Color, 1984, 92 mins. 11 secs.
Directed by Fritz Kiersch
Starring Linda Hamilton, Peter Coyote, R.G. Armstrong, John Franklin, Courtney Gains, Robby Kiger, AnneMarie McEvoy
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Anchor Bay (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), 88 Films (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Image Entertainment (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
A prime example of how timing and marketing can make or break a film, this sixth feature film adapted from fictional work by Stephen King was the earliest to draw inspiration from his first landmark collection of short stories, Night Shift, in this case a macabre sketch about a couple running afoul of a farming town taken over by homicidal children worshiping a Lovecraftian deity. The short, deeply creepy tale (complete with an unforgettably nasty stinger at the end) needed a great deal of fleshing out to turn into a feature-length story, and the result ended up becoming a major hit for the revamped, post-Roger Corman New World Pictures thanks to the decision to put Stephen King's name in huge print above the title for the first time. (In fact, the title is officially registered as Stephen King's Children of the Corn.) Critics weren't impressed but horror fans turned out in droves, creating a theatrical and home video hit that went on to inspire seven sequels (some of them shockingly good) and a terrible made-for-TV remake. Interestingly, the same story had also been adapted a year earlier as one of the famous "dollar baby" short films from Stephen King's tales, 1983's "Disciples of the Crow," but this is the one everybody remembers.
In the small Midwestern town of Gatlin, all hell breaks loose one Sunday after church when a creepy little boy named Isaac (Franklin) compels the other children in town to murder all of the adults. Some time later, couple Vicky (The Terminator's Hamilton) and Burt (thirtysomething's Horton) hit the road after a little birthday celebration for him, only to slam their car into a teen running out of a cornfield. They find their way to Gatlin to get help but instead are confronted with a deserted community apart from the spooky kids, who make reference to an entity called He Who Walks Behind the Rows and refer to any newcomers as outlanders. Isaac and his enforcer, Malachai (Gains), run the kid cult with an iron fist, and it soon becomes obvious that the new arrivals will have a very difficult time getting out.
Though definitely an imperfect film thanks to some blatant padding (lots of driving and walking around here), iffy acting at times, and a very underwhelming monster reveal during the climax, Children of the Corn is an oddly haunting and potent film with its ferocious religious angle (delivered by children, of course) giving it quite a bit of punch. (Not surprisingly, the film has been copied and referenced many times over the years, including an episode of South Park.) The opening sequence is obviously the big shocker and really the only overtly gory part of the film, which is otherwise more concerned with macabre atmosphere than bloody thrills. Hamilton and Horton acquit themselves well enough with their sympathetic roles, but it's Franklin and Gains who get the big moments here and all of the quotable dialogue. Adding to the fun is a terrific, haunting score by first-time composer Jonathan Elias, who had been working with John Barry and would go on to score Vamp and Two Moon Junction. His pulsing electronic music augmented with eerie children's voices is a large part of the film's impact, and it still works perfectly today.
Like other New World '80s titles, this one first appeared on VHS under the company's own label and then went the budget route with Starmaker (a la Hellraiser, Flowers in the Attic, Vamp, etc.) The first DVD of this film turned up from Anchor Bay in 2001, with a high bit rate Divimax version following in 2004 with extras including a "Harvesting Horror" featurette (36m14s) (with director Fritz Kiersch, Franklin, and Gains), a lively audio commentary (with Kiersch, producer Terrence Kirby, Franklin and Gains), the trailer, storyboard art, title sequence art, a gallery of posters and stills, and a DVD-Rom screenplay. Anchor Bay subsequently ported the package over to Blu-ray as a 25th Anniversary Edition in 2009, greatly expanded to include an "It Was the Eighties" (14m9s) interview with Hamilton, a "Stephen King on a Shoestring" (11m20s) interview with producer Donald Borchers, "Welcome to Gatlin: The Sights and Sounds of Children of the Corn" (15m28s) with production designer Craig Stearns and Elias. Everyone is full of stories, with many noting the problems of shooting in usually hot weather that turned all the corn brown, the problem with keeping sweat from showing on camera, discussions with Sam Raimi to direct, and plenty more. Audio on that Blu-ray is Dolby True HD 5.1 with optional English SDH or Spanish subtitles, plus a "Fast Film Facts" subtitle trivia option. This HD transfer, matted at 1.85:1, looked quite good for its time; detail and color are solid, with adequate black levels.
