Flickchart Road Trip: Nebraska
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
A guy on my cross country team in high school moved to my town from Omaha. Quite inventively, we started calling him “Omaha.” A roommate of a friend of mine in New York grew up in Nebraska and was a huge fan of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, especially their football team.
Otherwise, I don’t know all that much about Nebraska. Wait, what I do know isn’t all that much either.
What I learned just prior to arriving in the state, however, was that Malcolm X was born here. Who the heck would have suspected that? Malcolm Little, as he was then known, was born to Earl and Louise Little at University of Nebraska at Omaha Hospital on March 19, 1925. I don’t think of Nebraska as a place with a large population of people of color, and unfortunately, that’s part of why Malcolm’s minister father took his family to Milwaukee the following year. A local population of the Ku Klux Klan made threats against the Littles, according to X’s autobiography.
However, that’s not to say Nebraska is racially intolerant in general. In fact, the site of the house where his family lived — which was torn down in 1965 before the owners knew of the connection to Malcolm X — was listed on the National Registry of Historic Sites in 1984. Not bad for a place where the man lived for little more than a year, as a baby.
I’ve visited a lot of historical markers on this trip. Well, here’s what this one looks like:
The characters in my Nebraska movie may not be racially intolerant, but they’ve got a serious case of ageism. I’m watching Children of the Corn, the 1984 adaptation of a Stephen King short story that first appeared in Penthouse magazine (strange) before landing in Night Shift, his 1978 compendium of short stories. I was really frightened by the idea of this movie when I was a kid, and never ended up seeing it. Time to correct that. Flickcharters think it’s a trip into the corn I won’t soon forget, as they’ve ranked Fritz Kiersch‘s film #2564 globally.
What it’s about
The small town of Gatlin, Nebraska is under an evil spell that emanates from the cornfields … though the adults of the community don’t know it until their children rise up and kill them one particular afternoon. Three years later, a cult of teenage religious zealots, led by Isaac (John Franklin) and Malachai (Courtney Gains), has control of the otherwise deserted town, continuing to ritually sacrifice their members upon reaching their 19th birthdays. Two motorists (Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton) pass town on their way to his new job as a physician in Seattle, and hit a small boy who stumbles out of the cornfields in an attempt to escape. Suspecting something is amiss when seeing that the boy had his throat slashed sometime prior to the accident, they load the body into their trunk and make their way into town for help and to investigate. Only once they arrive do they discover they may be the targets of the next sacrifice to the evil that lurks within the corn.
How it uses the state
Children of the Corn does many things unsubtly, including establishing its setting. The title card describing this as (fictional) Gatlin, Nebraska is not the clumsy part. Things get clumsy when Horton and Hamilton’s characters cross the border into Nebraska. Not only is there a sign that says Nebraska, but Horton also speaks the word out loud: “Nebraska.” More generally, Nebraska is portrayed as a place so remote that children might be able to seize control of a town for three years without anyone from the outside world noticing.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Nebraska movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films Children of the Corn will battle:
1) Election (1999, Alexander Payne). My Flickchart: #55/3575. Global: #1112. Alexander Payne is the world’s foremost maker of films set in Nebraska, his home state. As a matter of fact, after briefly turning on Nebraska for California (Sideways) and Hawaii (The Descendants), he’s returning with a vengeance later this year with a film titled, simply, Nebraska. The best of his Nebraska films, and best overall if you ask me, is Election, the delicious satire of high schools, politics, and high school politics, which introduced the world to the iconic know-it-all ice princess known as Tracy Flick. Reese Witherspoon grates so memorably in this role that the entire audience sympathizes with Matthew Broderick‘s frustrated teacher, even though he goes against every rule of ethics when he tries to sabotage Tracy’s chances of winning student body presidency of a suburban Omaha high school. If you’ve ever had a goody two shoes shove a cupcake with her name on it in your face — literally or metaphorically — you’ll nod along with every moment of Election.
2) Terms of Endearment (1983, James L. Brooks). My Flickchart: #1087/3575. Global: #958. Terms of Endearment is one of those movies we all have in our charts, one I rank on reputation as much as on my memory of it. It’s probably been 20 years since I’ve seen it, and I remember it as a bit of a weepie that probably wasn’t really good enough to win best picture in most years. However, my respect for its director and my memory of some funny bits and good performances earns it some favor against — well, two-thirds of the films on my chart, I guess. The film follows 30 years in the tumultuous mother-daughter relationship between Aurora Greenway (arguably the most iconic character of Shirley MacLaine‘s career) and her daughter Emma (Debra Winger). The film makes pit stops in Houston, New York and Des Moines before settling in Kearney and Lincoln, Nebraska. Jack Nicholson co-stars as a boozing, philandering retired astronaut, making for one of his most fun on-screen appearances.
