Ancestors of the Corn

My memories of it were never especially vivid, but the 1984 Stephen King adaptation Children of the Corn scared me silly as a kid. All I truly remembered about the film was a rural town of killer children roaming roadside cornfields under the cult-leader rule of the prophet Isaac, played by series mascot John Franklin. I didn’t even have that central character’s name locked down in memory, though, as I’ve been wrongly referring to him by the more memorable name Malachi for decades (despite that name belonging to one of Isaac’s faithful child soldiers, not the leader himself). Still, even with the only the vaguest memory of that mid-80s cult curio rattling around in the back of my brain, it was easy to recognize it as a clear descendent of our Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child?. It’s not nearly as vicious, purposeful or, frankly, as good as Who Can Kill a Child?, but it certainly shares a lot of its thematic DNA.

Originally a short story published in Penthouse Magazine one year after Who Can Kill a Child?’s theatrical release, Stephen King’s killer-children cult thriller is strongly reminiscent of its elder. In both films, a tourist couple are trapped in a remote village overrun by violently rebellious children who’ve massacred all other nearby adults. Both films open with the eeriness of being the only car on the road while violent children quietly watch from their hidey holes. They’re primarily Daylight Horror films staged in open, sunlit spaces that are unusual for a genre that loves to build tension in cramped darkness. Their respective Killer Children contingents are headed by enigmatic leaders who mock traditional religious ceremonies in their town’s abandon churches and, most damningly, share the rarely used scythe as a murder weapon. If King was entirely unaware of Who Can Kill a Child? when he wrote this film’s source material (or if Fritz Kiersch hadn’t seen the picture before directing this adaption nearly a decade later) then this is a phenomenally precise case of parallel thinking.

At first, it appears as if the major distinguishing factor that would deviate Children of the Corn from the Who Can Kill a Child? template is that Isaac’s corn-worshipping flock aren’t killing adults for a supernatural cause, but rather a misguided superstition. There’s a Wicker Man-inspired track here about a cult who believes they must sacrifice anyone over 18-years-old to a vengeful god they call “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” to ensure a good corn harvest. Being ritually murdered by alarmingly organized children on the orders of a false prophet with an overactive imagination sounds genuinely chilling, but that’s not exactly what’s gong on here. There’s plenty of confirmed-to-be-“real” supernatural shit transpiring in these corn fields: harvest demons, Hellish weather patterns, predictive visions, and anything else Stephen King’s coke-addled mind could excitedly splatter on the page in its default over-excited state. If anything, it complicates Who Can Kill a Child?’s supernatural horror by adding more, more, more to the pile instead of appreciating the simplicity of the original’s premise & execution.

The true mutation of the Who Can Kill a Child? formula here is that Children of the Corn perversely feels like a Killer Children horror film made for children. The adult couple abducted by Isaac’s corn-worshiping cult (featuring The Terminator’s Linda Hamilton in an against-type distressed damsel role) provide a basic plot for the story to follow as outsiders who interrupt the killer-children’s natural order. They’re not necessarily the POV characters, though. The film is narrated by a cutesy child actor who plays a detractor within the cult who questions Isaac’s “wisdom.” Even with all the bloodshed & spooky cult rituals, the film plays with a Kids’ Movie sensibility throughout, which excuses some of its sillier touches like its faux-Latin choral score and its dynamic shots of “menacing” corn. A too-early viewing of Who Can Kill a Child? would scar a child for life, but catching Children of the Corn on late-night cable at an early could easily create a lifelong horror fan, something I can personal confirm. I suspect that’s how this deeply silly film earned no fewer than nine sequels, anyway, while Who Can Kill a Child? has been relegated to in-the-know cult status. Children of the Corn is about as original & hard-hitting as a Kidz Bop cover of that superior work, but there are far worse things a film could do than transform impressionable children into future genre nerds.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child? , check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its more muted predecessor, Village of the Damned.

