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Movie Review – Children of the Corn (1984)

Movie Review – Children of the Corn (1984)

There are certain horror films that I recall seeing at a fairly young age, most likely because they were frequently shown on television during the 1980s. One of my earliest conscious memories of watching a horror movie multiple times, where I could anticipate the pacing and the sequence of scenes and quote dialogue, was Stephen King’s Children of the Corn (1984). It was also my first real introduction to King. Carrie (1976), The Shining (1980), and most of the other adaptations until then, save for Creepshow (1982), which even as a kid I found more fun than scary, felt very adult to me. I had seen parts of them on television at various points but I don’t recall watching them wholly until I was a few years older. Their imagery was frightening – The Shining made my midnight trips to the bathroom speedy as I imagined the woman in the bathtub just on the other side of the plastic shower curtain that brushed against my elbow as I stood before the toilet – yet they were dealing with themes for which I at the time had no context.

But Children of the Corn, with its cast of young heroes and villains, was more approachable and easier for me to follow and immerse myself within. It dealt with childhood fears of losing your parents and it brought bullying to an extreme. Malachai (Courtney Gains) was most frightening because we all knew a kid in school or in the neighborhood that had the potential to become like him, if given the opportunity. Young Joby and Sarah were around my age and became avatars for kids like me, seeing the proceedings through their experience and believing that I too could be instrumental in thwarting evil, even helping the adults to accomplish what their ineptitude consistently sabotaged. Children of the Corn may also have been an early lesson in the dangers of theocracy, a cautionary tale emblazoned upon my young mind that still very much guides my ethical and philosophical identity.

children of the corn still

So it is no wonder that my memory of this film, and I imagine many of my generation feel the same, is one of fondness. Of course, not everything ages well, and the last time I had watched the film before recently revisiting it was as a teenager more than fifteen years prior. Needless to say, I’m a very different person now, and especially as a father I knew that for the first time I would be seeing the movie through not only an experienced adult perspective, but also through the adult protagonists’ eyes.

Children of the Corn was the directorial debut of Fritz Kiersch and is certainly his most well-known film. Kiersch’s career would quickly peter, though he did manage to direct the ridiculously campy action-fantasy Gor in 1987. The two adults, Burt and Vicky, who find themselves in the parricidal, theocratic ghost town of Gatlin, Nebraska, are played by Peter Horton, who went on to a successful career in television, and Linda Hamilton. Hamilton, of course, rose to fame playing Sarah Conner in The Terminator (1984) which was released the same year. In all respects that film, with the sole exception of Hamilton’s hair, has aged better than Children of the Corn.

As an adult viewer I cannot dismiss the glaring plot-holes that puncture the story like clumsy sickles. As a child with little experience I could buy into the idea that a town could go off the map in modern America and be run by murderous kids for three years without anyone coming to check up on things. Postal or produce deliveries? Extended family? Utility crews? No, sir! Apparently, everyone just stopped coming to Gatlin or got fooled by a couple of misplaced road signs. Of course, this and more could all be fixed, or at least allow for more suspension of disbelief,  if the film had simply stated that the opening murders had taken place three months, or better yet, three weeks earlier. Even as a kid I noticed that none of the kids seemed to age over those three years’ time. Similarly, “He Who Walks Behind The Rows,” the malevolent entity that the kids worship, is vulnerable to the corn being damaged, but there’s no corn for most of the year. Whence, then, goes our main baddy during that time?

These problems generally stem from the fact that the source material was a very short story by King which was published in the 1978 collection Night Shift. Things were necessarily added to extend the story but we get logical inconsistencies along the way. The movie starts fairly strong but meanders as it continues, unable to maintain the atmosphere of dread and mystery that pervades the beginning. The script also veers from the short story in both tone and substance, making for very different endings, and what the film offers as a resolution is ultimately unsatisfactory.

All these shortcomings having been said, there are still things that this movie does right. The music harkens back to the supernatural horrors of the 1970s and helps to create, at times, a creepy atmosphere. There are effective images that stay with viewer, such as the kid being struck by the car, the Blue Man, or Isaac staring through the diner window. Truly, John Franklin as Isaac is alone worth viewing the film, as his performance as the child preacher is charismatic and energetic and perfectly embodies what that character needed to be. Though child-like, Franklin suffered from a growth hormone deficiency when he was young and was actually twenty-five when he filmed the movie. Not knowing this about the actor the viewer will gather an uneasy sense that there is something disturbing about the character of Isaac beyond his murderous preaching – he has a confident gravitas beyond his years that wonderfully suits and serves the story.

