Written by: Joel Soisson (screenplay), Stephen King (short story)
Directed by: John Gulager
Starring: A Marci Miller, Mary Kathryn Bryant, and Jake Ryan Scott
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Wherever they go, death follows.
When Pinhead made his return last month in Hellraiser: Judgment, he did so with at least some amount of fanfare: no matter how poorly that franchise has been treated for 20 years, each new entry brings a decent amount of buzz, if only so we can all marvel at just how far it’s fallen in the hands of Dimension. But for whatever reason, that same amount of anticipation (or dread, if we’re being honest) isn’t really afforded to Children of the Corn, another long-suffering franchise that’s only kept on life support so the studio can hang onto the rights. Perhaps this is because it's never been revered as Hellraiser, a genuinely iconic film that also spawned at least one beloved sequel; on the other hand, the original Children of the Corn hardly registers as the finest Stephen King adaptations and has been surrounded by direct-to-video nonsense since its first sequel.
Plus, with the exception of the previous entry, I’m not sure this series ever reached the awful depths of Hellraiser, so it doesn’t inspire the same morbid curiosity; in fact, since this is a safe place to admit as such, I’ll go as far as to say I actually have an odd fondness for a lot of the sequels, probably because most of them manage to entertain in that very specific 90s DTV manner that sought to deliver cheap, schlocky thrills if nothing else. Plus, you never saw a goddamn Hellraiser sequel boasting the likes of Fred “The Hammer” Williamson like COTC V did. Advantage, Children of the Corn, in my opinion. All of this is to say that this franchise is also being dragged back onto store shelves with Children of the Corn: Runaway. However, as was the case with Judgment, the news isn’t all bad: like that sequel, Runaway benefits from lowered expectations and squeaks right by them to feel like a worthy enough entry—whatever that means at this point.
Like the other sequels, this one is a vague follow-up in that it acknowledges the original events in Gatlin, Nebraska but quickly diverts from them, seeing them more as a launching point more than anything. An opening voiceover informs us that Ruth (Marci Miller) was once a member of the infamous, homicidal brood of children but eventually skipped town after becoming pregnant. Vowing to put her grisly past—which continues to haunt her as an adult—behind her, she’s spent the past decade on the lam, caring for her son, Aaron (Jake Ryan Scott). The two move from town to town, scavenging to survive in a beat-up old truck that eventually carries them to a small town in Oklahoma, where Ruth takes a job as a mechanic, leading the two to believe they might finally settle down into a normal life. Soon enough, though, the specter of her past comes roaring back, bringing death and destruction to this quiet town.
Credit is due to Dimension this time around: like it did with Judgment, the studio actually seems to have given a long-time filmmaker associated with this franchise a fighting chance. Screenwriter Joel Soisson—who has served on numerous DTV Dimension horror sequels in various roles for 20 years—is back, relegated strictly to scripting duties, leaving John Gulager to take the directing reins. Gulager is no stranger to the DTV arena himself, and tapping him to helm the 10th Children of the Corn movie is probably about as inspired as you can hope for (or reasonably expect). This is not to say Dimension suddenly opened up the coffers or anything like that, but you can sense that Runaway wasn’t just haphazardly tossed together like the previous film. There’s a discernable level of care and good intentions here that actually reveal themselves in the final product, something that couldn’t be said for Genesis, where my enduring memory is a bored Billy Drago mumbling through the motions.
Of course, it helps that Children of the Corn doesn’t exactly require a huge budget. Unlike Hellraiser, it doesn’t really inspire grandiose, effects-laden visions of otherworldly realms and beings. So long as you can score some reasonably menacing Midwestern locales and secure some creepy children, you can at least lay down a solid foundation, which perhaps makes it all the more baffling that these things are so hit-and-miss. At any rate, Runaway manages to clear these bars, albeit in (somewhat) unconventional fashion: while the film isn’t situated in Gatlin, the Anywhere, USA setting is authentically desolate, its landscape dotted with old farmhouses and empty, sun-drenched fields. Most of the film seems to unfold under the gentle haze of a Malick-esque magic hour, a nice touch that lends some measure of atmosphere to Runaway.