-Brandon Ledet

Island of the Damned

One of the most underappreciated cul-de-sacs in horror cinema is the 1950s & 60s British thriller that turned expansive premises with global implications into bottled-up, dialogue-heavy teleplays. Sci-fi horror classics like Devil Girl from Mars, The Day of the Triffids, and The Earth Dies Screaming executed big ideas on constricted budgets in excitingly ambitious ways, even if they often amounted to back-and-forth philosophical conversations in parlors & pubs. It’s difficult to imagine so, but our current Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child? has strong roots in one of the most iconic examples of this buttoned-up British tradition – the 1964 chiller Village of the Damned. What’s most amazing about that influence is that the calmer, more dialogue-heavy example of the pair is somehow just as disturbing as its ultraviolent descendent. Even working under harsh financial restraints & systemic moral censorship in a more conservative time for horror cinema, Village of the Damned holds its own against the free-to-shock grindhouse nasties that followed in its wake.

It’s not that Village of the Damned was the only killer-children horror film that could or would have influenced Who Can Kill a Child?. From the classier Evil Children artifacts like Rosemary’s Baby & The Bad Seed to schlockier contemporaries like It’s Alive! & Kill Baby Kill, it’s remarkably rich thematic territory that’s been mined countless times before & since. Still, there’s something about the way the concept is handled in Village of the Damned that directly correlates to Who Can Kill a Child?, particularly in the two films’ opening acts. They both begin with the eerie quiet of a vacated city where the adults have been neutralized (in Who Can Kill a Child? because they were massacred, in Village of the Damned because they were gassed by alien invaders). Both films dwell on the mystery of those vacant rural-village settings for as long as possible before revealing that their central antagonists will be murderous children. Those children may have different respective supernatural abilities (the ones of Who Can Kill a Child? are unusually athletic & muscular while the toe-headed cherubs of Village of the Damned are hyper-inteligent), but they share a common penchant for telepathic communication that leaves their adult victims out of the loop. Most importantly, Village of the Damned concludes with its main protagonist (veteran stage actor George Sanders) making the “heroic” decision to kill a classroom full of children to save the planet, which touches on the exact thematic conflict referenced in its unlikely decedent’s title.

There are, of course, plenty of ways that Who Can Kill a Child? mutates & reconfigures the Village of the Damned template instead of merely copying it (lest it suffer the same fate as John Carpenter’s tepid 90s remake). Instead of the killer children being a set number of alien invaders in a small village, they’re instead a growing number of infectious revolutionaries who can recruit more tykes into their adult-massacring cause – making their eventual escape from their island home a global threat. Since the sensibilities of the horror genre in general has changed drastically between the two films – from teleplays to gore fests – Who Can Kill a Child? also translates the earlier film’s “The Birds except with Children” gimmick to more of a hyperviolent George Romero scenario. Surprisingly, though, the most pronounced difference between the two works is their respective relationships with the military. In Village of the Damned, the British military is a force for patriotic good against an invading space alien Other – who trigger post-War trauma over entire communities being gassed & destroyed. Who Can Kill a Child? is much, much tougher on military activity, framing its entire children’s-revenge-on-adults scenario as retribution for the way it’s always children who suffer most for adults’ war crimes. That makes this gory Spanish mutation of the buttoned-up British original the exact right kind of cinematic descendent – the kind that’s in active conversation with its predecessors instead of merely copying them.

Who Can Kill a Child? is less restrained than Village of the Damned in terms of its politics & its violence, but both films are on equal footing in terms of bone-deep chills—which speaks to the power of the teleplay-style writing & acting of 1960s British horror. Village of the Damned is nowhere near the flashiest nor the most audacious entry in the Evil Children subgenre, but it is an incredibly effective one that plays just as hauntingly today as it did a half century ago. It’s like being locked in a deep freezer for 77minutes of pure panic, so it makes sense that it’d have a wide-reaching influence on films that don’t either share its sense of restraint nor its politics.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child? , check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Brandon & Britnee watch Who Can Kill a Child? (1976).

