The first three films in the sprawling Stephen King-based franchise get the Blu-ray treatment in a boxset to be approached with caution.
It’s hard to discuss 88 Films’ CHILDREN OF THE CORN triple without sulking about its questionable, number-wrecking place in their Slasher Classics line. While the collection’s parameters have already been stretched with the inclusion of Fred Olen Ray’s delirious Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988) and Arthur Penn’s top-notch psychodrama Dead of Winter (1987), there’s nothing that the Leicester-based boutique label can say that’ll convince me that evil kiddie shockers Children of the Corn I, II, and III fit alongside Mother’s Day (1980), Slaughterhouse (1987), and X-Ray (1981). Even the range’s curator, genre journo Calum Waddell, skirts around the issue in his conversational liner notes, briefly describing Fritz Kiersch’s 1984 original as a “mix of supernatural silliness [and] slasher movie shocks” as if to justify the decision before going on to make some fascinating observations about the saga’s success and evolution as a straight-to-video property. And, really, it’s the disarming quality of the franchise’s subsequent entries that make this Stephen King-based legacy so worthwhile; the first two here, 1992’s THE FINAL SACRIFICE and 1995’s URBAN HARVEST, are both infinitely superior to Kiersch’s soporific offering.
Adapted from a King short story (collected in the terror titan’s 1978 omnibus Night Shift, which also contained the tales that Cat’s Eye (1985), Maximum Overdrive (1986), and The Mangler (1995) were later spun from), Kiersch’s sun-soaked chiller never reaches the heights that the author’s succulent, Wicker Man (1973) meets Who Can Kill a Child? (1976) premise promises. A pre Terminator (1984) Linda Hamilton stars as one half of a couple who stumble upon an adult-hating child cult led by John Franklin’s sinister, prepubescent preacher Isaac; a nasty lil’ bastard who’s hellbent on sacrificing so-called ‘outlanders’ to a demonic, vaguely Lovecraftian corn god called ‘He Who Walks Behind the Rows’.
Beginning with a blood-thirsty bang (the film’s opening five minutes are, admittedly, excellent), Children of the Corn is ultimately sunk by Kiersch’s anonymous direction and cumbersome pacing, and some thoroughly naff performances; criticisms that can only be partially fired at David Price’s significantly better part II. Besides moving the surviving creepy youngsters from their isolated community to the next rural town over, The Final Sacrifice is largely the same but livelier; the efficient Price – who’d just cut his teeth on another surprisingly decent sequel, Son of Darkness: To Die For II (1991), alongside Corn II‘s Rosalind Allen – amping up the spectacle with budget-stretching abandon. Terence Knox and Paul Scherrer are just about passable as the estranged dad-and-lad team squaring up against what’s left of Isaac’s disciples, though scripters A.L. Katz and Gilbert Adler are uninterested in exploring their strained relationship beyond hoary, shouty exposition. Understandably, Katz and Adler, a pair of Tales From the Crypt alumni, are more comfortable with their narrative’s rich vein of deliciously daft horror comic ghoulishness.
If Final Sacrifice is enjoyably silly, then Urban Harvest is a full-on, absurdist delight, helmer James D.R. Hickox (his debut) clearly having learnt a thing or twelve about creative bombast from his big brother, Anthony: director of Waxwork (1988) and Children of the Corn III‘s executive producer. Noticeably cribbing several beats from Anthony’s own terrific third-quel, Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (1992) (Urban Harvest‘s grand finale in particular is near enough a shot-for-shot rephrasing of Hell On Earth‘s show-stopping nightclub massacre), Hickox delivers a similarly pounding and entertaining pulp humdinger. Hickox’s greatest achievement, however, is his re-pointing of the Corn saga-so-far’s quietly pertinent (if sloppily put forth) streaks of social commentary. His anarchic swipes at religion and big business compliment the generational metaphor of parts one and two very nicely indeed. Demonic Toys‘ (1992) Daniel Cerny makes a good fist of another malevolent moppet part as evil Isaac acolyte Eli (who, as the film’s title suggests, is spreading corn-y terror throughout the big city), and make-up wiz Screaming Mad George’s clunky but typically surreal FX work hit the spot.
Initially bundled together as a three pack back in 1999 by sell-through tape specialists Cinema Club, Children of the Corns unos, dos and tres – which, as Waddell points out, are effectively the franchise’s first self-contained act – have remained almost constantly in print as a unit ever since (well, here on British soil anyway). Cinema Club’s inaugural 2000 DVD boxset was a humble, vanilla affair, with Anchor Bay UK trumping it in 2004 with a lenticular sleeved digipak that showcased decent anamorphic transfers and a smattering of extra features, all of which would be ported over to bargain bin outfit Boulevard’s 2010 re-press.
Alas, the original Corn‘s half-hour making of, and the Kiersch and Price commentaries don’t make the jump this time; 88 Films’ HD collection is good but far from definitive supplement-wise, and the infamous and oft-requested extended scenes from the first film’s 1987 ITV broadcast are still disappointingly absent. Of course, what additionals 88 do have are a nonetheless welcome inclusion. The workprint version of Final Sacrifice (in SD) and Urban Harvest‘s alternative ending are likely to get any serious connoisseurs of the long-running series double dipping post-haste. Casual or uninitiated viewers will also find much joy in Jim Kunz and Naomi Holwill’s splendid feature length documentary on Children of the Corn‘s producer, Donald P. Borchers.
Covering everything from Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (1984) to the awesome Demolitionist (1995), The Life, Legend and Legacy of Don Borchers is a wonderfully relaxed portrait of the quirky B-movie mogul; the man himself and several of his closest collaborators (Corey Feldman among them) speaking about his enviable career with great wit and candour. Borchers also discusses his dreary 2009 Children of the Corn remake for the SyFy Channel in The Reinvention of a Fear Franchise; an otherwise cool, seventeen minute featurette that maddeningly drops marks for not paying lip service to some of the remarkable talent involved with the rest of the sequels.
Sadly, after the gains of their great Evilspeak disc, 88’s technical apathy towards the Children of the Corn flicks is what forces yours truly to consider this set as something to be approached with caution. A lack of overt digital faffing is always commendable but, it seems, 88 have made no attempts at all to further spruce up their 1.78:1-presented scans. Aesthetically, they’re the very definition of perfunctory. Sound, meanwhile, comes via a trio of LPCM 2.0 stereo tracks. Children of the Corn and The Final Sacrifice’s mixes are dynamic enough, but Urban Harvest‘s is worryingly ill-balanced on occasion.
THE CHILDREN OF THE CORN TRILOGY is out now via 88 Films
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