never let it be said that I have much sense or decency, I guess, because in this debate, you can bet I’m going with the gonzo sequel that features a Damien knock-off raising all sorts of hell when he’s relocated from Gatlin to Chicago. By all means, give the one that features this little bastard putting cockroaches into the school lunch as his minion corn stalks wrap themselves around a homeless dude. I most certainly want the one where He Who Walks Behind the Rows is re-imagined as a Sam Raimi-esque demon, brought to wild, delirious life by Screaming Mad George’s special effects team. And, not for nothing, this is the one where the future megastar happens to be Charlize Theron (as a glorified background extra, but still), just in case we needed another tie-breaker.

    Obviously, the change in location does wonders for this franchise, and the concept breaks away from the tired formula that finds strangers drawn to Gatlin, allowing this one to play out a little bit more like a typical slasher movie. I know what you’re thinking: that’s an improvement, especially when this thing dropped right in the middle of the 90s? Look, friends, I never pretended to have the best taste, and I can only appreciate it when a sequel in a wayward franchise decides to just cash in all of its chips and embrace the utter lunacy of its premise. Did I mention this one also features a scene where a dude’s head is ripped off with the spinal cord still intact? The only issue with this one is that it sets up carnage on a worldwide scale, something no sequels ever followed up on, presumably because Dimension knew it'd be an impossible act to follow.

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