Boomer: ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (Who Can Kill a Child?) tells the story of British tourist Tom and his wife Evelyn, who is six months pregnant. The couple have left behind their two slightly older children in order to take a final holiday to the Spanish island of Almanzora before the new baby comes. Tom has visited the island before, and we first meet the two when they arrive at their first stop in the coastal town Benavis, enjoying the city’s festival while blissfully unaware that two mutilated corpses have washed up on the beach. The two rent a boat and make their way to Almanzora, only to discover a village devoid of adults, and the children they encounter have a vague air of menace. As the sun beats down mercilessly on the two Brits, they encounter a couple of holdouts and learn what has happened on this seemingly peaceful island.

There are a lot of beautifully composed shots in this film, with a couple of standouts: the pan to Evelyn in the village watering hole, revealing a shadowy and imposing figure behind a beaded curtain, who turns out to be a seemingly innocent girl; likewise, the reverse shot revealing the swarm of children coming over the hill near the fisherman’s house is also wonderfully done. Overall, however, the cinematography and direction avoid being too expressionistic or cinematic, instead relying on a more documentarian style of filmmaking to evoke the feeling that the situation in which the couple find themselves could happen to anyone; this was an intentional choice on the part of the late director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador (who also directed The House that Screamed, which I’ve been trying to find for years) and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine (who is probably better known for his collaborations with Pedro Almodóvar, including Volver, La mala educación, and La piel que habito). Despite the realism of the visuals, the narrative itself is straightforwardly literary in its use of dramatic irony. I particularly like that Tom identifies the flower which he and Evelyn encounter en route to Almanzora as having come from the island, noting that the currents often carry objects from the island to the coast, both of them fully ignorant of the corpses they missed by that much: first when the bus on which they arrive passes the ambulance carrying the first body away from the beach, and again when both ignore the commotion at the Benavis shorefront out of a heat-induced apathy.

On my second watch, I also noticed that the couple are as damned by Tom’s self-importance as they are by whatever event is happening on the island. Evelyn first wants to stay in Benavis (which would have saved them from the fate that befell them on the island, at least for a time) but is convinced to proceed to Almanzora. Tom claims to know a great deal about the island, having been there eleven years prior, but despite his previous knowledge has to be corrected about the correct pronunciation of its name, foreshadowing that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks he does and telegraphing that the coming time when the duo will briefly think that their situation has improved will prove to be a false hope. Also, who the hell brings up the child murder-suicide subplot of La dolce vita on a quasi-romantic holiday?

When Brandon reached out to me to let me know that he and Britnee had loved the movie, he also noted that the opening sequence, which featured 7.5 minutes of archival footage of real life atrocities, mostly featuring images of crying children, was “A Lot.” At first I wasn’t sure what he meant, since the screening that I attended last summer as part of the Un-Hitched film series (which also featured Body Double and Special Effects), until I recalled that that screening’s presenter did mention at the time that other versions of the film contained an opening that we “[didn’t] need to see.” It appears that the longer, more questionable version is the only one available to the general viewing public, as it appeared on both the Blu-ray that Brandon acquired and the DVD version I rented from Austin’s Vulcan Video. I’m not certain from where the 16mm version I saw first came or for what region it was edited, but moving forward I would recommend skipping straight to the second “chapter.” It’s not just that the real-life material is slapped onto the film haphazardly (and tastelessly, although with good intentions; one of the special features on the DVD is an interview with the director, who admits regret at having started the film this way … because he feels he should have put it at the end), but also that the overlong introduction throws off the film’s flow. Now, the first encounter with the silent child at the pier at Almanzora comes at the 28th minute, not the 21st. We see the first dead body on the island at 40 minutes, not 32.5. A few modern reviews of the film littered about the internet bemoan the film’s “slow” pace, and it may merely be that the film’s timing feels off because it’s frontloaded.

