Defending Junk: Children of the Corn/Maximum Overdrive

Maximum Overdrive

Children of the Corn (Divimax Edition)

There was a time when a Stephen King movie wasn’t instantly thought of as junk. In fact, the first three adaptations of his first three novels, Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining, were mostly stellar. Since then, though, it’s been a real hit or miss affair. The highs have been incredibly high: Stand By Me, Shawshank Redemption and The ave Mile all achieved a measure of mainstream and critical success, but the lows…well, did they really make a move of Graveyard Shift?

Lately, it seems that when the talk turns to a Stephen King movie there is a joke just around the corner, as if the films themselves have fallen to such low regard that they are jokes in themselves. It would be easy to lay this low reputation on the bevy of underwhelming talent who’ve taken charge of Stephen King movies. After all, the list of directors who’ve had a crack read like a ‘who’s-who’ of crap:

  •  Mark Lester for Firestarter
  • Lewis Teague for Cujo and Cat’s Eye – later works include Navy SEALS
  • Daniel Attias for Silver Bullet
  • Mick Garris for Sleepwalkers – actually King likes Garris so much that he’s done five King adaptations, with only The Stand being memorable
  • Bett Leonard for Lawnmower Man – his latest film was the fifth film in the Highlander series, and the first to not receive an American theatrical release
  • Fraser “My Dad Played Moses” Heston for Needful Things
  • Tom Holland for Thinner – this movie will always hold a special place in my heart, in a bad way, for the Joe Mantegna saying something in the trailer to the effect of. “It’s already gotten out of hand, but I’m the man to put it back.”  You can watch the trailer for yourself below to see what I mean.

But while it’s easy to blame the lesser talents for the failure, why not have a go at some of the major talents who took a crack at the genre and failed?

  •  Tobe Hooper directed The Mangler
  • John Carpenter did Christine
  • George Romero did The Dark Half
  • Bryan Singer did Apt Pupil
  • Lawrence Kasdan did Dreamcatcher.

Why Do Stephen King Movies Suck?

It’s not fair to say that Stephen King movies, as a whole, suck. After all, Carrie was nominated for best actress and supporting actress, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile for best picture, Misery won best actress, and Stand By Me and The Shining are all regarded as classics. Nevertheless, there remains the perception that Stephen King movies suck. But why?

It’s possible the source material is to blame. No, it’s not that the books or stories are bad, it’s that much of King’s horror is internal, in the head of the characters and the heads of the readers and to take that horror out of the head and put it up on screen tends to yield laughable results. For example, in the novel Pet Sematary, it’s terrifying to imagine three-year-old Gage Creed rising from the dead with murderous intent, but to actually see it played out with little Miko Hughes trying to put across that murderous intent? Not so much. To put it another way, what works on the page doesn’t necessarily translate well to the screen and it really shouldn’t be a surprise when it doesn’t.

Sometimes, though, what works on the page will work on the screen but other factors come into play to muddy the waters. Perhaps much of the low opinion is driven by audience expectations. After all, when a man sells fifty or one hundred million books it’s tempting to think everything yarn he spins turns to gold and that when it doesn’t, or when something without the golden touch makes it to screen – Graveyard Shift, natch – the audience is so underwhelmed from their original expectations that no matter what the quality of the film, it is deemed a colossal failure.

Worse, because the audience has learned to expect less from a King movie the producers of the movies haven’t much incentive, in most cases, to treat them lovingly and so eventually not only do they expect less, but that’s exactly what they get. Of course, sometimes these low expectations can treat an audience to a secret success, such as 1408, but these seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

Children of the Corn and Maximum Overdrive

his discussion naturally leads me back to the two movies that inspired me to take up this topic, Children of the Corn and Maximum Overdrive, one movie that is unquestionably a favorite of mine and another that might be, if not for some lingering bias I have against Stephen King movies, even though I am a huge Stephen King fan.

To many people, Children of the Corn, adapted from a short story published in Night Shift (the book makes a cameo appearance in the film, laying on the dashboard of the main character’s car, but given that the story generally plays out on screen as it did in the story either Linda Hamilton, as Vicky, hasn’t yet read the story or has some short-term memory loss that prevents her from knowing how this trip will turn out) is the epitome of a bad movie and it’s easy to see why.

First, it’s a silly film, about a Midwestern town where the children, in a fit of religious fervor, slaughter every adult they find (including ‘outlanders’) and start worshiping some weird demon living in the corn that they sacrifice themselves to when they reach their 19th year – which creates an interesting problem whereby the town will likely die off in a decade and a half, if left unchecked.