children of the corn still 2

In regard to the themes, it’s easy to see commentary on the Religious Right and on Reaganism, particularly with its treatment of religion as being largely dangerous if left unchecked. Ronald Reagan became president in 1980 largely from the support of the self-proclaimed “silent majority” (a term first popularized by Nixon) which included Christian and social conservatives like anti-feminist Phyllis Shafly and televangelist Jerry Falwell, who told millions of Americans in the 1980 election that “God is calling millions of Americans in the so-often silent majority to join in the moral-majority crusade to turn America around.” Liberal Americans, and especially those in Hollywood, felt adrift in this new conservatively aligned nation. Stephen King himself, an out-spoken liberal, has been openly critical over the years of Reagan and the Republican Party.

Seen through this lens, the characters of Burt and Vicky are surrogates for a left-leaning, secular America, lost in what is to them an alien landscape of endless corn. Burt is revealed early on to be in the medical field en route to his new assignment. This suggests that he is generally scientifically minded and, through his ability to resist the sexual advances of Vicky so as to stay on schedule and to shrug off her remarks about commitment, appears to be a man who doesn’t let emotions or lust derail his mental focus. As the couple drive through an ocean of corn they jokingly mock a radio preacher who has “no room for the homosexuals!” revealing a mutual disdain for socially conservative religion. When they strike the child in the road Burt is quick to assess that there is more going on, once again approaching the situation with a cold, rational mind. As they search the kid’s suitcase they find a crucifix made from corn that Vicky finds ugly and Burt concludes to be, as might an anthropologist, like a primitive form of folk art. Other scenes like this follow, and though the ending of the film muddles things with awkward monologues about religion from Burt or a vague biblical passage that they somehow make absurd leaps of logic to conclude is helpful, this theme of a secular, liberal America being encroached upon by conservative extremism is still very potent.

Children of the corn still 3

Another aspect of religion is suggested throughout the film, and though I’ve seen only bits and pieces of the many poor sequels they seem to misunderstand what made the tragedy of Gatlin possible. The children in the town are brainwashed, but they are far from being mind-controlled. Instead, their upbringing in a religiously conservative environment made the ascension of “He Who Walks Behind The Rows” possible. Joby talks of how Isaac was a popular child preacher, apparently embraced by the community and held in high regard. Children are an appropriate vehicle for zealotry because they are the most susceptible to indoctrination. In the end, it was Gatlin’s predisposition to adopt a charismatic, fundamentalist brand of Christianity that made Isaac’s influence possible – their own openness to extremist rhetoric and irrationality for solutions (in this case prayer to end a drought for a good corn harvest) allowed their children to take it a step further. As Burt says to the kids, “Maybe you’ve been listening to these holy rollers so long that it’s all starting to sound the same.” Like any cultists, the kids are seen in the beginning wearing contemporary teenage clothes, but after the murders have adopted plain, conservative attire. They have outlawed pleasure in the forms of the music and secular art. The only people who are not swayed are the natural skeptics, for Joby says that he and Sarah had always found Isaac weird. The old man at the gas station appears to have been an outcast even before the children took over and was possibly not a religious participant, and perhaps his isolation is partly why he had been allowed to live for so long. When warning Burt to avoid Gatlin, he simply states, “Folks in Gatlin got religion. They don’t cotton to outsiders.” The first part of his explanation seemed like reason enough to steer clear from the town. (IMDB has the quote as saying “Folks in Gatlin’s got a religion. They don’t like outsiders,” but I’m pretty sure this rendition is inaccurate.)

Children of the Corn is a flawed film, but it does stick with you. It may be riddled with logical inconsistencies, but it still offers deep enough concepts to chew on. Just as I was enamored with it as a child, I feel like it is actually a more effective children’s horror film than an adult one. That is not necessarily a bad thing. The 1980s had many horror movies best appreciated by a younger audience, like 1987’s The Gate, and their potency to viewers who are in those formidable years should not be dismissed or devalued. Children of the Corn is a perfect film to show a budding pre-teen horror fan who can handle some minor gore. They will not only relate more closely to the child characters and their plight, but they may learn, as I did, to be skeptical the next time someone tells them what God wants or an adult condescends to promise them the keys to the kingdom. “Folks in Gatlin got religion,” the film will remind them, “What you wanna do is to go to Hemmingford…”

Grade: C+

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Movie Review – The Company of Wolves (1984)

Movie Review – The Company of Wolves (1984)

There are certain memories which are personally defining to one’s childhood, but are so specific to a certain generation that their children will never know them. For my grandparent’s generation it was buying candy at the Five and Dime. For me and my friends growing up in the 80s, there were the video rental stores. We’d wander the aisles of VHS tapes and feast our eyes on the covers. The horror section always beckoned me, and certain covers would burn into my brain and make me wonder at the nightmares that those spools of film contained, such as the looking skull of 1987’s Evil Dead II or the ponytail noose of 1986’s April Fool’s Day.

