A backwoods swamp is an obvious location for horror. So is a ramshackle settlement deep in the forest. But what about a quaint Nebraska farm surrounded by fields of ripe corn, all juicy and sweet and warmed by the sun? Stephen King’s 1977 short story “Children of the Corn” didn’t invent the idea of terror lurking in the unexplored expanses of a rapidly developing America: In the 1970s alone, Deliverance, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes all warned of similar dangers. But it did move the threat from the South to the flat expanses of the Great Plains for a new variation on rural horror.
The way King tells it, Nebraska is a terrifying place. Behind its humble façade of buttered noodles and friendly townsfolk, he sees potential for violence driven by a fundamental conservative value: faith. King takes the image of a child preacher — always creepy, especially for nonbelievers — and turns it into a horror story about blind faith and generational conflict. Unfortunately, no one involved in any of the many films based on the short story did anything with that subtext.
He Who Walks Behind the Rows, “Children of the Corn”’s semi-Satanic pagan deity, is a demanding god who compels the children of Gatlin to embrace tradition and kill their parents as a blood sacrifice to the all-important corn crop. A devout child preacher named Isaac leads this cult of oddly dressed little psychos who patrol the town carrying bloodstained farm implements to carry out His will. The story follows an unhappy couple named Vicky and Burt who stumble upon Gatlin after running over what they believe is a simple Amish child with their car. They soon find themselves at the mercy of Isaac and his gang of homicidal underaged trads.
“Children of the Corn” and its first film adaptation do contain some quintessentially Stephen King motifs: psychic children. Dysfunctional relationships. Boomer angst. A fascination with tall, waving fields of things. (See also: In the Tall Grass, by King and Joe Hill.) Then the original rights holder, New World Pictures, sold the franchise, and the King-like sense of menace was replaced with horror-comedy in the sequel, Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice.
Miramax bought those rights after 1992’s Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice — also the last Children of the Corn movie to play in theaters until 2023 — and a series that wasn’t all that distinguished to begin with began its death march into rights-retention purgatory. Throughout the ’90s and aughts, Miramax hung on to the franchise by indifferently pumping out a crappy sequel every few years, each incorporating the basic “kids with scythes” concept. Some are practically fan films, while others incorporate just enough about Gatlin and He Who Walks to count as a Children of the Corn movie.
Turning a 10,000-word short story into 11 films requires, let’s say, creativity. Many of the later movies are almost a sort of inverted Hallmark Channel movie (with even lower production values). A young woman who moves away returns to Gatlin (or a Bible-belt equivalent), only to find terror instead of a hunky lumberjack trying to keep his family’s bed-and-breakfast afloat. Other films, like the most recent Children of the Corn, which will hit theaters on March 3, cherry-pick elements from King’s story and use them essentially as garnish on killer-kid scenarios. All of the movies contain elements of folk horror, which are mixed with slasher formula and killer-kid tropes, as seen in movies like Devil Times Five or The Omen, to varying degrees of success. Let’s reap what Children of the Corn has sowed and see how the movies rank.
11.Children of the Corn: Genesis (2011)
Making a movie is a dream for a lot of people, and taking a bucket of scraps from a distributor who needs to put out a sequel ASAP or else it’ll lose the rights to the series — and retrofitting a preexisting script into a Children of the Corn movie by adding a reference to Gatlin, Nebraska — is one way to get that done. Genesis, the ninth entry in the series, feels like the generic backwoods horror film it originally was, and it’s a barely watchable one at that. The fault largely comes down to the ineptly written script. (Sample dialogue: “I’m hot! And not in a good way!”) But the amateurish acting and an abortion subplot of the “Please don’t kill me, Mommy!” variety don’t help. Most of the budget seems to have been blown on a car crash that comes out of nowhere toward the end of the movie; the “scary” reveal that accompanies this sequence is underwhelming, making that expenditure a waste as well.
10. Children of the Corn (2009)
The first remake of Children of the Corn (rather than a sequel) sprouted in 2009 on SyFy, at that point cable’s premiere clearinghouse for agreeable B-movie junk. This remake captures the bleak tone of the short story better than any other adaptation, and the plot also adheres closely to King’s original story. The ’70s setting and amber tint also place it smack in the middle of the then-thriving grindhouse revival, which is kind of fun. But, the acting is so ham-handed and inelegant — interpreting “squabbling couple” as “grating assholes” is a common mistake in these films, but it’s especially bad here — that it’s difficult to engage with this movie on any level.
9. Children of the Corn: Runaway (2018)
Runaway, the tenth entry in the series, grafts the look of a middling A24 indie onto Z-grade horror. This one is actually a direct sequel to the original: Our protagonist, Ruth, shows up at the very end of King’s short story as a pregnant teenager in Isaac’s kiddie corn cult whose child is destined to take over one day. In Runaway, she flees Gatlin in the opening scene and spends the next 12 years living out of her truck with her son. (In another universe, this would have been an Andrea Riseborough role.) Then they settle in a small town that’s not unlike Gatlin, leading to another 45 minutes of talky, inert drama punctuated by a mean-spirited gore scene that kills off the film’s only Black character. Pass.
8. Children of the Corn (2023)
The latest remake of Children of the Corn has been in release purgatory for several years now. Watching it, it’s clear why. This movie sets up, and then whiffs, so many chances for social commentary that it ends up becoming completely mind-numbing. It’s largely a complete reinvention, doing away with a lot of the plot and tropes from the original story and film without replacing them with anything worthwhile. (And the one element that is faithful to the story — personifying He Who Walks as a sentient, bloodthirsty stalk of corn with glowing red eyes — is laughable.) If there’s one redeeming quality, it’s 14-year-old Kate Moyer, who is a hoot as the Joker-esque child who leads the anti-adult revolution. But was this really worth defying lockdown to shoot in the spring of 2020?
