Starring Naomi Watts, Nancy Allen, Eva Mendes, Alexis Arquette, David Carradine, Fred Williamson, John Franklin, Stacy Keach
Directed by James D. R. Hickox, Greg Spence, Ethan Wiley, Kari Skogland
Distributed by Echo Bridge Entertainment
As a fan of the Howling franchise (excluding the last two entries), I’d like to think I have a high tolerance for nonsense. So when I say that the Children of the Corn series on the whole is pretty miserable, it’s not to be taken lightly. You’d think that somewhere inside seven sequels (plus a remake), the creative team might’ve been able to knock it out of the park once. Fritz Kirsch’s 1984 original is hardly a good film, and I’d argue that the reason it endures at all is thanks in large part to its reputation rather than its quality. But these sequels? They’ve been on a steady decline (with one slight exception) since the ironically titled The Final Sacrifice (Part II!) hit theaters in 1992.
When Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest hit video shelves in 1995 (after a very limited theatrical exhibition), there was some minor buzz built around the fact that it was the “best” installment yet. Faint praise bolstered by a quote from Stephen King citing it as the only one of these damn things he actually enjoyed. I suppose the level of absurdity probably entertained King for the duration, although I’d argue that even that wears out its welcome long before the credits role.
The story displaces the two remaining “corn” children from Gatlin, Nebraska, Joshua and Eli, moving them to the big city where they’re placed in foster care. Joshua quickly settles in with some new friends while Eli clings to his roots: showing up to school in his faux Amish garb while lecturing anyone who’ll listen to the benefits of worshiping corn. This goes over like a lead balloon, and Eli quickly becomes the target of great scrutiny. Until he slowly begins converting the weakest among them.
He copes with homesickness by planting a corn field in a burnt-out building, introducing his followers to these sprawling fields of cob and the twisted ideals behind it. Before you can say “He Who Walks Behind the Rows”, there’s suddenly a bushel of little psychos haunting inner city Chicago. It takes forever for Joshua to realize there’s some chicanery amiss, and he’s eventually lured into a confrontation with Eli and his followers that results in our resident demon appearing on screen for the first (and only) time in the series. The climactic FX work is lame and unconvincing, even by low-budget standards, entirely diminishing any tension that might’ve come before it.
Urban Harvest also offers a hilarious subplot in which the foster father attempts to mass produce and distribute this nefarious corn, resulting in one of those ”oh, so that’s what the next one is going to be about…” endings (never mind that the next movie isn’t about this at all) that produces more groans and giggles than anything else. Give director James D.R. Hickox (brother of Hellraiser III director Anthony Hickox) credit for injecting some new life into an already tired formula; it’s just a shame he couldn’t have made it work a bit better.
Having said that, it’s certainly anything but boring. Production value is fair, performances aren’t bad and there’s some ridiculous and gory fun along the way (Johnny Legend shows up as a homeless man who munches corn with gusto only to be murdered for his hunger). The problem is that it’s not terribly memorable. If anyone’s keeping score, it is better than the last one, even if it doesn’t qualify as a “good” film. And the franchise would go on to continue its steady decline after a brief holdover with the next movie in the series…
Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering is something of a surprise. It’s a marginally better effort than the last time around, even if it ignores the previous film’s lead-in ending in favor of taking things back to rural America. The action isn’t in Gatlin this time, but yet another small Nebraska town. And our titular terrors aren’t much for sacrificing victims to good old ‘He Who Walks Behind the Rows’ either. Actually, they’re the victims of a mysterious virus that seems to be infecting all the kids at once. A small town med student (an early leading role for the lovely Naomi Watts) returns home to care for her ailing mother just in time to get swept up in the madness, and it soon falls to her to put an end to the mysterious plague.
If you took the corn out of the title, the fourth film in the franchise bears only a passing resemblance to the movies that came before it. Yes, there’s still a psychotic teenage preacher, but The Gathering plays much more like a ghost story than anything else. Director Greg Spence lends his film a nice atmosphere even when his soon-to-be victims do incredibly stupid things that propel their demise. The story unfolds at a good clip and with some decent third-act surprises along the way.
It doesn’t hurt that Watts carries the film almost entirely. Every bit as charismatic and likable here as in her ‘A-list’ career, it’s really no surprise that she became a huge star. Karen Black is on hand as Watts’ mother, although she doesn’t have much to work with. The child actors are sufficiently spooky when they’re asked to be, making this feel a lot more ‘professional’ than its DTV pedigree may suggest. The Gathering is the rare cheapie where the production really lucked out in landing a strong bunch of actors, and it’s to their credit that this one works as well as it does.
It goes without saying that Children of the Corn IV is the best of all the sequels. It’s hampered by some clunky set pieces (the barn murder is especially groan-inducing) that prevent it from reaching maximum potential, but it’s the perfect late night horror flick. Clocking in at 79 minutes without credits, there’s some fun to be had if you’re willing to go with it. Recommended, with tempered expectations.
