Oops, looks like I picked up the wrong long-running horror franchise! Well, okay, honestly I just need to take a break from the Puppet Master franchise, especially because we’re about to enter the Dark Age of Full Moon, when the company catastrophically tries to get into the joke. (If you don’t know what I mean, try watching Gingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust. Actually, no, for God’s sake don’t do that! No!)
Honestly I do think the original Children of the Corn is underrated today, especially by the usual standards of Stephen King adaptations. I probably would never go so far as to claim it’s a dishonored classic, but it is a film I’d recommend to the right person. The premise is fantastic, the setting is classic American gothic, and while the execution has its flaws it’s still got its pluses even there, most particularly in John Franklin’s performance that manages to give film history the most petulant dark messiah ever. I do think it should have kept the ending of the source material where the protagonists are killed, but…to be honest, I say that about everything. Also the plot is not the most fertile ground for a string of sequels, but it was the ’80s and ’90s so we got them anyway.
…which is why calling it 666 does seem like they’re actually calling it film number 666 as a joke about how many damn sequels every horror movie got back then.
For what I suspect is the first time in the series someone actually willingly goes to Gatlin, Nebraska. A college-aged woman, Hannah (Natalie Ramsey), arrives searching for her birth mother, about whom she knows nothing except that she was a member of the child-cult that murdered all of the adults in Gatlin. She finds that Gatlin is still half-abandoned, populated mainly by grown-up cultists and their children, who are at oldest teenagers. Her welcome into town is, naturally, a bizarre one. First she picks up a hitchhiking preacher who mysteriously disappears, shocking Hannah into nearly crashing the car. Next she’s confronted and grilled by Sheriff Cora (Alix Koromzay), who is just old enough to have been a former cult member and who assumes that Hannah is one of apparently many tourists who have read about the “Gatlin Massacre” online and have come to gawk. However, when Cora gets Hannah’s full name off her driver’s license, her attitude suddenly changes and she graciously takes Hannah to the nearby hospital.
In an all but deserted hospital filled with equipment that hadn’t been touched in many years and institutionalized ex-cult members, the only above-35 adult—indeed, the only actual medical professional—Hannah encounters is ”Doc” (Stacy Keach!). (I think the film is subtly laying out that ”Doc” is Burt from the first film. There’s one flaw with that theory that I’ll get into later, but having a somewhat mysterious doctor character who is the right age, who is very invested in what happens in Gatlin, and who Isaac recognizes be Burt just makes too much sense). After being checked out by Doc, Hannah is accosted by a mental patient in the hospital, Cora’s brother Jake (William Prael), who tries to warn her about Isaac but unfortunately he takes the ”ranting would-be killer” approach. In fact, Jake’s earnest if deranged attempt to warn Hannah backfires so badly she ends up in Isaac’s hospital room, where he’s waking up as if in response to Hannah’s presence.
And…well, he is! According to a prophecy from the cult’s god, He Who Walks Behind The Rows, Hannah, as the first female child born to any cult members, is meant to have sex with the first male child, which will…hm, result in something unspecified but really bad! Fresh and rosy from his coma, Isaac quickly takes control of the town, with apparently little resistance. Hannah at least realizes her quest has become much more complicated. Can she trust her biological mother, Rachel (Nancy Allen!) or the cute guy who has happily come to her aid Gabriel (Paul Popowich)? Who exactly is supposed to ”help” Hannah fulfill the prophecy? And is it too late to stop the return of not only Isaac, but He Who Walks Behind The Rows? (Spoiler: it totally is!)
Anyway, Children of the Corn 666 is not a particularly good film, but it’s a pretty good sequel, if that makes sense. Granted I might be biased since I’m coming right off the Puppet Master series, and really as a connoisseur of bad horror movie franchises in general, but I was impressed just how faithful to the original film this sequel is and how it genuinely tries to—shock—build on the first film’s story. First there’s the vague presentation of Doc as Burt. I mean, it is possible I’m off-the-mark because Isaac accuses Burt of taking Rachel away from Gatlin when in the first film the girl he rescues is actually named Sarah, but even if it’s a mistake by the screenwriter it doesn’t dispel the theory. Then there’s Isaac being shaken and disgusted when he feels he has to personally kill a ”heretic”, a nice bit of characterization referring back to Isaac’s squeamishness being the reason for his original downfall. However, even that’s ruined by the decision to turn it into a goofy gore moment where the human body can apparently get cut apart as easily as paper mache.
Plus, in a confrontation between Isaac and Hannah, there is this fantastic exchange:
“Did you kill my father?
He sacrificed his life to a power greater than himself.
He Who Walks Behind The Rows?
And, generally, I want to give this movie kudos for having a genuinely good premise for a sequel to a movie that’s closer to the Highlander end of the scale for films that could spawn natural concepts for sequels. Exploring the aftermath one generation later is a really strong idea, and I like some of the implications the film hints at, particularly that most of the surviving cult members of the Children of the Corn either stayed in town or ended up so damaged they were institutionalized, albeit in a hospital that should really look into novel ways of restraining their patients…like putting them in rooms with the doors locked.
So, yeah, there’s a surplus of the goofy quirks you expect from movies like this. Like how the hell Cora managed to grab Hannah’s keys from her own ignition without her noticing. Or what the hell is going on with the preacher’s ghost (was it even a ghost, or was he alive and inexplicably teleported from Hannah’s car and got killed in Gatlin later for no reason?). Or how Jake stole Jason Vorhees’ convenient teleportation powers? Or why Hannah seems to know who He Who Walks Behind The Rows is at least halfway through the film but demands to know what He Who Walks Behind The Rows is in the film’s climax? Or…well, you get the idea.
Overall the movie doesn’t delve into ”ooh, it’s all a mystery” territory like seemingly almost every contemporary low-budget horror movie on Netflix; there’s a few vague things like Doc’s identity (but he’s totally Burt, you guys!) or what exactly He Who Walks Behind The Rows is trying to achieve by masquerading as Gabriel (beyond the obvious pulling-a-Omen), but nothing that gets in the way of understanding the plot. What does muddle the proceedings, though, is such lazy horror movie scares like the ghost-maybe-or-not hitchhiking preacher or the scars from one or two slashed scenes, if not whole subplots.
But there are bigger issues that get in the way too. Once he’s revealed, the mysterious, seemingly all but omnipotent big bad of the entire franchise, He Who Walks Behind The Rows, comes across as just another ’90s wisecracking horror villain—although his treatment of Isaac, especially his succinct command, “Get on your knees, bitch”, does seem like a poignant allegory for the Old Testament God’s relationship with his most loyal followers. Still, making He Who Walks Behind The Rows a second-rate Freddy Krueger does take the potential epicness completely out of the long-waited confrontation between a tragic fanatical yet somehow reluctant disciple and his insane, bloodsoaked god. It’s all enough to make you wish Stephen King would do a ”reverse adaptation” and make the premise of this film into a novel.
All that said, as far as low-budget, straight-to-video, late-stage sequels to franchises that have been milked to bone, it’s honestly better than it should be. In fact, it makes me reluctant to go back to Puppet Master. Damn my obsessive completionist-ism!