OCU professor reveals how he harvested ‘Children of the Corn.’
Oklahoma City University clearly is in the Halloween spirit. It’ll screen 2001’s remake of “Children of the Corn” for free at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. tonight in the United Methodist Hall dorm theater room. Despite that strange-sounding setting, the public is invited.
What makes this interesting is that Fritz Kiersch, chairman of OCU’s Moving Image Arts Program, will discuss “Corn” between the showings, because he directed the 1984 original.
Five years ago, I interviewed Kiersch about making that minor horror classic — spawning a franchise that’s now up to part eight, with the brand-new “Children of the Corn: Genesis” — so why not yank it out of the Gazette archives to share it with you? Here goes!
FRITZ KIERSCH: ‘CORN’ FARMER Just think: Had economics graduate Fritz Kiersch not stood on Wall Street wearing the same blue seersucker suit as everyone else, the world may never have experienced the cinematic pleasure of seeing kids murder all the adults in their town and promptly establish a Satanic cult in the Nebraskan cornfields.
Today a department chair and artist-in-residence for Oklahoma City University’s Moving Image Arts Program, the Texas-born Kiersch was all set to embark on a career as an international banker when he was struck by the realization of how dull it would be and thought, “This is stupid. I’m outta here.”
One coastal switch later, Kiersch pursued a love of filmmaking that eventually would lead to his directorial debut on 1984’s “Children of the Corn.” Based on the short story by Stephen King (the first of his short fiction to make the jump to screen), the low-budget shocker starring a pre-fame Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton proved a sizable box-office hit — one that still enjoys a healthy cult following more than two decades later and spurred a profitable (if uninspired) franchise, currently six sequels strong.
Kiersch cut his artistic teeth making TV commercials. He got along well with an assistant director he hired, who went on to become an executive in charge of production for New World Pictures.
“One day he called and said, ‘Because you put all this ice cream in my freezer, I’m going to give you guys a chance to make a movie,’” Kiersch recalled.
Scripts followed; Kiersch declined. A couple months later, his friend pressed on with a script for “Children of the Corn,” telling Kiersch, “This is right up your alley.” Kiersch went in to talk and left with a green light; he was off scouting locations in Iowa the next day.
“I’ve never had such an easy motion-picture hire,” he said. “It was out of a fairy tale. People wait their lifetime for this kind of stuff.”
According to Kiersch, New World saw a lot of potential in King’s story “about children in an environment of terror.” Kiersch himself was game, seeing the trappings of the movie’s low budget as an opportunity for “a world of creativity and imagination and innovation.”
“The script was specific to a certain level of generality: corn fields, isolation, abandonment,” he said. “We had to fulfill those requirements … at a time when harvest was going on and the corn was turning from green — the good color — to dead yellow, which did not photograph very nicely. One day, we’d shoot, and return the next day and the corn would be gone or dead. So the invention came with ‘What do we do? How do we fix this?’ We took scissors (to the script) and literally cut around scenes to make things happen.”
Another challenge: The monster — known as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” — was never described in George Goldsmith’s script.
“So I invented everything,” said Kiersch. “I said, ‘On a dark country road when we were 12, every sound made us wet our pants. Over the wind! Let’s use those influences and do an homage to the horror movie on the B level.’”
This entailed a conscious decision to let the acting be stiff, the characters cardboard, the threats obvious and the monster intangible. Its terrifying menace would have to be suggested, via moving corn and upturned soil — effects creatively gained through no-nonsense use of fishing line and an upside-down wheelbarrow.
When it came time to blow up the monster at the end of the movie, “we were going to be able to make a 10-story fireball twice. The second time, it went off incorrectly,” Kiersch said. “The guy who loaded the gas pumps was drunk.”
With only one take to use, the new director realized it wasn’t visual enough … until a friend later let him crib some clouds from a Kawasaki ad to add in to up the ominous factor. Admitted Kiersch, “Luck played a tremendous element in the success of the film, but so did inventiveness and gut feeling and just the idea of honest filmmaking. We weren’t trying to be slick and cool; it was to be rough and pay tribute.”
It paid off. Shot over four weeks, “Children of the Corn” took in more than $10 million upon its release in spring 1984 — not bad on an investment that didn’t quite clear $1 million. Its true fortunes would be found on home video, first on VHS and then in DVD editions from Anchor Bay.
