When horror movie makers choose what threat they want to menace their victims with, they have a few different options. This holds true even when they limit themselves to the works of Stephen King. They can choose something supernatural, as with the telekinetic Carrie. They can choose something mundane that usually wouldn’t be considered a threat, such as the car in Christine. Or they can choose something mundane that’s always been viewed as creepy, such as children. Fritz Kiersch’s 1984 directorial debut, Children of the Corn takes the latter approach.
The story is set in the small town of Gatlin, Nebraska, which quickly gets considerably smaller in the beginning of the story. Preteen preacher Isaac has been meeting with the local children in the cornfield, and aside from a few individuals, the kids have been buying into his sermons. And one fateful day, they rise up and slaughter their parents and every other adult in Gatlin.
And after his parents had specifically told him not to form any religious cults, too.
There are only a few children in town who aren’t a part of Isaac’s cult; in fact, we only see two who are completely outside of it, and another who breaks away from it. The main duo are Job and his sister Sarah, played by Robby Kiger and Anne Marie McEvoy. The two child actors do fairly well in their roles, particularly McEvoy, but Kiger’s narration over the prologue comes across fairly stilted. This may be more the fault of the director, however, as it’s questionable whether the narration is even needed. There’s also a moment where the viewer’s suspension of disbelief is broken by the children not aging a day in a supposed three-year gap (particularly the very young Sarah), but this is only a minor issue with the narrative.
Soon enough the adult protagonists of the film arrive. Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton — a few months before The Terminator turned her into a star — play a couple who are moving into the area so Horton’s character can set up a private clinic. What town, exactly, isn’t clear; obviously not Gatlin, even though circumstances drive them there. It takes a surprising length of time for the characters to realize that something is deeply wrong in Gatlin; even in a farming community, not every adult is going to be absent from the main town during the middle of the day. But eventually they find themselves faced with Isaac and his children of the corn.
There is a supernatural element to the menace, but the film smartly avoids focusing too much on “He Who Walks Behind the Rows”; in fact, one of the film’s weaker moments is during a special effects sequence of the creature demonstrating its power. Even by 1984’s standards, the assumption of one character’s body is rather unconvincing. But for the most part, the film focuses on the natural unease of dealing with a bunch of homicidal children, with a heavy focus on preacher Isaac (John Franklin) and enforcer Malachi (Courtney Gains). Both actors were actually adults at the time — although Gains, at age 18 during shooting, was probably meant to be close to his character’s age. Franklin, on the other hand, would have been 24 during shooting, a far cry above his character’s apparent pre-teen age. And yet he’s quite convincing as both a psychotic little kid and a kid who has an eerie degree of control over his subjects.
There is a certain questionable aspect to a grown man having to defend himself against children, and this is played with in the movie. One on one, Peter Horton’s character is shown to be more than a match for most of the children, barring those close to adulthood like Malachi. But his natural reluctance to use much force against them, coupled with superior numbers, turns the children into a valid threat. It’s this tone which really makes Children of the Corn work. It doesn’t try to overwhelm the audience with violence and brute force. Rather, it first sets out to make the audience feel how “off” the children and the town are. It would probably be heightened if the prologue were left out altogether, but it’s effective enough the way it is to make for a decent movie.