Sunday, October 4, 2009

Kid Nation

Stephen King’s Children of the Corn is a superb little piece of fiction offering a terrifying portrait of middle America, fundamentalist religion, and the horror of combining kids with power and ideas they don’t really understand. For the last 25 years, filmmakers have been trying--with varying levels of success and several stop-bys of soon-to-be huge Hollywood actresses--to capture what worked in under 25 pages. While some have had their moments, none have actually brought all the potential terror of sunny cornfields and cultish little kids to the screen.
And that tradition continues with the SyFy Channel original, Children of the Corn. While this remake (well, really just second adaptation of the source material) comes the closest to following King’s original work (it’s based in part on his original screenplay penned back in the days of big hair and leg warmers), it stumbles in a several patches of plot, character, and effects choices. 
Quick Plot: It's 1963 and the children of Gatlin are unionizing, Old Testament style. Led by a kid preacher dressed like Willy Wonka’s Mike TV, they seem to agree that the sins of adults are polluting the corn. A pig is sacrificed, the film flashes forward 12 years, and viewers bemoan the loss of the diner massacre so effective in the 1984 version.

Hateful couple Vicky and Burt are driving cross country towards their divorce and, we hope, brutal death. I have nothing against bickering characters or unhappily married folks realistically arguing, but when a man slaps a woman and you want to buy him a beer, you know there's a problem. Anyway, Burt's a proud Vietnam veteran and Vicky is a former prom queen (the fact that they're an interracial couple in 1975 is never really discussed) who hates everything in life. During one of their many arguments, Burt hits a young boy with his car.

Yes, the blood comes from Burt's Chevy, but the gash on the victim's neck was clearly pre-administered. Thirty years away from a cell phone, Vicky and Burt load up the body and head to the nearest town--Gatlin, a seemingly abandoned but very devout little hamlet rich in religious imagery (including a psychedelic mural depicting He Who Walks Behind the Rows as a stern Jerry Garcia), the pitter patter of smaller feet, and creepiness. If you've seen any of the previous CotC films, you know that those large hat wearing kiddies are not living in an Amish Paradise.

Unlike most remakes, the concept of re-doing this story was rife with potential. The original film, while highly flawed, did a spectacular job of creating an eerily devout clan of children living in the heartland of America. It failed not in its horror, but in the forced Hollywoodness of the rest: cute kid heroes, romantically happy leads, and an ending growing moldy with test audience germs. If a strong director took hold of King's original story and incorporated what worked from the first attempt, this could have been quite an effective little film.

It didn't and it's not, but that's not to say Children of the Corn '09 is a total failure. For starters, age appropriate actors make for strikingly disturbing extras, although their thespian skills are sadly nonexistent. Having the central couple be in disarray is interesting in itself, but it feels like both actors are still in the improv session of rehearsal, arguing and baiting each other just to feel one another out rather than having a realistic disagreement. The religious angle is probably the best thing going for Children of the Corn. Part of the reason I think some of the sequels succeeded was that they had the freedom to find different aspects of what's so terrifying about this premise. Blind faith is frightening, plain and simple. When such strong feelings are placed in the bodies of prepubescent youths who don't necessarily understand what life is yet, the result can be horrifying.
Why couldn’t this just be Gatlin’s story? Yes, we needed Burt and Vicky as a way into a closed society, but as soon as they enter, we want nothing more than to witness their end. Compare this with a similar themed, much better executed film, Who Can Kill a Child? The leads are also less interesting than the evil children running amok, but we still care enough about them to fear for their lives. In Children of the Corn, every minute of Vicky & Burt's screen time is painful in a punch-your-wife kind of way. The children, though lacking acting talent, are intriguing in their youth and eeriness. We get glimpses of how their religion works and are actually moved by some sudden new directions in the final scene, but the disjointed narrative doesn’t really let the audience care one way or another.
High Points
Casting such young actors adds a disturbing spin to the group children scenes

While the score leaves a lot to be desired (namely subtlety), there is a nice early reference to the haunting choral soprano theme so powerful in the original
The first mass attack on Vicky is done quite well, which is quite a feat considering how much we want to see the character die

Little touches, like quick shots showing corpses used in place of department store mannequins, add a nice touch of evil to Gatlin
Low Points
\The younger actors clearly have no idea what their dialogue means, which is fine for their psyches but not so much for cinematic effect
I haven’t wanted to kill a protagonist this much since Jar Jar Binks

Just as I was thinking that the Vietnam vet angle had its merits, the film had to get all literal and give us a reenactment flashback in the middle of corn
When will filmmakers learn: synthesized demon voices do not sound sound scary, just stupid
Lessons Learned
Indian corn crafts are blasphemous to Californians
Raise your children to love religion and hate the world
Unhappy couples make for incredibly unhappy viewing
When walking by a homicidal mob, it’s best not to audibly call them little bastards if you don’t want to then be chased by sickle and rake wielding brats

Previous Theory Confirmed
If Revenge of the Sith has taught us anything, it's that no actor--even the disembodied voice of James Earl Jones--is capable of pulling of the "Nooooo!" scene in this day and age
Winning Line
"Put that in your God and smoke it." 
Can someone explain to me how one does this?
Just because a film is close to its source material does not mean that it's any good. That being said, this remake/adaptation (because really, it's not remaking the 1984 film, just re-adapting King's story) is not terrible and probably falls somewhere in the middle of the many entries in this series. There are some strong moments and the actual religious kid angle is done quite well. Its biggest fault is a pair of horrifically unsympathetic protagonists and a lack of focus for our characters. Fans of the series or rural/killer child horror should give it a rent (or TiVo it on SyFy...ugh I hate writing those four letters), but there's nothing revolutionary here. I'll keep watching more sequels and hope a better one comes along.

