Children of the Corn (1984) (Blu-ray)

Children of the CornStarring Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton, Courtney Gains, John Franklin

Directed by Fritz Kiersch

Distributed by Arrow Video


While IT (2017) is currently steamrolling box office records on its way to becoming the highest grossing horror film of all time (not adjusted for inflation; The Exorcist (1973) will never be topped in that regard), you had better believe studio heads are feverishly looking to greenlight every possible Stephen King property for modern audiences. To their advantage, King’s work has famously produced more cinematic duds than classics (like this summer’s waste of talent, The Dark Tower), and there are a number of been-done features ripe for a remake. One that I would suggest be tackled is “Children of the Corn”, a 1977 short story King wrote that first appeared in Penthouse (see, sometimes the articles are worth reading) and later found a permanent home in Night Shift, a collection of his shorter works. In 1984, the story was commissioned for a feature film, with King himself writing the first draft of the script, though it was eventually discarded for a draft done by George Goldsmith. Although the film has a strong cult following and is responsible for spawning nine sequels/remakes/whatever-they-are, it strays so far from King’s disturbing, dark original story that the property is ripe for reworking – and before anyone says ”They did that with the 2009 version”… try watching it again and get back to me.

In the small Midwestern town of Gatlin, NE all of the local children have fallen under the spell of Isaac (John Franklin), a self-proclaimed prophet who orders the murder of every adult in town (specifically, anyone over the age of 19) as a sacrifice to He Who Walks Behind the Rows. Cut to three years later and Gatlin is a virtual ghost town, surrounded by fields of corn and bereft of adult supervision. Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton) are traveling cross country to Seattle, where newly-minted doctor Burt will begin his practice. As the couple approaches Gatlin Burt, distracted while driving, hits a young boy who was in the road. Closer inspection reveals the boy’s throat had been cut prior to the accident. Burt and Vicky head to the only service station near town and find an old man (R.G. Armstrong) who implores them to avoid Gatlin and head up the highway to the next town.

Despite the old man’s advice, all roads seem to lead to Gatlin and Burt finally relents and enters the city limits. There, he and Vicky meet Job (Robby Kiger) and Sarah (Anne Marie McEvoy), two of the only children in town who refused to participate in Isaac’s bloodshed. Job is adept at sneaking around but Sarah has the true gift, able to see visions of future events through her dreams. Vicky remains behind with Sarah while Burt heads off into town in search of help, finding nothing but empty homes and savage youths. The children operate under the ruthless guidance of Malachai (Courtney Gains), Isaac’s “muscle” who is even more sadistic than the diminutive deacon. With Burt off on his own tangent, the children kidnap Vicky as an intended sacrifice to He Who Walks Behind the Rows, setting up a showdown between Burt and a horde of brainwashed kids.

The original short story got under my skin when I read it… oh, twenty years ago or so. There are passages in that little tale that have stuck with me, all these years later. King has a way of describing deaths so succinctly, yet also in such a way that your mind ruminates on the methods of dispatch long after you have finished his works. He provides just enough detail to chill, but not so much you feel like you’re reading Saw: The Book or something. Now, don’t get me wrong I love me some 1984 Corn Kids, but part of me has always been a little bummed the film didn’t venture into unconventional filmmaking territory.

Linda Hamilton makes her feature debut here, a mere six months before the release of her watershed classic, The Terminator (1984). Of the two leading adults – R.G. Armstrong doesn’t exactly count, given his one-day-of-shooting role – Hamilton emotes and out-acts her beau, Peter Horton, who just falls flat in the leading man category. Hamilton is mostly sidelined until she becomes the typical damsel in distress but she sells the role well enough. Horton has always been a bit too lifeless for me.

The real meaty work here is done by the kids, especially Franklin and Gains. The sermons given by Franklin are chock full of hellfire and brimstone, portending unimaginable agony for those who would defy the word of He Who Walks Behind the Rows. Although only a boy of twelve, Franklin looks older (he was 23 at the time of filming, but a growth hormone disorder left him looking and sounding like an adult/child hybrid) and speaks like a seasoned preacher. His scene chewing is only surpassed by Gains as Malachai, Isaac’s right-hand man who is all-too-eager to shed blood. Here’s a fun drinking game: take a shot every time Malachai howls ”Outlander!”. Actually, don’t because you’ll probably get alcohol poisoning. Gains, with his brooding looks and fiery red hair, brings a savagery and apathy to Malachai that has helped him endure as one of the film’s true highlights.

Let me throw some praise over to composer Jonathan Elias, too, whose chanting child choir compositions are on par with such celebrated Satanic soundtracks as The Omen (1976) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Elias is a classically trained musician who began his career in film music by composing for trailers, like Alien (1979), before finally writing the score for his first feature, which was this film.

