Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Review Double Feature: Children of the Corn and COTC III: Urban Harvest

at 6:00 PM
Y'know, I'd thought I'd retired from this movie reviewin' business, but it was too good to be true. There were still bizarro movies out there on the streets and no one to clean 'em up, and how's a guy like me supposed t' get t' sleep knowin' ya can't find a single damn review that gets such a quintessentially weird movie as Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest. Nah, I couldn't let it end that way. Not with my typin' fingers still twitchin' at my sides as if the words were already penned in there, stompin' to roam the net. I was back to this reviewin' game... for a night.

children in the cornfield do fi do
Children of the Corn is one of those what the fuck even is this? series. Not a single one of the movies was mainstream popular. There's no iconic imagery the likes of Freddy, Jason, or even Pinhead. No one bothered to reboot it, even after they exhausted every horror franchise imaginable, even so far as remaking Fright Night. It wasn't even clear to me whether it's a series treated with some seriousness as having mythology and traditions like Halloween or Phantasm, or whether it is complete batshit nonsense linked only for marketing purposes like Leprechaun or Hellraiser (after part IV). Yet it has somehow outlasted all of its contemporaries, spanning 27 years from 1984 to 2011 (and perhaps further). So there had to be some rhyme or reason to it. When I put my ear down to the soil I heard rumblings that there was something special about the enticingly titled Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest. Not one to jump my gooses, I decided to start at the bottom of the stack with the original to get my bearings. I'm more interested in discussing III (because it was good), but I think a series deserves to be viewed in context (don't make a movie with a 3 on the end if you don't expect viewers to have expectations from parts 1 and 2), so let's talk about the original for a minute first.

Children of the Corn is the story of ol' Gatlin-town, one of those tiny corny cities in the middle of Nebraska where no one has a car or a phone or relatives, where there's only one road in and out, the nearest city is fifty miles north, and behind the rows of corn lurks a supernatural He Who Walks Behind the Rows. One day in Gatlin, the child worshipers of Hewho rise up and enact a final solution for the adults - something even the creepy little brainiacs in Village of the Damned weren't able to pull off. Anyway, a few years later some more idiots show up for the pickin', your typical clueless Stephen King protagonists with big dreams and rock music that just remind me what a clueless New England dumbass Stephen King is. They take an unnaturally long time to figure out that there are no adults in town, then they have some run-ins with the kids, then the gal gets kidnapped, someone gets sacrificed, people invent the term "outlander" for no apparent reason (it's adults they hate, not foreigners, so shouldn't they have a slur for that? like "big-timers" or something?), and the cornfield heroically burns down in a last-ditch stand against America's agricultural trust fund baby. After watching, two reasons immediately strike me why Children of the Corn, despite its loyal fan-base, doesn't retain the classic standing of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre or a The Omen

1.) It was released in 1984, yet largely feels like it was made in 1974. While 1984 is hardly too late to the horror franchise party (really only Halloween, Alien, and F13 are earlier), this movie doesn't feel like a product of the mid-'80s. The extremely tacked-on bookending sequences - the opening murder rampage and the concluding battle against a bad special effect - do have that Reagan-era feel. Yet the vast majority of the film feels in keeping with the lethargic slow burn of '70s horror like Rosemary's Baby, which is indeed what I associate with King (beyond show-tune sensibilities). The car-driving, the debates, the exploratory world-building is all very '70s realism, not '80s theatricality. It ends up feeling half out of its time but mostly just contradictory. After opening with a guy getting his hand shoved into a deli slicer, it's a real cheat for the rest of the movie to be so tame. It'd be like if a Friday the 13th movie had the normal cold (murder) open and then the rest was just a party comedy and Jason never showed up.