However, none captured my imagination more than 1984’s The Company of Wolves, showing Little Red Riding Hood looking at a man who has a wolf snout painfully protruding from his mouth. It fascinated me then but over the years, as I finally saw many of those films which had tempted me, I somehow forgot about it. Recently, however, I stumbled upon that image again while tumbling down one of those internet rabbit holes. There it was, those rental store memories flooding back. I instantly opened my Netflix account and placed the film in my DVD queue, moving it to the top.

The Company of Wolves 1984 VHS cover

The Company of Wolves is an early directorial effort by Neil Jordan, who went on to do 1994’s Interview with the Vampire, a film which had a significant impact on me when it was released, and 2012’s beautifully crafted though sadly underappreciated horror-fantasy Byzantium. The screenplay was written by Jordan and Angela Carter, adapted from one of Carter’s short stories turned radio play of the same name.

Wolves is very much a Gothic fantasy, rich with dream logic and symbolism. The film opens in the present day with a girl banging angrily on the door of her younger sister’s bedroom as her sibling sleeps restlessly on her bed wearing her sister’s lipstick. We immediately enter the younger girl’s dreams, which take place in a fairytale forest. We see the older sister running terrified through the gloomy wood, being accosted by the younger girl’s giant toys and then by hungry wolves which devour her, letting a smile play on the dreamer’s lips.

The dreaming girl is the framing device for rest of the film which takes place within the fantasy world, in both the forest and the village which it surrounds, and in the stories that the characters tell. And so we often times have a story within a story within a story. The narrative delves into the sexual subtext of Charles Perrault’s Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, first published in 1697. Unlike later versions of the Little Red Riding Hood story, this original telling was heavily moralizing. Red Riding Hood is tricked into giving the wolf directions to her grandmother’s house, who then eats the grandmother and convinces Red to crawl into the bed with him before eating her too. There is no woodsman in this version to save the day or seek vengeance. In case his readers missed the point, Perrault lays it out for them:

“From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner. I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!”

The wolves in the film, and in particular werewolves, represent the carnal desires in men and serve as a warning to the main character, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson), an adolescent girl on the threshold of sexual awareness. Perrault’s moralizing is echoed by her Granny, played by Angela Lansbury. She tells Rosaleen that some wolves are furry on the inside, cautioning her against the advances of amorous men. “Oh,” she states, “they’re nice as pie until they’ve had their way with you. But once the bloom is gone… oh, the beast comes out.”

The Company of Wolves 1984 still

The forest is a place of wonder, fear, and compelling curiosities, and is a stand in for sex. Her grandmother instructs Rosaleen to always stay on the path, for if you leave it you’re forever lost. When an amorous neighbor boy asks her to go walking, he declares that they will stay on the path, meaning a veiled preservation of virginity. When Rosaleen meets the sexually charged and handsome huntsman, he comes to her from the forest, a place of forbidden knowledge which she finds most tempting.

Rosaleen, like her sleeping counterpart, is becoming knowledgeable of her own sexual desirability. In a strange sequence fit for a dream, Rosaleen climbs a tree to hide from the amorous neighbor boy and finds a stork’s nest. In the nest is red lipstick, which she applies, and a hand mirror, with which she admires herself. The eggs in the nest crack open and instead of chicks we see baby figurines. All of this, I presume, is meant to symbolize her growing sexuality and fertility.

The Company of Wolves 1984 still 2

Though the werewolves are used mostly as symbolic warnings to girls about men’s passions, the film is not ready to adopt Granny’s perspective on things. Female initiative and power are strong currents through the narrative, as is the notion of not judging men solely by their sexual desires. When Granny laments that Rosaleen’s sister was “all alone in the wood, and nobody there to save her. Poor little lamb,” Rosaleen then asks, “Why couldn’t she save herself?” Later Rosaleen is talking to her mother about her grandmother’s views, to which her mother responds, “You pay too much attention to your granny. She knows a lot but she doesn’t know everything. And if there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women too.” Rosaleen begins to adopt this very view, telling stories about a vengeful witch who displays female empowerment, and a harmless, misunderstood she-wolf. The men we hear about in the stories are carnal predators, but the one’s we see, particularly Rosaleen’s father, are fairly gentle men who are respectful toward the women in their lives.