When the rights passed over to Image Entertainment along with a huge chunk of the New World library in 2010, the resulting DVD and Blu-ray only had the trailer as an extra and had no real effort put into them. In 2013, the film was packaged as a Blu-ray double-disc set from Image with Sleepwalkers, still with nothing notable added. The transfer is from the same scan but opened up to 1.78:1.
Early in 2016, UK label 88 Films brought the film to its Slasher Classics Collection both as a standalone disc and as part of a three-disc set with its first two sequels. Audio options include DTS-HD 5.1 and LPCM stereo 2.0 options with English subtitles. The main extra here is the new Jim Kunz and Naomi Holwill documentary about the film's producer, The Life, Legacy and Legend of Don Borchers (83m18s), which features everyone from Elias to Corey Feldman reminiscing about this film, the Angel series, Crimes of Passion, Meatballs 4, Vamp, and much more. The theatrical trailer is included along with bonus ones for Don't Go in the Woods, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Live Like a Cop Die Like a Man, Mother's Day, Slaughterhouse, Trancers, and Splatter University. Like the Image release, this one opens the framing up to 1.78:1 (more info on the top, same on the sides) from what appears to be the same scan (identical colors) but has been significantly brightened, resulting in less depth.
In 2017, Arrow Video gave the film its most elaborate edition to date as a Blu-ray only edition in the U.S. (DVD rights still belong to RLJ Entertainment, which took over Image), sporting a new 2K transfer from the original negative. Right off the bat it's a very different viewing experience, reinstating the original 1.85:1 framing with some notable extra info on the sides compared to both prior options. It's quite a bit darker and grainier as well with more texture and some variations in color timing, with similar hues in some scenes but very different ones in others (such as the corn crucifixion scene, which now looks moodier and much more overcast). This is definitely going to provoke some debate over which one viewers prefer, but with the most robust presentation (the bit rate is maxed out about as far as you can go throughout), it's a very effective and atmospheric way of experiencing the film. Audio options include the theatrical stereo mix (LPCM) and DTS-HD MA 5.1, with optional English SDH subtitles, plus the prior cast and crew commentary and a new audio commentary with John Sullivan of childrenofthecornmovie.com and horror journalist Justin Beahm. The new track is quite entertaining as it takes a devoted fan's tour through the production including tons of trivia about the cast and crew (plus a tantalizing discussion about a still-elusive deleted death scene of one character) as well as more developments that have occurred in recent years (such as the destruction of one location by fire) and the subsequent sequels and pop culture impact of the film.
The "Harvesting Horror," "It Was the Eighties," "Stephen King on a Shoestring," and "Welcome to Gatlin" featurettes are all carried over along with the trailer, and some new featurettes have been added as well. "...And a Child Shall Lead Them" (50m52s) features actors Julie Maddalena (now a busy voice actor) and John Philbin (Return of the Living Dead), who played Rachel and Amos), is a surprisingly dense, exhaustive account of the film's creation from the audition process through their rapport with their other young co-stars and the disturbing feeling of the film's religious iconography. Next up is writer George Goldsmith with "Field of Nightmares" (17m19s) -- what, no "Field of Screams?" -- chatting about his writing background (including investigative journalism) and how practicing martial arts led to his screenwriting breakthrough with Force: Five and a gig on this film as he came up with a way to open up the original short story. In "Return to Gatlin" (16m29s), Sullivan returns to host a tour through the original Iowa shooting locations, with several residents on hand also sharing their fond memories of having a major horror movie shot in their midst. Sullivan's memory for location detail is quite extensive as he runs through just about every significant spot from the film you could possibly want to see. In "Cut from the Cornfield" (5m30s), actor Rich Kleinberg recalls acting in that aforementioned deleted scene as the ill-fated "blue man" who was intended to be stabbed to death near the beginning (and still represented on one of the film's lobby cards). Also included is a 5m31s storyboard gallery (essentially a better quality version of the one from the Anchor Bay DVD) and, tucked away at the very end, the 1983 "Disciples of the Crow" short film (18m56s), making its return to home video for the first time in decades in a radically improved new HD transfer that makes the most of the original 16mm photography. It's still an enjoyable, spooky little short, and though it also doesn't adhere to the ending of the short story, the finale is quite lively and entertaining. The reversible sleeve features a new design by Gary Pullin and the iconic poster art, plus (in the first pressing only), a liner notes insert booklet with essays by Sullivan and Lee Gambin.
88 Films Blu-ray
Anchor Bay Blu-ray
Reviewed on September 21, 2017