It's nitpicky but it's hard not to be distracted by the grandma clothes and weird face Sarah Connor is making here
2.) The would-be '70s realist part is absolute boring garbage that hits every pitfall associated with that trend and capitalizes on none of its strengths. There's probably supposed to be some kind of tension between someone, optimally the husband and the wife, but it's just not there. They want to get to a town because, y'know, it's lonely not being in civilization, then that dead kid shows up and they for whatever insane reason decide to pop him in the trunk, but it's not like anyone knows about that or is putting pressure on them, not like he's going to stop being dead, so the fact that they can't seem to get anywhere makes it more just a movie about the inconvenience of getting lost on a road trip. Then they meet those ridiculous 'good' children, Jobie and Sarah, defusing things even further, while the mystery remains how they can't figure out based on the fact that there is no one in the town of Gatlin that there is no one in the town of Gatlin. They could leave at any time, they just choose to be ornery instead. Most of the movie is spent walking around town finding corn husks in unexpected places, which raises the issue that the script was based on a three-page short story. Considering the laborious pace, you'd expect they could've fleshed things out with some original ideas (like explaining how the cult even happened or why the fuck they seemingly worship a crucified cop they call "the blue man"), but this isn't really an "ideas" picture.

Also, almost all of the actors are insufferably bad. The main preacher kid is decent (the actor playing him was actually 24 at the time, though you wouldn't know from his stature), but Linda "Terminator Her Too" Hamilton made me want to die with her attempt at a 'sexy' dance for her oh-so-painfully impotent husband. It's not amazing that this movie got a sequel (everything gets a sequel, even if you blow up the planet), but it's amazing that anyone at all likes it. 

But none of that is stuff that happens in Children of the Corn III, so let's get to the point already. My expectations for III plummeted after groaning through the made-for-TV quality of Children of the CornUrban Harvest had the unenviable task of winning me over completely from scratch (I skipped II, having heard nothing good about it). Shockingly, it managed to do exactly that - I don't think I've seen such a dramatic leap in quality between sequels since Evil Dead to Evil Dead II, which is really the best comparison there is. See, Evil Dead and Children of the Corn are stupid movies that think they're clever, trying to get away with lackadaisical pacing and counterfeit (or "cheesy") acting with the excuse of heavy-handed satire of religion, parenting, and sex. But no one is watching an asinine scrapped-together B horror movie for its themes, and presenting such ideas requires nuanced execution anyway. A smart script does not a smart movie guarantee. You can only get away with ball-parking conceptual material if you're serving up something more visceral to keep us entertained, which is honestly like kinda half the point of horror in the first place. I'm willing to forgive and actually even get into a lot more stupidity if I get to watch bizarre shit like people's heads being replaced with oysters. So when you move on to your Evil Dead II, or here, your Children of the Corn III, the movies are exactly what the first one shoulda been in the first place, as they reiterate the thematic through-line of their predecessors while amping up the comedy, violence, and generally entertaining qualities. 

Urban Harvest, as you can likely gather from the name, sees two young Gatlin boys adopted by a naive Chicago family, whereupon they proceed to quickly turn the Windy City into a model of their corn-worshippin' adult-murderin' hometown. It's a tale of corruption, fanaticism, high-school drama, and most of all, basketball. You see, in the world of Children of the Corn III, the polar opposite of corn... is basketball. I suppose you could consider that some kind of commentary on Midwestern culture, though what kind of unholy abomination that makes the Cornhuskers is beyond me. We follow the boys as they find their place in urban culture: young Eli gravitates toward his agricultural upbringing, sowing magical corn seeds in an abandoned factory, while, in scenes from Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, the older Joshua quickly impresses the locals with his steel backbone and some huge lay-ups. Still, even as the boys grow farther apart, they insist on sharing a bed (just as in the country I guess?). It isn't long before Joshua is just one of the crew while Eli angrily glares on from behind his corn and scriptures, all as their foster mother becomes growingly worried about the pair's suspicious origin and their foster father tries desperately to get some action. The discovery of Eli's logic-defying corn crop is a harbinger of doom for his foster parents, sending his mother to a Final-Destination-esque Rube Goldberg death and twisting his father into a heartless fat-cat hell-bent on reaping the financial gains of this genetically supreme corn specimen. Back at school, Joshua and his best friend Malcolm find the basketball court disturbingly empty and the principal is informed that the student body is excelling in their studies and becoming more disciplined by the day - almost as if they were falling in with some kind of cult! And who is at the head of this fraternity but Eli, and behind him, He Who Walks Behind the Rows?