Blame it on nostalgia, but I still have a soft spot for director Fritz Kiersch’s interpretation of King’s short story all these years later despite its lack of bite and deviation from superior source material. Maybe it’s the austere Midwestern setting or just the general notion of a cult of children murdering adults and worshiping some… thing that dwells within the cornfield. Speaking of which, that was handled poorly… He Who Walks Behind the Rows turned out to be He Who Looks Like Someone Spilled a Highlighter. Didn’t they finally show it in the third film? Fourth? Who can remember? I do have a weakness for ‘90s horror. Maybe it’s time to revisit this series’ forgotten sequels…

Go ahead and toss that old Anchor Bay Blu-ray in the trash (ditto for the Image release) because the new 2K scan on Arrow Video’s 1.85:1 1080p image is a clear upgrade over past U.S. editions. There may be some debate by video purists between this version and the 88 Films version released in the U.K. but that is a discussion I’m not going to entertain. Also, I don’t own that edition for the sake of comparison. This release tightens up contrast and delivers an image that is moody and bleak. Some of the wheat-emblazoned brightness has been toned down but not to such a degree that faithful color timing is compromised. The picture Arrow presents is crystal clear in the daylight, with smooth, natural film grain, and nicely saturated colors. The palette has always hewed toward lighter Fall colors and that Midwestern appearance remains here. Black levels are mostly stable, with only a few scenes at night faltering toward hazy. The only time the image dips much, if at all, is during the nighttime stuff when some interior shots waver on tight contrast and film grain spikes a touch. This is definitely the best I have ever seen the film look in over 30 years of watching it, though, and that makes Arrow’s Blu-ray a clear winner.

Audio is presented with an English LPCM 2.0 stereo or DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track. The film was originally mixed in mono and I found the best audible experience came from the stereo track, although the multi-channel isn’t a slouch by any means. Effects get a bit more breathing room there but nothing about the expanded mix will impress on a sound system. Jonathan Elias’ score sounds utterly chilling in lossless, contributing, like, 85% of the film’s tension. Dialogue comes through clear and free of issues. Subtitles are available in English.

There are two audio commentary tracks – the first, a returning track featuring director Fritz Kiersch, producer Terrence Kirby, and actors John Franklin & Courtney Gains; the second, a new track with horror journalist Justin Beahm & Children of the Corn historian John Sullivan.

“Harvesting Horror” – This is a newly-shot retrospective piece, featuring interviews with Kiersch, Gains, and Franklin looking back on the production and delivering some interesting anecdotes.

“It Was the Eighties!” – A legacy interview with actress Linda Hamilton, this appeared on the previous Anchor Bay release.

“…And a Child Shall Lead Them” – An interview with actors Julie Maddalena (Rachel) and John Philbin (Amos), this piece runs for nearly an hour and covers a lot of ground.

“Field of Nightmares” – Writer George Goldsmith sits down to discuss how he got attached to the project, taking over for King, and more.

“Stephen King on a Shoestring” – This is an interview with producer Donald P. Borchers, who discusses his own long history with this property.

“Welcome to Gatlin” – This dual interview (conducted separately) features production designer Craig Stearns and composer Jonathan Elias discussing the sights & sounds of the sparse town.

“Return to Gatlin” – Take a trip back to the locations seen in the film, hosted by John Sullivan.

“Cut from the Cornfield” – Actor Rich Kleinberg, who portrayed “The Blue Man” talks about his infamous deleted scene which has only appeared in a single lobby card and is thought lost.

A storyboard gallery and a (rough) trailer are also included.

Finally, tucked away at the end of the features list is this cool bonus: Disciples of the Crow (1983), a short film based on King’s story made one year before production began on the full feature. It runs close to 20 minutes and is a very welcomed addition to this already-stacked package.

Additionally, this release includes a slick booklet filled with writings, production photos, and technical specs on the disc. There is also a double-sided poster, featuring new artwork created by Ghoulish Gary Pullin, as well as the original key art. A sexy slipcover is included on first pressings and the cover artwork on the disc is reversible.

Special Features:

  • Brand new 2K restoration from the original negative
  • Original Mono and 5.1 Audio Options
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Brand new audio commentary with John Sullivan of childrenofthecornmovie.com and horror journalist Justin Beahm
  • Audio commentary with director Fritz Kiersch, producer Terrence Kirby and actors John Franklin and Courtney Gains
  • Harvesting Horror: The Making of Children of the Corn – retrospective piece featuring interviews with director Fritz Kiersch and actors John Franklin and Courtney Gains
  • It Was the Eighties! – an interview with actress Linda Hamilton
  • Return to Gatlin – brand new featurette revisiting the film’s original Iowa shooting locations
  • Stephen King on a Shoestring – an interview with producer Donald Borchers
  • Welcome to Gatlin: The Sights and Sounds of Children of the Corn – an interview with production designer Craig Stearns and composer Jonathan Elias
  • Feeling Blue – an interview with the actor who played “The Blue Man” in the fabled excised sequence
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin
  • First pressing only: Collectors booklet featuring new writing in the film

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Anthony Arrigo

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