Second, there are the limitations of the source material. The story, Children of the Corn, is a short story, little more than a one act play. Unfortunately movies have more than one act and it’s in stretching out that story where things go a little haywire. Instead of being a compact thriller the story is drawn out to ad goofy voiceovers, a little girl drawing pictures that predict the future and a third-act explosion that saves the day. To be clear, while the elaborations add color and depth, it seems done at the expense of the story and believability and therefore, it loses people.

This leads to the second main problem, the silliness of the concept. Movies, horror movies especially, tend to require a suspension of disbelief, and when I first saw Children of the Corn at 12 or 13, I was a lot less savvy about the world. I could forgive a lot and did. Seeing it again, as an adult and without the ignorance of a preteen, the plot holes just seem to jump out. After all, while it’s conceivable that children may have mutinied as they did in the film it’s inconceivable to think they would live as they did for three years without somebody noticing. After all, all those houses had to have a mortgage and businesses had creditors and light bills needed to be paid and whatever and when the monthly payments stopped being made people would naturally get suspicious and start poking around and expose the whole thing. Never mind the fact that all those families must have had other relatives outside the city, leading one to believe that somebody, anybody, would have known eventually – after all, the first time grandma sends a birthday card and the mailman winds up dead trying to deliver it, everything will come to light.

Maximum Overdrive is another movie that suffers from the same problems. Adapted from a short story published in Night Shift (same as Children of the Corn) the main complaint, aside from the silliness of the concept – the earth passes through the tail of the comet which somehow turns all machines sentient and sets them to kill – is the general campiness of the atmosphere. Everything and everyone in the movie overacts their assess off, all the way up to and including the Mack trucks demanding a refill of diesel. But it’s a sci-fi film so if it’s silly and campy, it’s to be expected.   Plus, it features AC/DC songs!

Really, though, the more damning complaint about Maximum Overdrive is that, given its pedigree – directed and scripted by King himself – the film should have been the perfect Stephen King film, done in his sensibility and to demonstrate, once and for all, what his films should be like.

Unfortunately, the vision that Stephen King had of the film didn’t jive with moviegoers expectations. Perhaps it was that the public didn’t see things the way King does – if this is the way he sees his films, maybe that’s how his books should be read, with the melodramatic/ham-handed eye – or perhaps it was because he was coked up all the time and didn’t know what the hell he was doing. No matter what the reason, the film failed at the box office and King never directed again.

Success or Failure?

Given all this, is it fair to call these two films failures? After all, neither film was meant to win best picture and even if they were the produces had to know that was a long shot. After all, it’s rare when Sci-Fi is nominated for best picture at all – District 9, Avatar, Star Wars and Dr. Strangelove would be the four that would really count and Dr. Strangelove isn’t exactly what we think of as Sci-Fi. And the only horror film to win of the three nominated – assuming Jaws, The Exorcist and Silence of the Lambs are rightfully horror films – likely has to do with the fact that it came out in a weak year. While it’s a magnificent film in its own right one can’t help but think that in another year, against a ‘prestige’ picture, that it would have lost, simply because it is a horror film.

No, both Corn and Overdrive weren’t meant to win best picture, they were intended as B-pictures – the extras on the DiviMax edition of Children of the Corn make this aim clear – and that’s exactly what they are. If those were the intentions, to be a little piece of junk, then it’s unfair to expect anything more than they were and given the climate of today, where B-movies make up the bulk of Hollywood’s output – fifty years ago Roger Corman would have made Transformers on the cheap, not handed $200 million to Michael Bay to direct it – it’s fair to think they probably would have done better at the box office. As an aside, part of me wonders at what point in the Transformers franchise Bay just gives in and remakes Maximum Overdrive himself. It’s what it’s coming to.

And being financially unsuccessful cannot be a knock either. After all, Children of the Corn was made for $3 to $4 million, all in, and took in $15 million domestically and was successful enough to spawn something like eight hundred sequels. Maximum Overdrive was less successful in theaters, domestically, but given the fact that they’ve been selling DVD’s of it for $5 bucks for years it’s safe to say it’s made its money back and given all that, it has to be classified as successful.

So, are they successes or failure? At the end of the day the answer probably comes down to the age of the viewer upon seeing the films. If you saw the movies at the right time in your life, late-adolescence to early-teen years, as opposed to late-adult years – like I did – the films would be a great and memorable ride. That’s probably how it’s possible that the movie keep selling DVD’s 25 years on. It’s probably also why a movie like The Goonies, misunderstood by most adults in 1985 could get deluxe DVD editions these days, because all the haters are dying off and the ones who loved the film in the first place finally have disposable income.

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