But hey, I'm just one opinionated corn consumer in this vast universe. So how about checking out some other takes on this version via the one and only Final Girl Film Club? Head on over for what's always a good time, thanks to bloggess extraordinaire Stacie Ponder and all the other industrious club kids with a free 90 minutes to spare on THE WORST MARRIAGE IN CINEMA HISTORY. 

Sorry. I'm still twitching from the amount of bickering these characters wrought. Point is, FILM CLUB!


  1. I was going to watch this when it aired, I happened to be home that night. I forgot though and missed like the first hour of it. I turned it on and was sort of watching it while doing other things.

    I can't say rather I liked it or not on what little I watched of it. I was a little surprised by the ending, but glad of it too. Thanks for the review, I'm glad someone watched it and thought to review it.

  2. Normally for SyFy films, I DVR the last 30 minutes because typically that's the good part and the first 90 are just rough acting and jump scares. This one hit its stride around the halfway mark, where Vicky and Burt finally met the children.

    I'm still just mixed on it. I like that they went very dark with the kids and religious aspect, but I just wish there was a bigger focus on it. If you missed the first hour, consider yourself lucky for not having to sit through one of the most obnoxious relationships I've ever seen onscreen. The kids lacked the genuine creepiness of the first film's actors, but the film had some decent moments.

    I also DVR'd a few of the recent sequels. I always had a soft spot for Part III and I think I remember liking part IV (the one with Naomi Watts!). I have "Revelations" waiting to be watched, but stay away from "Isaac's Return." Big snooze.

  3. I have already watched all of the films from this series, but thanks for the tips all the same. I admit that I don't usually watched movies on SyFy (hate the name change), even ones I have watched before.

    Isn't DVR great? I know its the same as a VCR but it just seems so much better to me. Only problem I have with it is finding time to watch everything I put on it.

  4. Heather, you have any favorites from the series? Apparently, there's new talks for a bigger budget remake from the Weinstein company which just seems odd, but hey, I still hold that Children of the Corn has the potential to be a fantastically eerie movie that has yet to be made.

    DVR does twist your life a bit but it's much better than me having to rearrange my schedule to watch anything. I've been toying with whether or not I need cable and was considering canceling it after baseball season, but sigh. Being able to record and watch just the final moments of SyFy original's like Webs.

  5. It has been three years since watching any of them. I liked the first and third one. I don't recall much about the second in the series. Like you, I enjoyed the forth, with Naomi Watts. Rarely disappointed with Naomi.

    I didn't care that much for the fifth film, but didn't think the sixth (Isaac's Return) was a bad film. Not a favorite for sure, but I liked it well enough. Part seven is slighly different than the other films. I liked it though. Looking forward to seeing what you thought of it.

  6. I was pretty let down by Isaac's Return. I felt that it was a waste of that creepy grown up actor and just felt so slow for the first hour plus. I'm hoping to get to Revelations this weekend.

    I watched the fourth film a few years back, before I knew who Naomi was, but I remember thinking that it was a strong film and that she held it well. She spoke respectfully about it in a later interview, which of course makes me like her even more. Truly a great actress who makes interesting choices. A lot of times when I'm bored and recasting films or books in my head, she's my go-to. Even though I would never want to see this movie remade, I think she'd make a fine Rosemary Woodhouse.

  7. "Raise your children to love religion and hate the world"

    That line in the movie cracked me up. Woe, you were much more generous with this than I'd anticipated!

    But you raise a good point: why hasn't there been a truly terrific CotC movie? It doesn't seem like such an impossible thing to make.

  8. Great review. "stern Jerry Garcia", brilliant. I also had to laugh at the pathetic threat of "I'm going to blow the whistle so hard when I get out" - exactly how is that meant to scare a group of clearly already loopy kids?!

  9. A lot about this movie cracked me up!

    I love the concept of CotC so much that it continues to baffle me how the 12,000 different sequels still haven't produced anything actually good. Part III is a good time, but not actually a good movie, and I think you'd agree that the rest are notable only for starring before-they-were-famous actors. I don't understand why it's so hard! Killer kids, corn, sickles, evil god. IT WRITES ITSELF!

  10. This movie just feels like such a missed opportunity. Super-devout kids can be so creepy but these kids weren't scary, just annoying. Siiigh, one day I'll find the perfect killer kids movie.

  11. One day, SOMEONE will make the perfect Children of the Corn movie. It has to happen.

    BTW, if you're looking for a GENUINELY good killer kid (non corn-related) movie, I'd recommend 1978's Who Can Kill a Child and 2008's The Children. ACTUAL good movies, with 100% less oversized hats.

    1. I've been meaning to watch Who Can Kill a Child forever. I definitely need to find that. I've never heard of The Children but I'm a total sucker for killer kid movies. Thanks for the recommendations.
      That kid is kind of channeling Carl Grimes with that big-ass hat.

  12. I hate Carl's hat!

    The Children came out on DVD in 2008. I'm actually still surprised that it never got more attention in horror circles, because it's REALLY GOOD. I'll say no more, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

    Also, Who Can Kill a Child was recently remade into a movie now on Instant Watch called Come Out and Play. It's almost a shot-for-shot remake, but I'd still advise tracking the original down first. Soooo much more effective.