Saturday, March 15, 2014

In short: Children of the Corn: The Gathering (1996)

Student of medicine Grace Rhodes (a very young looking Naomi Watts) returns to her rural home for an off-semester to take care of her mother June (Karen Black) and her younger siblings Margaret (Jamie Reneé Smith) and James (Mark Salling). June has suffered some kind of mental breakdown that leaves her unable to leave the house for more than a few steps in what looks a lot like agoraphobia but perhaps isn’t, and doesn't do much for her abilities to take care of her household and kids either. June's problems are somehow connected to a rather strange dream she has every night, in which a dead boy kills her.

As Grace and the people of the town will soon learn, June's dreams are rather prophetic, for soon a dead boy in preacher's garb (Brandon Kleyla) crawls out of a sealed well and does something magickal using a man he kills. The boy’s ritual induces an inexplicable fever spiced up with a bit of levitation in all of the town's children that eventually results in creepy staring and possession. Which is of course the point at which more murders start.

To save her siblings and herself, Grace will team up with the town's former mayor Donald Atkins (Brent Jennings) and learn the truth about her former home’s oldest, darkest secret.

As should be obvious after this synopsis, it's difficult to avoid the suspicion watching the fourth Children of the Corn movie that Greg Spence's film wasn't actually written as part of the franchise but only got the "Children of the Corn" moniker because the script takes place in a rural area and the producers had the rights to the name; why, the corn fields aren’t even important to the movie at all.

That's of course only a bad thing if you're missing He Who Walks Behind The Rows desperately, because the rural horror film we get may not seem to be part of the franchise but it is about as good as mid-90s direct-to-video horror gets. That's not saying too much, of course, but in case of The Gathering it does describe a competent and entertaining little flick most viewers probably won't have minded to rent from their video store (remember them?).

In fact, The Gathering's He Who Walks-less backstory, and the way it is revealed, is its greatest strength, connecting it to the great tradition of cursed rural towns in horror, and giving the series of supernatural shenanigans enough of a connection to the larger thematic streams of its sub-genre to make them a little more interesting and meaningful.

Yet I also wish Spence had explored these thematic connections a little deeper, for while the reason for the killings makes sense in the realm of the movie, the ways the various murders happen seem less part of one coherent supernatural phenomenon but rather too much like what they actually are - an unconnected series of special effects sequences not based on what fits the backstory best but on what (supposedly) looks coolest, which is a particular shame in a film whose backstory emphasises connections between present and past. It's not a fatal weakness but it is this point that keeps The Gathering from being a memorable film instead of a diverting one.

Of course, in the context of how most mid-90s direct-to-video films turned out, diverting isn't bad at all.

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