Dimension of the Damned: The DTV Children of the Corn Sequels
Updated: Jan 12, 2022
The cinematic legacy of the Weinstein Brothers is one of contradiction and paradox. While they played a pivotal role ushering in the 90s independent film revolution (launching the careers of Kevin Smith, Steven Soderbergh, and Quentin Tarantino in the process), they were equally responsible for the rash of mercenary genre filmmaking that emerged during that same era. The dichotomy is best exemplified by their two labels: Miramax and Dimension Films. The former usually housed the brothers’ critically acclaimed Awards Season offerings, while the latter was often a B-movie sausage factory that churned out low-budget genre movies. In short, Miramax was like a classy, austere cocktail party, while Dimension was a dive bar where you found yourself inexplicably downing fish tacos and cheap beer with your fellow burn-outs.
Dimension was ultimately defined by a schizophrenic output that saw the company releasing genre landmarks (The Crow, From Dusk Till Dawn, Scream) alongside a slew of cash-in sequels, most of which went direct to video, where they glutted the shelves of local Blockbuster Videos and carved a niche in an era when the horror genre was in search of a new identity following the 80s hangover. In this respect, Dimension’s emergence was well-timed. Hollywood putting previous genre’s stalwarts (Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees) out to pasture during the early 90s left a void that studios scrambled to fill, and the Weinsteins didn’t exactly turn to completely new blood to do so.
The duo leaned on a familiar tactic, turning to adaptations from a pair of literary masters in Clive Barker and Stephen King, whose works loosely inspired continuations of Hellraiser and Children of the Corn. To be fair, one of these made sense: both of Pinhead’s outings were well-received, both critically and commercially, enough to convince the Wensteins they might have the next horror icon on their hands. It was easy to imagine Doug Bradley’s eloquent purveyor of pain following in Freddy Krueger’s footsteps, and it’s no surprise that Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth tried its damndest to make it so. But Children of the Corn? The '84 original took a critical drubbing on its way to a $14.5 million box office take that, while respectable enough, but didn’t exactly signal that audiences were hungry for more of these things, especially eight years later.
There was also the issue of a premise that can charitably be described as “limited". In its breezy 92-minute runtime, Fritz Kiersch’s film charts the rise and fall of a sect of pint-sized evangelical Christians who massacre their small town’s entire adult population and establish their own bizarre commune. By the end of the film, both their earthen leaders (John Franklin & Courtney Gains) and the enigmatic He Who Walks Behind the Rows are left thoroughly torched by a pair of “outlanders” (Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton), leaving little room for further exploits.
Seeing narrative shortcomings as more of a minor inconvenience rather than an outright roadblock, producer and New World alum Larry Kuppin hatched Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (*Ron Howard Narrator Voice*: it wasn’t the final sacrifice) for release in '92. The hook finds the neighboring town of Hemingford adopting the orphaned children, who are quickly called back to the cornfields by their demonic deity. He Who Walks Behind the Rows taps Micah (Ryan Bollman) to be its latest emissary, and the kids start to raise more Hell and shed mucho adult blood.
In short, The Final Sacrifice is hellbent on riding an '80s slasher gravy train that had struggled to chug into the '90s. Not that you’d know it from this production, which seizes on the scant gory outbursts of the original film and makes them the raison d'être here. Sure, there’s the faint resemblance of an actual plot involving a tabloid reporter (Terence Knox) and his angsty teenage son (Paul Scherrer) stumbling upon the bizarre happenings (oddly enough, shades of Larry Cohen's A Return to Salem’s Lot, another King-inspired sequel), but it’s fair to say that few people interested in Children of the Corn II showed up to see this father/son duo cozy up to a couple of local gals (Rosalind Allen and Christie Clark, the latter no stranger to slasher sequels).
And to its credit, The Final Sacrifice mercifully doesn’t dwell upon it since it’s more preoccupied with staging outrageously demented murder sequences to dispatch most of its cast. Not content to have its killer kids wield hand scythes and other conventional slasher weaponry, it has them sabotaging the hydrophilic lifts on a house to crush an old woman before wielding a voodoo doll to make a church-goer puke blood all over the congregation. In the film’s most infamous scene — which regularly proves to be a crowd-pleaser when it makes the rounds on social media — the sinister brood hijacks another old woman’s wheelchair and sends her careening into a semi-truck that subsequently sends her crashing right through the window of a bingo hall just as someone hits a winning card. It's fucking incredible.
If it wasn’t already obvious at this point, this moment makes it clear that The Final Sacrifice can’t even feign the seriousness of its predecessor. Throw in some primitive CGI, chintzy, He Who Walks Behind the Rows POV shots, and a sequence where actual corn stalks animate to impale a couple of news reporters, and you’re left with a stew of utter nonsense that charted this franchise’s path for two decades. Even though Dimension only came on board to distribute the film to theaters, it was clear that between this and Hell on Earth that the studio had no qualms about reducing the work of these respected authors to unrepentant schlock to establish its brand.