3) Boys Don’t Cry (1999, Kimberly Peirce). My Flickchart: #1501/3575. Global: #1826. I’m not sure if it was the unnerving way Hilary Swank reminds me of Matt Damon in Boys Don’t Cry, or what, but I did not end up being as affected by this movie as your average viewer. However, if choosing between Swank’s two Oscar-winning performances, I’ll take this one over the overrated Million Dollar Baby. Swank stars opposite Chloe Sevigny as Brandon Teena (nee Teena Brandon), a female-to-male non-operative transgender man who’s trying to keep his gender origins a secret from the less-than-understanding ex-cons (Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III) he falls in with in Falls City, Nebraska. The true story ended in tragedy. The film earns major points for an unflinching portrait of such difficult subject matter, reaching a much larger audience than it might have.
4) Mr. Woodcock (2007, Craig Gillespie). My Flickchart: #3407/3575. Global: #16830. Mr. Woodcock would sink like a stone to the bottom of my rankings in most states, but I guess Nebraska is not “most states,” as there’s one film I like even less (and very few choices overall). Mr. Woodcock tells the always unbelievable story of a twentysomething (Seann William Scott) who returns to his Nebraska hometown to discover that his mother (Susan Sarandon) is boning his gym teacher (Billy Bob Thornton). It’s not unbelievable, per se, that two consenting adults would have found each other, and that one would happen to have been gym teacher to the other’s son. It’s unbelievable that Sarandon’s sweet, warm widow would hook up with a jerk who’s so much her polar opposite in every way, he makes caricatures of bad authority figures look sympathetic. Oh, and he also tries to destroy Scott’s character at every turn. This one is about as fun as a dodgeball to the groin.
5) Zombie Strippers (2008, Jay Lee). My Flickchart: #3475/3575. Global: #13556. Zombie Strippers deserves to win a few duels on its awesome exploitation movie title alone. On every other front, it deserves to lose. Porn star Jenna Jameson‘s attempt at going legit is only a token one, as this movie’s production values, script, editing, direction, and just about anything else you can imagine are only slightly above the level of her other films. However, one would also be justified in asking: What did you expect? The story is actually surprisingly high concept, as it involves a zombie outbreak resulting from experiments in fictional Sartre, Nebraska, where the government is trying to reanimate dead Marines to fight in the many wars started by four-term president George W. Bush. (Yep, it’s got political satire as well.) One such zombie wanders into a strip club near the lab, and wackiness ensues. Some bits are almost absurd enough to work. Most aren’t.
First duel: Children of the Corn vs. Boys Don’t Cry. I think I did see a couple boys crying in Children of the Corn, actually. Boys Don’t Cry wins.
Second duel: Children of the Corn vs. Mr. Woodcock. Mr. Woodcock is just the kind of adult I’d love to see killed by possessed children, but I’d like to see the possessed children killed even more. Mr. Woodcock wins.
Third duel: Children of the Corn vs. Zombie Strippers. Zombie Strippers earns points for being intentionally ridiculous. Zombie Strippers wins.
Children of the Corn finishes sixth out of the six movies.
Remember when I saw the Stephen King adaptation Cujo back in Maine, and was surprised by how much I liked it considering its middling reputation? Children of the Corn is the movie I thought Cujo would be, only worse. (Interestingly, neither has a bad reputation among Flickcharters, as both are ranked in the 2000’s globally.)
Children of the Corn has a silly factor that’s simply fatal to its effectiveness as a horror movie. Most problematic in this regard is the narrative choice that hits you even before the story proper gets underway, which is that it’s narrated by a 10-year-old actor named Robby Kiger, who plays one of two children we follow who are resistant to the cult. The fact that, at that age, Kiger can’t give the film some much-needed gravitas is one problem, but it’s not just an absence of seriousness that sets the film off on the wrong foot. Kiger’s narration sounds a bit like a child reading out loud a letter he wrote his parents from camp, and that makes it pretty campy indeed.
The next problem is that the children who are supposed to really discomfit us — John Franklin’s Isaac and Courtney Gains’ Malachai — can’t summon any of the requisite chill factor either, despite having in the neighborhood of ten years on Kiger. Isaac comes across as a bullied pipsqueak, while Malachai just does a lot of post-pubescent shouting. The “violent” opening scene that’s supposed to establish them as cold-blooded killers is edited so poorly that it becomes unintentionally hilarious, and they never regain their footing as menacing villains. A shoddy production in general makes it painfully obvious when dummies are being used instead of real human beings, as in the scene where the two adult characters hit the child with their car.
As for those two adults … Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton are obviously capable of good work, and it’s befuddling to note that this was the same year Hamilton appeared in the original Terminator. Say what you will about James Cameron, but he got twice or three times the performance out of Hamilton there as Fritz Kiersch gets from her here. It’s not only the direction that fails Horton and Hamilton, but this terrible script by George Goldsmith, which is just full of clunky lines. Fittingly, the film ends on its most clunky moment, with end credits slapped on so hastily you get the sense that everyone was just ready to wash their hands of this unfortunate project.
It’s time to hit the Dakotas, and I’m hoping I can find at least as many movies set there as movies starring Dakota Fanning. We’ll start in South Dakota with National Treasure: Book of Secrets, and go from there.