Critics were unkind — not surprising, given the genre.
“I was called ‘the hack’s hack,’” Kiersch remembered. “People looked at its value and said, ‘Here’s a story about children killing adults. This is not good!’ That was a big lesson for me. When you make a film, you don’t think globally about what you make, but when it’s released, it goes all over the world. You have to accept responsibility for it. I was completely naïve to that at the time.”
Said Gray Frederickson, a friend and collaborator of Kiersch, “Other than maybe ‘The Bad Seed,’ I don’t think there was a movie where the kids were the bad guys. It was a very unusual first experience for people to see kids doing bad things.”
One of the harshest critics was King himself. Perhaps already indisposed to like the film since his own screenplay had been jettisoned — Kiersch said King was “not a competent screenwriter at the time” — the best-selling author penned a savage letter to the director and studio, claiming they “destroyed” his source material. Said Kiersch, “He was somewhat angered and frustrated.”
Because of “Corn”’s success, Kiersch fielded numerous offers for more spook shows — “Howling II,” “Nightflyers” and, he said, “movies about worms and Native American shape shifters.” Instead, he turned them all down and went on to direct several movies involving kids and teens — though far less homicidal — like “Tuff Turf” with James Spader and Robert Downey Jr.
“I just didn’t want anything to do with horror, because I felt that was not where I was strong,” he said. “But what I’ve realized retrospectively over the years is horror is a form of storytelling where you can do things outside the norm and play around.”
Eventually, he returned to deal in dread. And all it took was a move to Oklahoma City. In 2000, he was recruited by Frederickson — an Oscar-winning producer of “The Godfather” films and “Apocalypse Now” — to make movies in Oklahoma for Graymark Productions.
Lensed in Meridian, Norman and Oklahoma City, “The Hunt” is the first result of that partnership, about a group of hunters having the tables turned on them. “Surveillance,” a Penn Square Mall-shot thriller with horror elements, soon followed with star Armand Assante.
“We love the pictures he’s done for us,” said Frederickson. “He doesn’t subscribe to the new slasher school of horror, like ‘Saw’ or ‘Hostel.’ He’s more of the Kubrick/Hitchcock guy, and he’s very good at it.”
“Suggestion is far better,” agreed Kiersch. “I think it’s cool to manipulate an audience, to sucker punch them. I love watching an audience that talks back to the screen.”
He said he will “try my best” to make all his films from here on out. “I’m very proud to be a part of this community. Our creative energies are terrific here.”
Odds are, none will have the shelf life of “Corn,” but that’s OK by him.
“It’s nice,” he said of its enduring legacy. “It’s just one of those things in your life that, for whatever reason, sticks around. I’m proud of it. I came up with something that has generated a particular reference in American pop culture. Even though it’s not a positive reference, it’s cool.”
Told of recent whispers that Hollywood has eyes on remaking his baby, Kiersch sighed, “Oh, my. Life is getting boring if they want to redo this.” —Rod Lott
LON CHANEY JR.: WEREWOLF OF OKC In 1941’s “The Wolf Man,” legend has it a full moon causes Lon Chaney Jr.’s character to transform into a werewolf. Equally as apocryphal is the legend of Chaney’s birth right here in Oklahoma City.
Chaney Jr. — in a story perpetuated by himself — was born two months premature on Feb. 10, 1906, “black and dead,” until his father, Lon Chaney Sr., dunked him into the icy waters of Belle Isle Lake to revive him.
According to Chaney Jr.’s grandson, Ron Chaney, he was then kept alive in a homemade incubator made out of a shoe box lined with cotton.
But Michael F. Blake, the author of three books on the elder Chaney, said “according to (other) family members, the story is complete fiction.”
“(Chaney Jr.) started it himself, because it got him attention. There’s no other proof that it happened,” said Blake, an Emmy-winning makeup artist currently at work on “Spider-Man 3.”