Dimension would double down three years later with Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest, the first entry produced by the studio for the direct-to-video market. Once again looking to stretch the story’s premise to its limits, it sends a pair of Gatlin orphans to the big city of Chicago, where William and Amanda Porter (Jim Meltzer and Nancy Lee Grahn) take them in, blissfully unaware that the youngest, Eli (Daniel Cerny), has been possessed by He Who Walks Behind the Rows. With his special breed of corn in tow, he reverts to his evangelical roots, founding a congregation of homicidal kids at his new Catholic school.
In what remains the franchise’s most stark departure, Urban Harvest lives up to its title, exploiting the fish-out-of-water dynamic of its characters by staging a haywire, new-kid-in-town high school movie riff on the series' theme. The typical stuff associated with that genre — hesitant new friendships and romances, school bullies, forging a new identity to escape a troubled past — intermingle with the outlandish violence now expected from a Children of the Corn movie, and the results are an absolute hoot.
Urban Harvest is sometimes just as silly as its predecessor, existing as little more than a showcase for the weird, wild effects work of Screaming Mad George, who turns in career-best work. Not only does he craft some sick, face-melting, head-bashing gore gags, but the unhinged climax allows him to imagine He Who Walks Behind the Rows as a grotesque monster capable of effortlessly decimating the congregation that abandons him. Conventional wisdom insists that revealing the monster only diminishes its power, but nobody ever said the Children of the Corn sequels would ever operate using conventional logic. When given the chance to unleash his imagination, Screaming Mad George does so with aplomb, conjuring a latex and stop-motion nightmare that reflects the sturdy craftsmanship of these '90s Dimension productions.
Likewise, director James D.R. Hickox (following in the footsteps of his brother, and Hellraiser III director, Anthony) maintains a steady hand throughout, keeping Urban Harvest from reaching the arch campiness of The Final Sacrifice. He treats the material with the respect that one can reasonably afford a movie where an ageless child prophet hatches a plot to spread his contaminated corn worldwide. It helps that Daniel Cerny is the most diabolical shitheel the franchise has ever seen, topping even John Franklin’s Isaac from the original. Whatever tragic dimensions underpin that character are gone here, washed away in a river of gore as this kid terrorizes with a sneering, contemptuous smirk that you can’t wait to see wiped from his face during the delirious climax.
Hickox complements his effects team’s work here with some nice flourishes, deploying frantic camerawork to capture chaotic gore in a manner that faintly evokes Sam Raimi, and the entire production is glazed over with that sleek, '90s Dimension sheen that lent a certain credence to its theatrical and DTV offerings alike. Direct-to-video threequels could and have certainly turned out worse, and Urban Harvest is emblematic of Dimension’s mantra during this era: deliver cheap thrills by wringing every last dollar from its familiar titles, an approach that yielded varying degrees of success in both arenas. Look no further than the reception of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers and its course correction, Halloween H20, for further evidence of the studio’s mercenary approach.
Because the studio kept churning out a steady diet of sequels, it must have considered Children of the Corn to be a relative hit, at least in terms of units moved at your local video stores. The Gathering and Fields of Terror would arrive within a few years, sending the franchise back to Gatlin for a pair of formulaic sequels that only occasionally reach the demented heights of the first two follow-ups*.
However, there’s something beguiling about the quiet, unsung competence of these lesser sequels that captures what it was like to be a certain type of horror fan who considered the video store to be a formative shrine in their quest to know everything about these disreputable transmissions. After just missing out on the halcyon days of the '80s franchise boom, it was only natural to seize on whatever franchise scraps were available, whether they were unexpectedly ingenious revivals (New Nightmare, Bride of Chucky), bizarre, butchered misfires (Hellraiser: Bloodline), or the reliable, sturdy Children of the Corn movies that showed up on an almost yearly basis until they sputtered out with Isaac’s Return and Revelation at the dawn of the new millennium.
Dimension would soldier on without Isaac and his rowdy band of murderous munchkins for much of the next decade, returning only to maintain the franchise rights with Genesis in 2011 and Runaway in 2018. In the interim, the studio turned to familiar strategies, leaning this time on the Feast, From Dusk Till Dawn, and Hellraiser franchises in the DTV market and riding the horror remake wave with reinventions of The Amityville Horror, Black Christmas, and Halloween. Considered in conjunction with Dimension’s stellar original productions like Grindhouse and The Mist, plus the slew of worldwide acquisitions it distributed under its Dimension Extreme banner, it’s clear that few Hollywood entities had a bigger influence on horror during the past few decades.
This is especially true of the '90s, when the direct-to-video market was no longer just a haven for independent or homespun productions but rather a legitimate avenue for major studio releases. Two decades later, the stigma surrounding these titles is (almost) a distant memory, the distinction between theaters, video, and even television having been thoroughly blurred in an era of streaming. It's doubtful that anyone at Dimension believed they were influencing the course of film distribution when the baner took over the Children of the Corn franchise, but it turned out to be a crucial piece of the '90s horror puzzle for those who walked the video store rows.
*It is essential to note that Fields of Terror is the only movie where you can see David Carradine and Fred Williamson alongside demonic kids, so there's that.