There is truly some high-concept madness at play here, and for all its ambition, it's surprisingly smoothly pulled off. There are some slight plot ambiguities that I'll get to in a second, but for the most part this is a movie about a pseudo-Amish kid who brings his pet corn to the big city and uses it to enslave teens into the worship of an unseen abomination while simultaneously setting a capitalist apocalypse in motion. And who the fuck in their right mind doesn't want to watch that? I love how, though in theory the movie should be extremely doom and gloomy, the corn-centricity gives it all an almost carnivalesque tone. Eli's corn has weird magical properties - it keeps turning into cockroaches when you least want it to, like when he uses it to poison the principal's soup or feeds it to his girlfriend's parents. The corn patch itself lashes out at intruders and seems to have a mystical effect on anyone who walks through it, transporting them to an endless pastoral cornfield. It's like a mini-labyrinth, a sort of portal to the corn dimension. Then there's the great raising of the stakes when Eli's Wall Street-type foster father latches onto the profitability of this impeccable corn specimen and sets to work getting it exported across the world. So beyond the takeover of the school, you've got this whole apocalyptic threat with the implication being that if the corn gets out into the world, there'll be no stopping it. Frankly it's Lovecraftian - the cultists, the ancient false god, the impending end of the world. But Lovecraftian with corn!

That said, there are one or two stutters in the plot, places where it's not hard to connect the dots but where the movie isn't exactly laying its cards on the table. I don't know if it was over-edited or if some elements were crammed in too late, but for instance, there's basically a cut and a snap of the fingers and somewhere behind the scenes all of the students become Eli's followers. One second he's sitting by himself in the cafeteria, then some unrelated stuff happens, then the next time we see him being followed by a flock of students. I think we're supposed to infer that he fed them his corn and that brainwashes them (a la The Stuff), but that never happens onscreen (plus, how?), nor does it explain why Malcolm and Joshua are immune. The principal's dream/flashbacks are also just kinda boring, pointless, and filler-y. One dream sequence is okay. Like five is too many. This is a feature film, not a music video.

The most memorable element of the movie is the character Eli and his performance by Daniel Cerny. Eli doesn't let go of his sinister ways for even a minute when he's introduced to city life - in fact it's hinted he may actually be in the city specifically to spread his terror. There's a great scene when the new foster family sits down for their first awkward dinner: the father starts to dig in without saying grace, and Eli sharply cuts him off, delivering the most egregiously fire-and-brimstone "prayer" imaginable, essentially damning everyone at the table to Hell. Really that tells you all you need to know about this character: he's not here to adopt your ways, he's here to evangelize his, and anyone who doesn't fall in line is going to burn. Eli is exuberantly creepy - playful, mocking, and smug in his juvenile immunity, more a demonic Bart Simpson than a broody Damien. It's particularly fun seeing him torment his foster mother, playing tricks on the completely well-meaning woman just for the fuck of it - there's this great sense that he sees adults purely as playthings. I love when he asks for a goodbye kiss and instead voraciously frenches her ear. It's such a what-the-fuck taunt, topped by the watch this! look on his face. As he takes over the school we get to see his growing audacity as he challenges the principal, featuring a truly claustrophobic and menacing mass where he and his army of followers laugh hysterically from the pews at the increasingly sweaty and nervous priest.
The faces this kid makes are gold. He's detached yet intrigued yet condescending yet amused. Makes a great alien. 
Maybe I'm alone in this world of piss, but in my book there's a difference between "horror movie" and "scary movie", and it ticks me off a bit when critics (I'm looking at you, Ebert's jawless skeleton) complain that a horror movie "isn't scary". That's like complaining that a romantic comedy isn't scary (though you won't find me saying so - most are terrifying). Horror isn't strictly a synonym for fear. It comprises shock, revulsion, dread, and the macabre. These reactions often inspire fear, and thus horror movies often are scary movies, but that's not necessarily the case. Horror can also inspire laughter, awe, lamentation, outrage, or any combination of the emotions. It's just an evocative tool - maybe that dashes horror for horror's sake, but it also removes it from its restriction to the scary story. And considering that genuine fear is so personal and challenging to draw out (which is fairly why a properly scary movie is such a treasure), I don't ever go into a movie expecting that sensation. Hell, most often I expect good horror to be funny, cuz I'm just the cynical, sociopathic type.