Britnee, having seen the film with the brutal and unnecessary prologue, do you think that the film would benefit from having that footage moved to the end? How would that color the film experience? I’m assuming that removing it altogether rather than abbreviating it or relocating it is the best solution, but maybe you disagree. Is it really necessary in order to understand the film’s thesis, or does it muddle the water? Is the film even a good demonstration of that thesis?

Britnee: Watching those 8 horrid minutes of children suffering (mostly dying) from war and poverty had my stomach in knots. It was also insane seeing the real-life footage in high-quality as Brandon’s Blu-Ray copy had a wonderful restoration of the movie. My experience with the film’s intro may be a bit different than most since I don’t really have any close relationships with children. I find children to be more annoying than adorable, and I try to avoid them for the most part. Had I not watched the grisly intro, my emotions during the film would have been a bit more stagnant. I would have maintained a “Just kill the damn kids!” attitude from beginning to end. Once the 8 minutes were finally over, my heart was broken from the pain and suffering children have to go through for things that are out of their control. So when the kids on the island of Almanzora began to start their evil shit, I had some empathy for them and saw their evil behavior as them evolving into powerful beings to take revenge on the adults that they depended on for protection. However, any bit of sympathy I had for these island kids went down the drain after they used an elderly man as a human piñata. After that bit, my reaction to everything was, “Dammit, kill that kid!”

The thought of having the intro at the end of the film did cross my mind, and I honestly think that would’ve been so much better. I do think that footage is necessary to understand the evolution that is occurring in the children, causing them to kill the adults, and having it at the end of the film would still make that point clear. The lengthy intro can be a turn off for someone coming into this movie for the first time. If this version would have played at the screening Boomer attended, I could imagine there being a few walk-outs. Not only is the footage’s placement in the film an issue, but the length is totally unnecessary. A brief 1 minute montage would be enough for the audience to understand what the film is trying to say.

Who Can Kill a Child? is most certainly a film that isn’t afraid of crossing boundaries. One particular scene that I found to be surprising was when a smiling toddler got shot in the head and his dead body was pushed off a window sill. I mean, he was trying to kill the film’s main couple, but I was still shocked to see his bloody corpse after the act. Brandon, were you surprised by the film’s treatment of dead children? Were there any particular scenes that surprised you?

Brandon: If I was surprised by the matter-of-fact depictions of ficitional children’s lifeless bodies, it’s because it was initially unclear how willing the film was to Go There. After the (deliberately) excruciating montage of real-life war atrocity footage that opens the film, onscreen depictions of violence suddenly decide to play coy for reasons unknown. Because this is a genre film from the amoral grindhouse days of the 1970s, it’s immediately clear that this island of tykes are up to no good, but their creepiness begins with a quiet, eerie menace instead of a non-stop violent assault. Their first kill after the British couple arrives on their shore is of a local old geezer whom they bash over the head with his own cane offscreen. The film is willing to show the giallo-flavored red acrylic stage blood pouring from his head wound, but the actual blows that do him in are obscured as sounds, not images. What makes the movie remarkable is how its violence escalates from there into shocking explosions of brutality. The old man’s body is strung up like a piñata and swiped at with a scythe. The children responsible are ultimately mowed down with an automatic assault rifle, execution-style, when they block the road back to the shore. They’re beaten back with a boat oar in desperation as they swarm our child-killing “hero” like a zombie hoard.

In retrospect, it’s even creepier the violence is gradually escalated in this way. It’s clear that the children were always going to kill the adult-tourist invaders who disrupt their community; they just take their time to savor the hunt by turning it into a schoolyard game. It’s kind of a shame, then, that the documentary footage intro tips the film’s hand in prematurely exposing its willingness to Go There, since it takes a while for the violence to re-escalate back to that horrific starting point.

