As one of the films seen endlessly during my formative years, this poorly made and artlessly executed piece of shit occupies a special place in my heart, or perhaps my colon. Though not entertaining in the traditional sense, I have always enjoyed it for its defiance of a cliché central to film making – namely that children are innocent cherubs until somehow corrupted by experience, education, sexual activity, or any of the other things that our Puritanical values hold in contempt. No, the titular Children open up an idyllic scene of small town Americana, where the blue collar salt of the earth people ready themselves for a day of clean, honest work in a coffeehouse, and are quickly and efficiently butchered by the village teenagers. These adults are not just shuffled off the buffalo – they are knifed, axed, or given a hefty dose of lye in the coffee – these kids lay the fuck into their elders with bloody panache. My father was appalled at the scene, and attributed this to a general breakdown in societal good taste, whereas I had a giddy smile as I saw something truly unique unfold in American cinema. Unlike the children of Forbidden Games, they were not dealing with death by roleplaying with corpses – they were dealing death, period.
Like a refreshing gust of air, this swept away the needlessly rigid convention of kids as devoid of darker tendencies. Adults tend to forget what kids can be like – they are every bit as capable of brutality as any adult, limited only by their income and the reach of their arms. Think back to grade school, about the kids who joked about lynching the black schoolteacher they hated, or the relentless taunting of some kid whose mother just died (AIDS jokes abounded), or false accusations of sexual assault. I am not talking about charges of pedophilia at Catholic schools – those are all true. Kids are some small-minded and cruel fuckups who are guaranteed to age roughly into the bigoted trailer trash shitheads who fill out Sarah Palin rallies and demand prayer in school while holding in contempt the ‘intellectual elite’, defined as anyone who can read bathroom stall graffiti without moving their lips. Children are evil by default, and require intelligent and reasonable parents to prevent them from becoming the easily amused zombies that make up over half of the electorate today.
While the vast majority of films view children as inspired and magical creatures just slightly removed from Jesus in both word and deed, Children of the Corn was brave enough to show the future generation and their quality. Though the plot required a small town with no cell phones or reasonable connection to the outside world, it makes sense that it took place in a culture warp that resembles an agricultural state straddling the Mason-Dixon line. With nothing to do other than go to church or polish guns, the young ones could be all too easily led into fanatic abandon by the charismatic leader of a bloody cult and his ginger henchman. Isaac, played by John Franklin, is a teenage preacher who moves to the town and quietly mobilizes the children into a religious fervor over ‘He Who Walks Behind the Rows’. Doesn’t roll off the tongue as well as Yahweh, but Isaac’s congregation is heavily armed with scythes, so he wins that exchange. Malachi (Courtney Gains, also seen in The Burbs) is his enforcer, ready to execute any who do not obey, and is the spearhead of the mass slaughter of the adults. Within a day, no man or woman over the age of 18 is left alive, except a gas station attendant on the outskirts of town, whom Isaac spares so he can get petrol when needed. Why he needs gas is inexplicable, since machinery, music, and games are verboten in this cheerless theocracy.
Isaac is a practical kid, and has ambitions of spreading this cult into additional towns, and giving Christianity a run for its money, at least in the creepy fanatic department. Malachi, on the other hand, is an idealist, and demands the leaders adhere to the gospel they preach to the followers. And here we see the setup for a fascinating story – a new religion in its formative year, already developing a schism amidst the leaders. Not only would it be interesting to see such a thing occur, but you are guaranteed more bloodshed on the horizon since the devout tend not to compromise on anything that does not involve sexual deviance. Alas, all goes to shit in the ensuing hour, and the enormous promise of the initial pogrom slides into substandard horror scares with dull-as-dishwater protagonists. A young couple blunders into the town, and from the opening bell you could not care less about them. The truly fatal error of the film, however, comes from its supernatural elements – there really is a ‘He Who Walks Behind the Rows’, though on first look He is an amazingly goofy cartoon whose primary mode of transportation is rolling through the topsoil. This hedgehog of death can only live in cornfields, apparently, and is successfully incinerated with the aforementioned petrol supply, which makes Him the lamest god of all time. Incidentally, the laziest and cheapest imaginable way to render animation is to actually draw the cartoon on top of the celluloid film, as is done to show the ‘demon’ screaming his last in the fire.
Stephen King, who wrote the original short story, has always been fascinated with needlessly paranormal narratives. In The Stand, 95% of the human population is eradicated by a bioweapon, and the survivors are left alive to pick up the pieces. The breakdown of society alone is frightening enough, with readily available weaponry, a lack of law and order, and women becoming a medium of exchange. Wait, did I mean frightening or awesome? Then King fucks it all up by introducing order in the form of agents of God and Satan who create two states and gather followers, and it all ends up as stupidly as it sounds. Who needs demons when we have us to fear? At least the director gets some credit for milking the homicidal child thing as much as possible, and creating an unsettling background of an abandoned town festooned with corn stalks.
A far more interesting story would have been the story of the rise and fall of a new religion, every bit as philosophically fucked as the rest, in a small and isolated town. The infighting, the pragmatists versus the idealists, with an outsider thrown in to represent the intelligent atheist in all of us. The resolution could even be the same, what with the atheist taking advantage of their superstitions by burning the cornfield down. But then, that is why I enjoy Children of the Corn – not for the crappy film it is, but for the inspired lunacy it could have been.