If you think this summer is memorable, go back to 1983. That was when Hollywood came to Siouxland to film a Stephen King short story, “Children of the Corn.”
Local residents were pressed into service as extras, stars Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton were housed at the Howard Johnson’s hotel (now the Holiday Inn), and sites in Whiting, Hornick and Sioux City were picked to depict a small town in Nebraska where a bizarre group of teens and pre-teens were loosely known as the “children of the corn.”
It was a hot, action-packed time, particularly when cameras started rolling Sept. 7.
Locals talked about getting their Actors Equity cards (the union had good benefits); others buzzed about where they saw the stars. “Children of the Corn” was expected to be THE film of 1984 – or so locals thought.
To be honest, Siouxland got the nod because it fit the suit, so to speak.
When location scouts were in the area, they were looking for “a town with a perfect-looking church, a house near a corn field and the right irrigation system,” according to Donald Borchers, vice president of production with New World Pictures. More important? “We need a town that is going to cooperate with us on several matters” – including shutting down the streets for a period of time so that it could look deserted.
The upshot for businesses in the area: an influx of money, estimated at $400,000.
Since the film was hardly a blockbuster (it was budgeted at $3 million), it needed to economize. A region without much filmmaking experience was perfect, particularly since the story dealt with a religious cult – a real deal breaker for larger cities.
“This is a very scary horror movie,” Borchers cautioned during one of his visits.
“It’s definitely not an exploitation film, since it’s based on a Stephen King story,” said Joe Madalena, the film’s production manager.
Stephen King backs away
King was not an active participant in the production (he argued over the approach), but still had his name in the title.
He wasn’t the only one to appear skeptical. “It’s not the greatest story in the world,” Hamilton told The Journal. “But Stephen King has a following, right? I figured I couldn’t lose.”
During production, the actress took back those words. “The last few weeks have been a lot of trouble,” she reported. “The people on the film have been great ... they make you feel like you’re somebody ... but the script! Somehow I feel my career is going backwards and this is just another step.
“When I get back to California, I want to do quality parts. I want to be able to turn down anything that isn’t good. I’m not in a position to do that now, but maybe someday.”
Horton, however, was more optimistic. He saw the experience as a way to learn the business of directing. Eager to get behind the camera and not in front of it, he had completed a short subject, “Three Hours Between Planes,” that he hoped would be his calling card.
Horton was not signed to “Corn” when director Fritz Kiersch, a first-timer, explained the film’s special effects. “He was like a puppy in a way,” Horton said. “He was so enthusiastic, it was hard to say no.”
Like Hamilton, he didn’t want to be part of another horror film: “I think we’re doing something here that’s different. I don’t think people are going to put this film in the same category as other horror films because it doesn’t rely on violence. If it had, I wouldn’t be in it. I hate those films.”
And yet? “Children of the Corn” had plenty of blood, lots of questionable scenes.
A local premiere
When the film was released in March 1984, the Dubinsky Theater chain offered a free screening for those who were in it. Hundreds filled the Orpheum Theatre.
Extras raved; critics didn’t. Roger Ebert, from the Chicago Sun-Times, said, “By the end of ‘Children of the Corn,’ the only thing moving behind the rows is the audience, fleeing to the exits.”
The Journal was more generous: “Bearing scant resemblance to the Stephen King short story upon which it was based, ‘Children of the Corn’ contains enough plot holes to detain a tractor. Spotting people and places you know is much more interesting than trying to track what George Goldsmith, the writer, has wrought.”
A hit? Financially, yes. The film made $14.6 million and spawned six sequels and a 2009 TV remake (which was shot in the Quad Cities).
Hamilton, by the way, got that career she wanted. A little film called “The Terminator” followed shortly thereafter and helped her land movie roles and a lead in TV’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
Horton got that directing career, too (he’s one of TV’s most sought-after drama directors) and a part in a TV series, “thirtysomething,” that made him a TV star.
While no one from Siouxland used the movie as a stepping stone, residents still point out sites they recognize in Whiting, Hornick and Sioux City.
For a handful of weeks in 1983, they weren't just Iowa towns. They were Hollywood in the heartland.
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