7. Children of the Corn: Revelation (2001)
The seventh Children of the Corn movie is one of several in the series centered on a young woman who returns to Nebraska — except it’s not really Nebraska but a poorly-cobbled-together melange of sound stages, an urban rooftop, and a tiny patch of plastic corn. The incompetent direction makes the film’s Windows 2000 graphics and occult hogwash even more amusing. And while this brand of brain-scrambling nonsense is fun for a little while, it also makes 82 minutes feel like forever. Three things save Revelation from being the worst in the series: Michael Ironside in a small role as a priest, a very funny scene in which a woman is strangled to death in her bathtub by a stalk of corn, and star Claudette Mink’s on-trend Y2K wardrobe.
6. Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return (1999)
Of all the Children of the Corn films, Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return would work best as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The very silly script was co-written by the film’s star, John Franklin, the same actor who played Isaac in the first movie. As a comeback attempt, it’s both transparent and painful, pairing convoluted internal mythology with bargain-basement special effects. (Even more painful? Nancy Allen, Brian De Palma’s onetime muse, appearing here at a low point in her career.) On the plus side, while it doesn’t look good, 666 does have some visual interest to offer, with a heavy MTV influence and a random softcore scene set to ’90s New Age music.
5. Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)
If Children of the Corn IV (more on that shortly) is “the one with Naomi Watts,” then Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror is “the one with David Carradine and Fred Williamson and Eva Mendes and Alexis Arquette and Ahmet Zappa.” The check-cashing vibe is palpable in this generic college slasher, which pivots into folk horror midway through and produces a few memorable images in the process. None of the drama works, but the casting and the horror elements are so weird — think Eva Mendes self-immolating in a burning corn silo as killer children cheer her on — that it ends up being one of the more noteworthy films in the series.
4. Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996)
By the mid-’90s, Miramax was pumping out Children of the Corn sequels at a rate of one a year, turning them into clearinghouses for actors on their way up — and down! — the ladder of fame. Here, Naomi Watts is on the up as the first of many prodigal daughters in this series, alongside Karen Black as Watts’s mentally ill mother. There’s potential here for an interesting film: Watts is one of the better actors to ever grace the series, and the plot touches on a Nightmare on Elm Street–esque theme about children paying for the sins of their parents. But the story soon turns ridiculous as Watts battles a mysterious fever that turns regular kids into hollow-eyed Satanists.
3. Children of the Corn (1984)
After the success of Carrie and The Shining, studios big and small wanted to get in on the trend of adapting works by this hot young author named Stephen King. And New World Pictures, the B-movie studio founded by Roger Corman, was never one to miss out on a trend. That’s how Children of the Corn, released the same year as Firestarter, was born.
The role of nagging wife Vicky in Children of the Corn is not Linda Hamilton’s best. Not because she’s doing anything wrong, per se, but because it has none of the badass attitude that makes Hamilton so compelling in The Terminator, released that same year. Her co-star, Peter Horton, meanwhile, is in contention for the title of Wrongest, Most Confident White Man of all time. There’s nothing particularly exciting about the workmanlike filmmaking here. But this adaptation takes its time revealing details about the child cult, which allows for more scenes with the best part of the film: its killer kids.
Isaac is memorably portrayed here by John Franklin, a diminutive actor who also played Cousin Itt in the ’90s Addams Family movies. Franklin was 25 when he got the part of the fanatical preteen preacher; that’s perfect for the character, who has the speech and mannerisms of someone far older. His seething temper tantrums are unsettling, too, thanks to that same combination of adult and childlike characteristics. Courtney Gains also stands out as Malachai, Isaac’s psychotic ginger enforcer, who sulks and slouches like the teenager Gains was at the time of filming. When people remember Children of the Corn, they usually remember Malachai and Isaac, and for good reason — these performances have more personality than anything else in the series.
2. Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995)
In terms of urban horror movies from the ’90s, Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest is no Candyman. But it’s … not as bad as it could be? That’s faint praise, of course, and yet, whether it’s self-aware or not (probably not), this sequel has camp value to spare, and that makes it pretty darn fun to watch. The story begins with two brothers from Gatlin being bussed to Chicago, where they’re taken in by a well-meaning but ineffectual liberal couple. Unluckily for the foster parents, the family’s neat brick bungalow is mere inches from an abandoned warehouse (seriously, this movie’s sense of scale is so funny) where younger brother Eli is literally planting the seeds of their demise. The heightened absurdity of it all sets the table for the real feast: surreal, over-the-top gore created by one of the more underappreciated special-effects artists of the era, Screaming Mad George, who lent his bloody talents to Society and the third and fourth A Nightmare on Elm Street films.
1. Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1993)
Nine years passed between the original Children of the Corn and this hilariously madcap horror-comedy, which begins with the cops descending on Gatlin and ends with the children doing what they do best: murdering grown-ups in the name of He Who Walks Behind the Rows. Now, a subplot involving a Native professor who pops in to explain to the white protagonist that Gatlin is like a signal booster for bad vibes is yikes in the extreme. And the movie really only reaches its comedic potential in the death scenes. But oh, what death scenes they are!
Take the one where a gang of threatening Amish children bully an elderly woman in a wheelchair out into the middle of a small-town main street, where she’s immediately run down by an 18-wheeler and goes flying through the plate-glass window of a bingo hall. (Please enjoy.) Stephen King had nothing to do with writing that scenario. But if someone told you he had, back in his cocaine days, you’d believe it, right? That right there is taking an adaptation and making it your own.