The ending of the film, the specifics of which I will not spoil here, is ambiguous, though I believe it is all about breaking that barrier between childhood innocence and sexual maturity, shown metaphorically as the worlds of dream and reality violently crash together and the toys which played so prominent a role early in the film are left lying on the floor. Over this intrusion we hear Rosaleen reciting Perrault’s poetic warning:

Little girls, this seems to say
Never stop upon your way
Never trust a stranger friend
No-one knows how it will end
As you’re pretty, so be wise
Wolves may lurk in every guise
Now as then, ’tis simple truth
Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth.

The Company of Wolves is not the first film to link female sexuality with bestial transformation, as we saw this in films such as Val Lewton’s 1942 production Cat People, and it is certainly not the last. 2000’s Ginger Snaps and 2011’s Red Riding Hood also link the two, this time adding the lupine aspects. The pairing of werewolves and female puberty is an obvious one as the cycles of ovulation and the Moon have always been symbolically related. Etymologically, the word “menstruation” comes from the Latin menses (month) and the Greek mene (moon), after all.

Though rated-R, I could easily see this film being shown to adolescent girls. The sexuality is present but tame by comparison to what is shown on television today. The horror is relatively light; the visuals focus more on a fantastical dread or gloom save for some gory transformation scenes, which appear inspired more by John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) than by 1981’s An American Werewolf in London or The Howling. It’s a shame that this film has largely been forgotten, just as I had forgotten it, as it is daring, impressive filmmaking which abounds with deeper meanings. Had it been rated PG-13, it may have become an important film staple in young girls’ lives.

Grade: B+

Movie Review – The Toxic Avenger (1984)

Movie Review – The Toxic Avenger (1984)

Troma Entertainment was founded by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz in 1974 and has been known henceforth as the foremost purveyor of Z-movies – films of such low budget, standard, and taste that they don’t qualify even as B-films. And millions of horror fans have loved them for it. They have become the category standard by which all intentionally terrible movies are judged, which is a testament to their value as valid entertainment. As an eighties kid Troma movies were a rite of passage. Their overt nudity, violence, and surrealist mania was known among the playgrounds from kids whose older siblings had let them watch a beat up rental cassette. If you hadn’t seen a Troma film, you probably lied and said you had.

No Troma film was more well-known to us elementary schoolers than The Toxic Avenger (1984), an R-rated offering that oddly became even more popular with kids after it was made into an environmentalist children’s cartoon in the early 1990s called Toxic Crusaders. I can even remember the jingle that accompanied the toy line: “Toxic Crusaders – they’re gross, but they still get girls.” I think I still have some action figures somewhere. It’s similar to the unlikelihood of Rambo – a Vietnam vet who experiences violent flashbacks and who burned down a small American town – also becoming a cartoon hero in 1986. The Toxic Avenger represents the surprisingly uncommon coupling of the comic book superhero and horror. With an overflowing abundance of low-brow humor, gore and exploitation to fill it out, Toxie has since become Troma’s flagship icon.

As a kid I loved Troma films. They were beyond anything I had ever seen while still keeping to well-worn 1950s horror tropes; they were a combination of the bizarre and the comfortably familiar. They were intentionally bad movies that tried to cross into the so-bad-it’s-good realm, offering unapologetically crass entertainment. Troma movies are ones to watch when you’re in the right mood, and preferably with the right companions. The Toxic Avenger is certainly one of their films that still manages to hold viewers’ attention and even generates intentional laughs from its endearing, irresistible awfulness.

For those who don’t know, the movie tells of a skinny nerd who works as a janitor at a gym who gets harassed and pranked and ends up falling into a barrel of toxic waste – while wearing a pink tutu, of course. The radioactive chemicals result in deformities, super strength, and an unstoppable impulse to vanquish evil in all its forms. If that sounds like a plot you’d be interested in seeing on screen, even out of purely morbid curiosity, Toxie might be worth checking out for you. However, the movie is filled with cartoonish characters, terrible acting, worse dialogue, blatant stereotypes, gory but unconvincing special effects, and of course boobs. We even get hilarious dubbing. If that generates further interest, then Toxie is definitely worth checking out.

Troma movies aren’t for everyone. Most of the time, they aren’t even for me. But I’ve seen The Toxic Avenger many times over the years and I’m sure one day I’ll share it with my son so he can tell all the kids on the playground about the crazy-ass Troma film he just saw.

Grade: C-

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