Wednesday 26 July 2017

We Don't Go Back #56: Children of the Corn (1984)

I suppose my love of genre films and ghost stories, and particularly the films of the 70s and 80s, is, like many of the things I like, because of my dad.

Before we had a video machine, he'd do the job himself, faithfully retelling the plots of things he'd seen the night before on TV. This is before the universal dread of "spoilers", a time when, if you missed a movie when it was in the cinema, and then missed it on TV, you missed it until its next broadcast and that was that, and I remember how in my teens, when we finally did get a video, I'd still scour the listings every week looking to see what films were on, hoping to find one I wanted to see. He'd recount the entire plots of The Omen, or Bug (the 1975 one about the fire-starting flesh-eating beetles, not the 2006 William Friedkin film of the same name, which, bloody hell, I probably need to write about because that's quite good), or the denouement of the episode of Doomwatch where Toby Wren cuts the wrong wire and gets blown up (poignant more because it's lost). And my dad enthused about Children of the Corn, which is a film I never saw, but which I nonetheless remembered exactly. I still remember my dad pausing and putting on a deep voice, to say: Malachi, he wants you too. 

Well, OK. Not exactly. The memory of my dad's dramatic retelling of this film fired my imagination. And maybe that's why I decided it was probably an important film to include. And truly, of all the straight horror films in this project, Children of the Corn is the most successful franchise-starter, with six sequels in the bag.
I am not intending to watch any of them. If the law of diminishing returns is anything to go by, they're really not worth it, because Children of the Corn is – let's be kind here, because I'll have precious little time for it later – really not the nerve shredding terror my imagination attached to my late father's retelling, or to the Stephen King story that I read in my teens. I was fooled by the imagined shape of a film that up until last night I'd never seen was tinged by my dad's story of it, and how the original text scared me as a teenager, as many of King's books did when I got them out of the library one by one: Needful Things, Christine, Misery. I liked the short stories best, though.

I rate Stephen King as a writer. He's got an economy, but also a sort of humility, an empathy. He's unpretentious and straightforward, and hence often not given then respect he deserves. Reading The Stand was a big part of the process of my growing up, and even now my favourite part is the character of Harold Lauder (who, lest we forget, is described as looking a bit like King himself), and who is an early literary example of the toxic nerd who won't allow people to like him and gets consumed by hate and misanthropy, decades before the fedora wielding "incel" became a thing. It's easy to assume that King is going to read like every book with a black cover and the AUTHOR'S NAME TWICE AS BIG AS THE TITLE, but he's so much better than the other big name horror writers of that 70s and 80s heyday of Big Horror Novels.

If King's long form novels have a flaw, it's that they're often a bit too long, but that's because he's obviously more interested in people and their stories, and it's interesting that in the books where he jettisoned horror altogether, you don't miss it, because the horror was what you came for, but it's not what you stayed for.

It's that human element that makes his work so ripe for cinematic adaptation, and yet which so rarely makes it onto the screen. I wonder King's famous dislike of Kubrick's The Shining is down to how chilly a film that is; everyone loves The Shawshank Redemption but my personal favourite King adaptation is David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone (and Cronenberg gets a bad rap for making chilly, inhumane films, but you only have to watch them to see there's a keen eye for humanity there)
And the story "Children of the Corn" works as a shocker and as a study of something gone wrong in the heart of America. Burt and Vicky, a married couple who have hit that awful moment where they can no longer see what they saw in each other, stumble across Gatlin, a small town in Nebraska, where the children, a long time ago, started sacrificing the adults to something awful that lives in the cornfields. They survive only long enough to find out what happened. Their fates are exquisitely hideous. And life in Gatlin goes on, the story ending when the oldest children give themselves to the hideous force in the fields, as they have done for a generation.

And like all the best stories, it makes you think about toxic religion and the pointless waste that ideology forces you into, and like the best horror stories, it's really fucking disturbing. And the combination of that social and political element, combined with the backwoods cult (with a vaguely Lovecraftian flavour which is something I talked about last week), and the corn dollies and crucifixes and outsider art, makes it an essential folk horror text.

And that's important to think about when considering the film, Children of the Corn, because there are so many ways that this could have been so much better. But it isn't.

While the basic structure of the story is intact, with Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (genre queen Linda Hamilton) discovering Gatlin by running over a kid who had already been murdered, and then falling foul of its juvenile inhabitants, the heart of the story is very different.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, and I push back hard against the idea that an adaptation needs to be slavish. But a really good adaptation should preserve the point of a story. The film has a happy ending, of sorts, and that's OK, but the idea that this is something big, and old, that's going to continue to consume generations of people who should be innocent, that's gone.
In fact, before we even meet Burt and Vicky, before the credits, we see the children murdering the adults of Gatlin, three years ago, this explained by a voice over from non-participating kid Job (Robby Kiger) which is painful in how clumsy it is.
Job (voiceover): My dad went to call my mom. He was still worried about Sarah.
Job's dad (getting up and walking to the phone): I'm going to call your mom.
And the gratuitous pre-credits massacre that immediately follows strips nearly all the tension from the film. The plot where Burt and Vicky discover what happened becomes superfluous. The revelation is something we knew.

The film, with its big 80s musical score and its flat, ham-fisted direction, keeps doing this. There's this scene where Vicky is hoisted up on a corn cross and she comes face to face with the dessicated corpse of a police officer, except that this guy has been prominently placed in the background of a couple of scenes already, and so when he's revealed, he's not actually revealed, since we know what he looks like. The monster is a bump under the ground and a red cloud that swallows people and spits them out as zombies, and can be beaten by a brushfire.

Of course, the older kids are played by adults, and their leader, Isaac (John Franklin), who is a really creepy looking little guy, is clearly having the time of his life declaiming the cod-fundamentalist lines, but he's also 25 years old and looks every day of it. Courtney Gains, playing vicious psychopath Malachi, is about 20 here and does look like a teen, but he's just a bit wooden, frankly. Having said that, the immortal line "Outlander! We have your woman!" would probably defeat much better actors.
I don't know what else to say. It's just bad. The only thing I recognised from the other work of director Fritz Kiersch was a film that had been used in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I just can't help thinking that it's about the level we are getting at here, and while Horton and Hamilton are reliably good, they're not given a whole lot to work with and they're not especially likeable as characters, which is weird, since the film has effaced the conflict between their print versions and made them a pretty well-adjusted couple.

Someone who knows cinema better than me suggested last night I also watch Disciples of the Crow, a short adaptation of the same story made in 1983 by student filmmaker John Woodward (you can find it on YouTube). This was one of King's "Dollar Babies", where he'd sell the rights to his stories to young filmmakers for a buck, which is another reason to love Stephen King, frankly. And this film gets the feeling of the story much more completely than Kiersch's low rent blockbuster. Sure, it has no monster (and can afford none) but the feeling that this is something ongoing, something that can't just be destroyed by setting a fire, that's there.
Children of the Corn deserved to be made into a quintessential folk horror. It has the folk art, the weird religion, and the rich subtext. But the 1984 film fails on every imaginable level, both as a retelling of a story with something political and disturbing to say, and even as a horror film. Every scare is telegraphed. Everything creepy is stifled. You need finesse to make a good horror story. Stephen King has it in spades. But this film? It's one of the clumsiest things I've ever seen.

At the time of writing, my passion project guide to Folk Horror, We Don't Go Back, has just over 18 hours left to run on Kickstarter. Backers will get things that won't be so freely available when the book comes out, so have a look! See what you think.

And thanks for making the campaign a success. I appreciate it.