The other part of my personal philosophy that I'd like to share today is that I think "Magic Man" is actually a pretty good song. There are a whole lot of sweet guitar sections in that song and whatever the drums are doing during the chorus is cool.

So, wait, where was I going with that? Oh, the fact that this movie hits a lot of different great horror notes: the impending doom of the cornpocalypse, the dread of a growingly single-minded, hysterical community, a torturous psychopath sowing seeds of deception, and some genuinely awesome kill sequences. The kills here don't all rely on gore (though a few are plenty grisly); what makes them great is that each is drawn out into a sequence of crescendoing tension and despair, always linked by that corn motif. Not a one is an unexpected one-off or wasted off-screen - we see from the victim's perspectives as they're wrung through the corn-gauntlet. The film is so confident in its kills that we get all kind of fake-outs to ramp up the tension, building and building to the inevitable prolonged release. The body count is never fluffed up (although the body count is pretty damn high). Lesser slashers immediately waste their ideas before giving us any time to anticipate what could go wrong, or worse, drag scenes out with a character walking around doing nothing until the killer jumps out from behind the third or fourth suspicious curtain. Urban Harvest throws all kinds of shit at the characters so you never know what's going to eventually kill them - for god's sake, there's a living scythe-wielding scarecrow man and he doesn't even kill anyone! He's the fake-out! I realize I'm being kinda non-specific here, but part of the fun of horror is witnessing firsthand what happens, so I don't want to spoil the actual sequences.

Children of the Corn III is a movie that succeeds in concept, bringing all kinds of weird ideas to the plate and following through, one that succeeds in execution, delivering bizarre thrills which are alternately hilarious, repulsive, and grotesquely inspired, and one that succeeds in character, providing memorably exaggerated portraits that substantiate their own reality. The acting might not be incredible, the effects might waver here and there, and the plot asks you to be engaged enough to fill in some blanks, but most of that honestly just adds to the humor factor, allowing the movie to transcend its junky presentation as true horror treasure. If you haven't seen it, remedy that. This is the kind of movie that reminds me how fun it is to explore B-movies.

Oh, but Children of the Corn fucking blows. Don't waste your time. The end.

Next up: Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys! I'm just kidding guys, I wouldn't go there. I still can't figure out if I actually watched Trancers or if my mind's just playing tricks on me.

And now, for some bonus content:

SPOILERS FOLLOW. Seriously, I left this to the end because I really think at this point you have well enough to convince you to go watch COTCIII. You'll have more fun being caught off guard by the rest. If you've already watched and know where this is going, read on.

The ending sequence is unquestionably the most controversial aspect of the whole thing. As far as I'm concerned it is low-budget special effects glory. There is absolutely a level of bad effects that will ruin a movie for me - I cannot stand low-grade CGI and have never been able to stomach SyFy made-for-TV movies (probably for the better) -  but the manifestation of He Who Walks Behind the Rows that shows up for the finale of Urban Harvest is great practical effects weirdness, largely carried by such a freakish Thing-like design that I wasn't even worried whether it was puppet-sized. There are definitely some atrocious shots in the scene where you'll see miniatures for far too long, but overall it's a great moment that finally shucks the creature feature that's been nested inside this series since HWWBTR was first mentioned by not-name. Even forgetting my personal predilection for monster movies, this scene tops the movie with a whole new dimension. Slashers tend to get boring because it's hard to ramp up the formula - you want to spread the good kills throughout the entire movie (just as Urban Harvest does) but it's hard to turn that up to 11 once everyone is dead. So you get stuff like Jason's love for using corpses to set up a haunted house for the heroine or the retarded lazer-battle between Kirstie and the Cenobites in Hellraiser. This gignatic monster makes for an incredible finale, the ultimate culmination of the horrible evil that is corn, while paying off with more kills than had been in the entire movie up to that point.

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