King wrote the original draft of the screenplay, which focused more on the characters of Burt and Vicky and depicted more history on the uprising of the children in Gatlin. This script was disregarded in favor of George Goldsmith's screenplay, which featured more violence and a more conventional narrative structure. Filming took place mainly in Iowa, but also in California. Seven sequels have since been produced, and it has since gained a cult following.
The film is set in the fictional town of Gatlin, Nebraska, an agricultural community surrounded by mass cornfields. When the corn crop fails one year, the townsfolk turn to prayer to ensure a successful harvest. However, twelve-year old Isaac Chroner takes all of the children in Gatlin into the cornfields and indoctrinates them into a religious cult based around a bloodthirsty deity called “He Who Walks Behind the Rows”. Isaac and his subordinate Malachai lead the children in a revolution, murdering all of the adults in town as human sacrifices. Only two children refuse to participate, Job and his sister Sarah, who can see visions of the future, drawing them on paper.
Three years later, Vicky and her boyfriend Burt travel through rural Nebraska for Seattle, where Burt will start working as a physician. Elsewhere, a young boy tries to flee Gatlin but is attacked in the corn, stumbling out into the road, and is run over by Burt’s car. However, Burt discovers he was stabbed beforehand. They place the boy and his suitcase in the trunk and search for a phone to call for help. They come across an elderly mechanic, the last adult in Gatlin, but he refuses them service. The mechanic is actually in an agreement to supply the children with fuel in exchange for his life. However, the merciless Malachai breaks the pact and murders him, against Isaac’s wishes.
Vicky and Burt explore the abandoned town, finding Sarah alone in a house. Burt searches the town, while Vicky stays with Sarah. Malachai and his followers appear, capturing Vicky and taking her to the cornfield, where they place her on a cross to be sacrificed. Burt enters a church where a congregation of children, led by a girl named Rachel, are performing a cultural birthday ritual for her boyfriend Amos by drinking his blood. Burt scolds the children, enraging Rachel, and is chased by Malachai and others. Job rescues Burt and they hide in a fallout shelter with Sarah, learning Vicky was captured.
The zealous Isaac scolds Malachai for his treachery, only for Malachai to grow tired of Isaac’s preaching and take over, ordering Isaac’s sacrifice instead of Vicky. Isaac warns Malachai that sacrificing him will break their pact with He Who Walks Behind the Rows and the children will be severely punished. At night, Burt sneaks into the cornfield to rescue Vicky. During Isaac’s sacrifice, a supernatural light appears and devours the screaming Isaac. Burt emerges and fights Malachai, but Isaac suddenly reappears, revived by He Who Walks Behind the Rows, tells Malachai that he wants him too, he seizes and kills the terrified Malachai by breaking his neck.
A storm appears over the cornfield, and Burt and Vicky shelter the children in a barn. They read a passage in the Bible which implies the cornfield must be destroyed to stop the false god. Burt sprays the cornfield with gasoline and tosses a Molotov cocktail into the field, setting it alight and destroying the demon. Vicky, Burt, Job, and Sarah return to their car to leave Gatlin, only to find it disabled. Rachel attacks Burt but Vicky knocks her out with the car door. Vicky quips that they should all send Rachel a get well card from Seattle just before the survivors set out on foot, with Burt and Vicky ostensibly deciding to adopt Job and Sarah.Peter Horton as Burt Stanton
Linda Hamilton as Vicky Baxter
R. G. Armstrong as Diehl ("The Old Man")
John Franklin as Isaac Chroner
Courtney Gains as Malachai Boardman
Robby Kiger as Job
Anne Marie McEvoy as Sarah
Julie Maddalena as Rachel
John Philbin as Richard 'Amos' Deigan
Film rights were originally optioned by Hal Roach Studios, and Stephen King wrote a script based on his own short story. Hal Roach executives did not want to use King's script and George Goldsmith was hired to rewrite it. Goldsmith says King's script started with 35 pages of Burt and Vicky arguing in a car, so he decided to tell the story visually through the eyes of two new characters, children Job and Sarah. King was unhappy with the changes but Hal Roach went with Goldsmith. Hal Roach eventually sold the project to New World Pictures who decided to go with Goldsmith's script, although they tried to remove his name from the credits in favor of King.
The film received mixed to negative reviews from Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on At the Movies. At Rotten Tomatoes, it has a "Rotten" rating of 38%, based on 24 reviews, with the average review being 4.1/10. The film took in over $14 million at the US box office.
In June 2008, it was confirmed that Donald P. Borchers would begin writing and directing a TV remake of the first film, which would premiere on the Syfy channel. Production began in August, filming in Davenport, Iowa; however, it was later moved to Lost Nation, Iowa.
The cast included David Anders, Kandyse McClure, Preston Bailey, Daniel Newman and Alexa Nikolas. The movie aired on September 26, 2009, and the DVD was released on October 6, 2009, by Anchor Bay. The television remake closely follows the original storyline present in the short story, and not that of the original film.