Any notion that the series may continue improving with each passing entry is shattered with Fields of Terror – the fifth installment and a return to the mythology populated throughout the first three parts. This time a group of friends head into the country in order to scatter the ashes of one of their deceased buddies. They run afoul of the cultists who recruit some and butcher others. David Carradine is on hand as the cult leader, Fred Williamson plays the local Sheriff while Kane Hodder has a brisk cameo in a bar scene early on.
Fields of Terror actually begins well enough: The leads are likable (led by Alexis Arquette), the mythos unfurls in an intriguing way and there’s a nice sense of humor afloat. Never mind that the movie doesn’t really bother keeping itself aligned with previous mythologies. This time ‘He Who Walks Behind the Rows’ is some kind of parasite that hides inside a host while also infecting others. It devolves into fairly generic stuff from writer/director Ethan Wiley (responsible for the underrated and delightful House II: The Second Story), and when the movie begins to overstay its welcome, there’s still another 45 minutes to go.
The goodwill accrued in the beginning quickly gives way to a sluggish, repetitive bore with good moments few and far between. Our protagonists spend most of the third act hiding while lame CGI flails wildly and there’s some kind of power struggle between the kids. Heads explode, people catch fire and it all feels massively anticlimactic before it’s over.
But that’s nothing compared to the unmitigated disaster that is Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return. It asks us to forget that Isaac was utterly obliterated at the end of the original film, suggesting instead that he suffered serious burns and lapsed into a coma. And if that were the size of this sequel’s incompetence, it wouldn’t be so bad. But that doesn’t begin to describe the 82 minutes of misery that have been slapped together for this sixth entry in the long-winded franchise.
We return to Gatlin nearly twenty years after the events of the original, and John Franklin is back beneath the wide-brimmed hat as Isaac (he also wrote the script) – two elements that should’ve been enough to put this at least on par with The Gathering but instead result in an incoherent and problematic bore. Since we are in Gatlin again, we’re forced to contend with the improbable story device of Isaac’s son (when’d that happen, exactly?) along with the fulfillment of a mysterious prophecy that’s obvious from the get-go (hint: it involves our just arrived in town heroine). Atop that, there’s the presence of, um, ex-Corners, who’ve lived so long they’ve reached adulthood. Guess they’re not sacrificed at 18 anymore?
There’s also a lot of filler: Characters wander around dimly lit and flickering hallways for a third of the run time, Stacy Keach looks humiliated to be a part of this debacle as the town doctor while ancillary characters come and go with all the cohesion of your average Dimension production. Put another way, motivations are murky and confused across the board. Isaac was the most memorable aspect of the 1984 film, which begs the question of why Franklin essentially neutered his own character for his big return. Isaac doesn’t do a damn thing and the climactic battle pushes him aside almost instantly. Considering Franklin had scripting duties, it’s a baffling decision.
It’s incredible that the filmmakers would bother to get back to the series’ roots and then make something as rancid as Isaac’s Return. An unwatchable, disjointed effort that feels like every third scene is missing for as well as it adds up (read: it doesn’t). There’s absolutely no reason to take the trip back to Gatlin. As far as anyone should be concerned, Isaac was destroyed way back in 1984. This pile of junk will only sully whatever minor nostalgia exists for the character.
Echo Bridge packs four Children of the Corn sequels onto one Blu-ray disc and the results are… mixed. Urban Harvest and The Gathering fare the best. Both transfers are noticeable upgrades from their DVD counterparts. Colors aren’t bad, and details are solid. Black levels are actually black; skin tones are healthy. There’s minor print damage found on both transfers (unsurprising, as there hasn’t been any restoration work done), but hardcore fans will probably be happy to hear these don’t look too bad. Worth your bucks if you’re a fan.
Fields of Terror is something of a lesser transfer. A large chunk of the film is set in daylight and that stuff looks fine: good textures, strong colors, etc. However, as soon as it shifts to night, it all goes to hell. Detail falls flat and black levels don’t hold up. Still, this is better than DVD even if there are some problematic instances of artifacting throughout. But that’s nothing compared to the eyesore that is Isaac’s Return though. Not only does this look like an awful DVD, but there are so many technical issues that it’s hard to keep track. A glance at my notepad recalled my college days of hurried note taking for as many issues as I tried to call out. There’s haloing, jagged artifacting, ghosting and crush. Colors are drab, detail doesn’t exist and textures have been smoothed out entirely. They certainly saved the worst for last in this instance. The transfer on Children of the Corn 666 deserves to be sacrificed to ‘He Who Walks Behind the Rows.’
Audio isn’t all that spectacular, but there’s nothing wrong with any of these tracks. All of them are 2.0 stereo and completely front-loaded. Dialogue is clear and well-separated from music and foley. No complaints here.
Someday it would be interesting to see someone create some special editions for these movies. As it stands, there are no extras here. But you do get four movies for a budget price. Granted, none of these are worthwhile for casual moviegoers – but Children of the Corn fanatics are bound to be happy with this. Reports are this can be snapped up for as low as $10 at places like Walmart. If you’ve got to add these to your HD collection, that’s a fair price to pay. Everyone else, please rent before you buy. I won’t be held responsible if you roll the dice!
2 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5
1 out of 5
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0 out of 5