Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Filmmakers have been in a 30-year contest, of which they are not aware, to see who can make the best movie from a Stephen King short story from the author's beloved 1978 Night Shift collection. Or rather, judging by the entries in this race, a contest to see who can make the worst and/or craziest movie.

Films based on the King of Blue Collar Horror's physically massive novels always have to make choices about streamlining the abundance of source material. Just as popular for film optioning are King's short stories. While rich with story, character and world-class gross-out, the stories are all efficient, leanly structured and snappy. No feature filmmaker who takes on Night Shift has been able to resist the urge to rip apart the delicate little stories and pad them back up with added subplots, characters, melodrama, or distracting, invented setpieces.

Does this beefing-up ever work? Why not? Are there other merits or strange pleasures to be had in these maligned films? What is the most faithful adaptation? Least faithful? Best? ...and worst? I've been undertaking the dubiously enlightening job of watching every film based on King's work. Thus far, the most interesting element of the movies as adaptations is a uniform inability to capture more than one or two elements of the texture, the style, the feel of King's writing.

This week, Exploding Kinetoscope examines the films based on Night Shift. Kinetoscope is the doorway, I know what you need, and hey: let's boogie, man.

Warning: This is gonna get spoily.

Village of the Malachai!: Children of the Corn (1984)

Children's main tactic is to wring every ounce of story out of the source. In doing so, the film dramatizes from the beginning backstory which in the story is slowly ekked out as a solution to a mystery. The hook here, after all, is that children live in the corn and kill people. So the movie begins with a small town's adult population being murdered by religious-nut farm kids under the spell of a Corn God preaching weirdo. The power of King's taut original is the Twilight Zone stock situation of unsuspecting travelers stumbling upon a ghost town and discovering the burg's terrible history. The film has shot itself in the foot, destroying any potential mysterious circumstances at the expense of an attention-grabbing opening gore sequence of loony preteens sticking people's hands in kitchen appliances. Likewise a scene in the story where in an empty church, a man studies clues and signs and with dawning horror pieces together the standards and practices of the kiddie sacrifice cult. In the film, he stumbles into a packed church, sacrifice mid-slice.

Try as Children of the Corn might, it cannot make likable one of King's most singularly unpleasant protagonists. In the short story, the real time plot is driven by the marital bickering between a road weary couple. This "Lockhorns"-on-the-road scenario motivates the hero to leave his bitchy wife unprotected in dangerous situations, and fuels "Children of the Corn" with an ugly misanthropy. The film attempts to show a loving couple (Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton) break down as normal interpersonal tensions are exacerbated by a horrific car accident and increasingly stressful adventures. Too many traces of the human ugliness that haunt King's "Corn" remain, so our heroes simply behave as reasonable people do not, and shout at each other a lot, but not in any interesting way.

The list of failures and injuries in George Goldsmith's screenplay is unyielding. The short story suddenly segues into the supernatural for its nasty snapper ending, and the film turns it into a protracted action sequence and never lets us see the monster. The dum-dum additions also include: a total reversal of the heroes' nasty fates; a couple of cute dissenting Corn Kids used as a viewer-friendly window into the corn-religion (one of whom has the Shine!); a good suspense scene (a woman napping alone in a car being lurked by Children of the Corns) which is revealed to be a Carrie-like dream, even though it contains events that actually happen and shots from other characters' perspectives.

Having grown up in Iowa, where Children was shot (standing in for Nebraska), I can attest that there is potential spooky beauty and weird majesty in a cornfields. Interior and exterior space becomes confused as the rows become tunnels, the stalks and leaves walls and roofs. The very blowing wind alters the landscape, sending ripples and waves that transform solid green fields into strange oceans. Director Fritz Kiersch manages to squelch all the eeriness and most of the prettiness out of the corn. Except that you are being told it is so, there's little feeling that secret horrors are lurking in the fields.


The biggest expansion from King's story puts the Children themselves front and center, rather than a lurking, off-stage threat. Sadly, though the characters have some iconic nightmare value for children of the '80, they cannot bear the scrutiny of the spotlight. Some particularly odd-looking and frenzied performers have been cast as the lead Corn-o's. GHD-afflicted John Franklin as head boy-preacher Isaac, and huge-mouthed firecrotch Courtney Gains as second-banana psycho, Malachai both try very hard, which mostly means hilarious histrionic screaming. But by trying to particularize the villains, the nonsense religion and cornsilk-thin motivation of the cult are all too apparent.

The viewer may, however, find themselves shouting "Outlander! Outlander!" and "Seize them!" in best Malachai imitation for many weeks after.

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