Because of that gradual escalation of violence, it’s difficult for any standout scene or set piece to top the climactic struggle Britnee already mentioned, where our hero shoots a child dead, point blank, in the face. Hounded into a cramped, locked cell with nowhere left to go, the tourist couple have no choice but to finally fight back instead of merely avoiding death. So, they find themselves firing a gun at the cutest, most cherubic cartoon of a child. It initially plays as if that transgression had taught the other kids a lesson (or at least a boundary) and they back off from the adults’ holding cell in apparent defeat. Except, they’ve been playing the long game! They’ve recruited and undercover soldier on the inside who can attack the pregnant tourist from within her own belly in an exceptionally gruesome moment of body horror. It feels as if the entire film is leading up to the crisis of that holding cell, a bottled-up stage play of grief, pain, and torment that really caught me off guard in its willingness to Go There psychologically on top of its willingness to depict brutal acts of violence against children & adults alike.

But what, exactly, do we make of this war between adults & children? What grievances inspired this climactic showdown? At one point, a single-scene character floats the idea that the children are striking back because in outbreaks of war & famine due to adults follies “It’s the children who suffer the most.” You could read that grievance as lip service to justify the war-atrocity prologue, but I do like the idea that these kids collectively have a cosmic vendetta against adults for bringing them into a cruel world where they have no protections or control in times of crisis, even though those crises are always adults’ fault. Then again, the film seemingly has more interest in its titular question of how far you’d have to be pushed to willingly kill a child than it does in exploring the source of this cosmic vendetta, which is why so much emphasis is put on that climactic showdown where our hero pulls the trigger on a gun aimed at an angelic tyke’s face. Boomer, what point do you think this film was trying to make in drawing its battle lines between adults & children, and just how invested do you think it is in exploring those themes vs. merely playing up the moral conundrum posed by the title?

Boomer: Metatextually, having watched the interview with the director, I can say that he was heavily invested in making the film about the damage done to children by adult violence. Most sources online note that the film was based on film was based on a novel by Juan José Plans’s, El juego de los niños (The Children’s Game), but in the interview Serrador noted that the film and the novel were created at the same time, and that the film was actually released prior to the novel’s publication, although I haven’t found any other evidence to support that claim. He noted that the novel provides more of an explanation as to why the children behave the way that they do, citing a yellow dust of possibly extraterrestrial origin settling over the (in the novel) landlocked town and causing the erratic and violent behavior of the children. I also can’t corroborate this, as the novel has never been translated into english, but he noted that he found the explanation unsatisfactory as it focused more on the moral quandary and removed adult violence from the equation. So we know that, from authorial intent, he was less concerned with making an exploitation film that featured characters struggling with the moral quandary of attacking children than he was with making a film that tackled the evils of war and the aftereffects that such struggles have on those least able to understand and withstand them.

But if Barthes is right and the author is dead, then I have to say that, purely within the text, I feel that the film is less concerned with that track. As noted before, my initial viewing did not contain the prologue of real world violence; even with that, the only real attention paid to the motivation of the children comes in the shop where the English couple purchase film, when the clerk notes that children suffer the most from war, poverty, and general big evils. It feels more like lip service to me, a prevarication to excuse creating a film that explores how far one would have to be pushed before they would commit to so evil a plan as murdering kids. That having been said, I don’t feel like the film revels in its violence, either; we’re certainly not supposed to feel a sense of relief, justice, or triumph when Tom is finally forced to mow down a line of children with an automatic weapon, nor should we rejoice when he kills the child in the window. I think it’s certainly not a coincidence that the couple we follow is English, hailing from the power that arguably did the most damage to the world in their colonial conquerings (although Spain was, um, certainly not innocent in their expansions either, so there’s possibly a little intracolonial hypocrisy going on there). When viewed through that lens, however, one can argue that the film is a mea culpa for a colonial power, which would lend credence to the director’s professed values, even if they are not clear on screen.

When I saw the film as part of the Un-Hitched series, it was described as “What if The Birds, but with kids?” And that’s certainly present, but the director also cited Night of the Living Dead as an inspiration as well, which is most clearly apparent in the final scene, where our “hero” (although Tom is not nearly as much of a hero as Dead‘s Ben is) is killed by the authorities. Britnee, what other films do you see as having inspired or being inspired by Who Can Kill a Child?