Oklahoma City remains about the only undisputed element of the story, as Chaney Sr. — not yet the famed silent-film actor — met his wife, Cleva Creighton, in OKC during a 1905 tour of the Columbia Musical Comedy Repertoire Co. He performed; she, only 15, auditioned as a chorus girl despite the protests of her mother, a local nurse. She didn’t get the dancing job, but she won his heart, and state court records reportedly show the couple as having married on May 31 of that year when she was 16.
Less than nine months later, their son — dubbed Creighton Tull Chaney — was born. According to a 1907 city directory, they lived at 312 W. Washington. Chaney Sr. made $15 a week in the rug department at Grand Rapids Furniture Co., until they left Oklahoma for good in 1908.
Hollywood followed. And, after Chaney Sr. died in 1930, Creighton dumped plumbing to take his father’s career path … and, reluctantly, his name.
“He was starved to take the name Lon Jr., essentially forced to by the studios,” Blake said. “Unfortunately, like many children of famous actors, he had to bear the brunt of being compared to Daddy. It was hard for him. He wanted to make it on his own.”
Said Ron Chaney, a swimming-pool contractor in California, “He knew his father was a tremendous star, but wanted to make it under his own name. It upset him at the time, but that’s the way it is.”
With one of Chaney Sr.’s most famous roles being 1925’s frightfest “The Phantom of the Opera,” it perhaps was inevitable that Chaney Jr. eventually find his way to horror as well.
After scads of cheap Westerns, that opportunity came in 1941, when he was cast in the title role in Universal Pictures’ “The Wolf Man.” The film was a massive hit for Universal’s horror machine, and Chaney Jr. was tapped to reprise the role in 1943’s “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” (and again in 1948’s “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein”).
But the studio wasn’t content with having him just sprout facial hair. Within two years, he was called upon to sport neck bolts, bandages and fangs in the title roles of the sequels “The Ghost of Frankenstein,” “The Mummy’s Tomb” and “Son of Dracula,” respectively. According to the Internet Movie Database, this gave Chaney Jr. the distinction of being the only actor to portray all four of Universal’s classic monsters.
But “The Wolf Man” is the film with which he will be forever linked. The role earned him pop-culture placement, being name-checked in Warren Zevon’s 1978 hit song “Werewolves of London” and having his visage on a 32-cent stamp in 1997 — albeit under tufts of hair.
“Like (Bela) Lugosi’s Dracula and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein, even if you don’t know Lon Chaney’s name, you can show people a picture and they know he’s the Wolf Man,” said film scholar Gary D. Rhodes. “He has an iconic status.”
Chaney Jr. parlayed that success into a series of six “Inner Sanctum” mysteries for Universal, but as the years went on, the quality of his films plummeted. Witness “Indestructible Man,” “The Alligator People” or “Hillbillys in a Haunted House.” Or rather, don’t.
“Horror geeks like to think he was as big a star as his dad, but he wasn’t,” Blake said. “I think Creighton always resented or regretted horror films, really, because he got trapped in them, and then couldn’t do good work. He got stuck in a rut. You get typecast. That’s the nature of the beast.”
Blake said this was unfortunate, because if one looks at Chaney Jr.’s attempts at drama — most notably, the screen adaptation “Of Mice and Men” or the classic Western “High Noon” — he proved himself rather adept as a character actor.
“There’s solid supporting work there, but he was trapped in all this other garbage. And unfortunately, he had a battle with the bottle and didn’t quite win it,” Blake said.
Substance abuse problems plagued Chaney Jr. A 1948 article in The Oklahoman reported the actor was rendered unconscious and in serious condition from an overdose of sleeping tablets, but alcohol was his lifelong demon, particularly in his later years.
“There were drinking exploits with (actor) Broderick Crawford. He got into trouble here and there,” Ron Chaney said. “He was a very complex person, I believe. He saw an awful lot in his lifetime.”
His final film was 1971’s “Dracula vs. Frankenstein” (aka “Satan’s Bloody Freaks”), but being a no-budget schlockfest, it was a far and rather desperate cry from his Forties heyday. While his late-career star may not have shone as bright, it didn’t matter to his family.
“He was just Gramps to me,” said Ron Chaney, who was a teenager when Chaney Jr. died on July 12, 1973. “I knew he was the Wolf Man, but it didn’t really occur to me. He loved to cook and he wrestled with us — those were my memories of him. He was a gentle giant.” —Rod Lott