Like some previous entries (including Genesis, it should be noted), Runaway also deviates from the typical formula that finds strangers happening upon a pack of damned, demented children, this time going so far as to follow one of them into adulthood, an approach that somewhat echoes the sixth film. Runaway still manages to feel distinct, though, because you sense Gulager and Soisson’s genuine investment in Ruth’s quest to outrun her violent past. As such, much of the film’s carnage is relegated to her flashbacks and hallucinations as she wrestles with the awful deeds she helped to commit. For much of the film, only one child (Sara Moore, credited only as “Pretty Girl”)—who may or may not even exist—lurks around town, introducing her own brand of savage mayhem into the proceedings, giving Runaway a bit of a different vibe from most of the films in the series.
It might be more apt to call this one Child of the Corn, seeing as how it’s more concerned with capturing Ruth’s struggle to overcome trauma instead of staging excessive bloodletting. In some ways, this feels like the franchise’s riff on Terminator 2, what with a woman fiercely protecting her son from certain impending doom, even as those around her (including a waitress named Sarah, which seems to be an obvious nod) question her sanity. She finds herself surrounded by plenty of doubters: the judgmental principal at Aaron’s would-be school (Diane Ayala Goldner), her boss (Lynn Andrews III), and lots of fellow patrons at the local diner (including one played by Clu Gulager, delightfully crabby as a guy named “Crusty”).
Much of the film is preoccupied with the romance that blossoms between Ruth and the boss, a courtship that becomes increasingly uncomfortable as she becomes hesitant to commit to a relationship (escaping from a death cult as a child tends to do that, you know). It’s a nice sentiment, and you obviously want to admire that a Children of the Corn sequel is daring to be about something besides empty-headed schlock, but it never quite ascends to that level. Miller is certainly up to the task of infusing Ruth with the sort of plucky but delicate desperation the role requires, and she sort of reminds me of Amy Steel’s Ginny Field from Friday 2, a resemblance that’s always welcome in my household. However, just about everyone else is so one-note and cartoonish that it’s difficult to take Ruth’s plight too seriously—at a certain point, the expectations drummed up by the tenth Children of the Corn movie take over, essentially forcing you to see most of the supporting cast as mincemeat instead of actual characters.
Which is fine, of course; again, at this point in a slasher movie series, such a turn of events is expected, if not downright customary. Luckily, Runaway unfolds in the shadow of mechanics’ garages and old farms, meaning the mysterious, murderous girl following Ruth around has plenty of sharp, dangerous implements at her disposal. Her victims are slaughtered fairly well, and Ruth’s (predictable) connection to the girl sometimes allows her to witness the carnage, giving Gulager the opportunity to indulge some stylistic, slow-motion flourishes to the gruesome effects work. Nothing about Runaway—including both of its climactic twists (let’s just say you can take the child out of the corn, but you can’t take the corn out of the child)—will surprise you, but it at least has a spring in its step when drawing its bloodbath. Gulager is a fine director, and he and DP Samuel Calvin soak the proceedings in a rich, filmic texture that stands in contrast to the flat, digital look of so many similar low-rent efforts.
At this point, such an exceedingly decent effort might be the best we can hope for with Children of the Corn. With Hellraiser, there’s always the sense that it can—and should—be reimagined with more grandeur, but I think it’s fair to say that the premise here has been pretty well mined and thoroughly exhausted. If this franchise proceeds in perpetuity as a series of DTV productions of similar quality, then so be it, I guess. Maybe you would like to have higher expectations for something that was originally inspired by a Stephen King short story, but it’s only fair to be realistic about the situation and commend Gulager and company for producing an earnest, sometimes even thoughtful follow-up to the original story (it seems to me that this one might even take place in the 90s?), one that imagines what it would be like to flee from trauma without being able to ever outrun it—all while also delivering the obligatory (but always welcome) bludgeoning via hand sickle. Never let it be said that these things don’t sometimes require a delicate balancing act.
Children of the Corn: Runaway is now available on Blu-ray from Lionsgate Home Entertainment, featuring a lone deleted scene as a supplement.
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