Britnee: I got heavy The Wicker Man vibes from Who Can Kill a Child?, and being that The Wicker Man was released just 3 years prior, it isn’t outlandish for me to suggest that film had some influence on Who Can Kill a Child?. Both films involve outsiders stuck on an island full of deceitful human predators, carefully keeping track of their every move as part of some sick and twisted game. I was quick to categorize Who Can Kill a Child? as a killer kid movie, which it totally is, but it’s just as much of an island horror as well. Something about being stuck on an island where everyone is out to get you is deeply unsettling. The film taking place on such an isolated island scared me just as much as the bloodthirsty children. I also want to mention that the timing of the couple’s arrival to Almanzora really amped up the island horror levels. The massacre on the island began as quickly as it ended, which was made apparent by the unattended cart of melted ice cream and almost completely burnt rotisserie chickens.

When Brandon and I watched the movie, he said something along to lines of, “That’s their Malachi,” when the eerily silent boy rubs Evelyn’s pregnant belly. That’s when I started to make influential connections between Who Can Kill a Child? and Children of the Corn. The children of Almanzora were not as loud and rowdy as the youth of Gatlin, Nebraska, but they were very organized and had the same determination to take down all adults. Come to think of it, the only time we hear the children make any noise is when they fake cry or give Birthday party cheers while wacking at a human piñata. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Children of the Corn, but I can imagine that there are even more similarities that can be picked out. Now that we’re getting closer to Halloween, it may be a good time for me to pay those Corn Kids a visit and binge the series.

At least with Children of the Corn, the adults make it out alive, which I totally thought was going to happen with Evelyn and Tom. Brandon, would you have preferred an ending where the couple made it off the island after blowing it up (or something along those lines)? Or were you satisfied with the film’s actual ending?

Brandon: The big-budget Hollywood ending to this nasty Euro-grindhouse provocation would be for the heroes to prevail & neutralize the threat while clearing a path back to safety. There is something perversely funny about the idea of that traditional victory involving the detonated explosion of an island full of children since, as the titular moral conflict suggests, that act is typically crueler than it is heroic. As amused as I might have been by that massacre being framed as a Happy Ending, I do think the way the film concludes is already perfect. It gifts us with the fantastic children-as-zombies visual homage to the Romero template in one of the film’s strongest set pieces. It’s an admirably honest participation in the inherent nihilism of the horror genre at large. And, most importantly, it emphasizes that the British couple were doomed from the moment they arrived, and the delay of their demise was just a sick schoolyard game. I can’t imagine an alternate ending that could be equally satisfying, which is more than I can say about the way the film begins.

Lagniappe

Boomer: An interesting behind-the-scenes tidbit: the cinematographer was the son of a film developer who handled the processing of rolls of film shot by the director’s father, leading the cinematographer to joke in his interview that he had been developing the director’s prints since they were children.

Britnee: Tom reminds me so much of this douchey guy that was in a tour group with me in Rome. He was constantly bragging about the 2 months he spent in Rome during his college days while being dismissive of everyone’s opinions because he was such a Rome “expert.” Tom was being a little bit of a show-off in Almanzora just because he spent a short amount of time there many moons ago, and I think that’s what really led to the couple’s demise. He should’ve just listened to his wife.

Brandon: I love how sweaty & gross the two leads are allowed to become over the course of this picture. This is Daylight Horror in the most literal sense, as the heat & sunshine are almost as much of a menace as the killer children. To that point, I initially made fun of Evelyn’s unfathomably tragic bangs in the early scenes, but once they were pasted to her forehead with sweat in the island heat, I appreciated how disheveled & panicked they made her look. By the time she has her Big Scene in the holding cell she looks demonically possessed, which fits the heightened tone of the moment beautifully, and I’m not sure it would’ve played that way without those shitty, godawful bangs setting the stage.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Hanna presents Rare Exports (2010)
December: Brandon presents Strange Days (1995)
January: The Top Films of 2019

-The Swampflix Crew