Review: The Bad Seed (1956)
Nancy Kelly – Christine Penmark
Patty McCormack – Rhoda Penmark
Evelyn Varden – Monica Breedlove
Henry Jones – Leroy
Eileen Heckart – Hortense Daigle
William Hopper – Kenneth Penmark
Genre – Horror/Psychological Thriller/Drama/Evil Kids
Running Time – 129 Minutes
As a horror movie lover, I can always appreciate a film that involves evil children. These young people may seem cute and innocent. But if you don’t give them what they want, they may accidentally put that toy car in your path before you fall down the stairs and break your neck. Little Orphan Annie was a mean little bitch – don’t let that curly red hair and those freckles fool you!
Some of the most memorable horror films involve scary kids. THE OMEN, THE GOOD SON, PET SEMETARY, and ORPHAN prove that some kids have enough power to work alone. Other films, like CHILDREN OF THE CORN, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, and BEWARE! CHILDREN AT PLAY show that they prefer to hurt people within large groups. Either way, grounding these killer brats is not an option.
However, none of the films listed above wouldn’t exist if the original ‘evil child’ film wasn’t both critically and commercially successful. Every film with a child as the main antagonist owes a lot to 1956’s THE BAD SEED, a film that kicked off the trend and proved that even children can be just as dangerous as adults. 56 years later, the film is still talked about and even plans for a second remake [the first was in 1985] are in the works. Does a remake say that THE BAD SEED doesn’t hold up after all these years? Or is THE BAD SEED still the cream of the crop when it comes to its sub-genre?
Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack) seems like the perfect daughter. She’s intelligent. She’s cute, with her charming smile and pig-tails. She has hard-working and well-respected parents. She also doesn’t have much of a conscience, which makes her quite the successful little sociopath.
While Rhoda’s father (William Hopper) is away on some sort of business, her mother Christine (Nancy Kelly) has to deal with the fact that Rhoda may have drowned one of her fellow classmates named Claude for a penmanship medal that Claude narrowly beat her for. When Christine confronts Rhoda about the incident, Rhoda seems indifferent about the tragedy – lying and manipulating Christine’s feelings to get her off of her back. Rhoda also twists the truth when the slow, but suspicious handyman, Leroy (Henry Jones), and Claude’s alcoholic mother, Mrs. Daigle (Eileen Heckart) approach her.
When things start coming together that make Rhoda appear guilty of her crime, she takes the matter into her own hands. More people end up dying and Rhoda continues her lying. When Christine realizes that her daughter is evil, she wonders if that trait is one of nature, or one of nurture. Is evil hereditary? Or are people made that way?
Every ‘evil child‘ flick owes great debt to THE BAD SEED, even though those respective subsequent films took the premise and used them in different ways. THE BAD SEED is also one of the rare horror-thrillers that managed to rack up some important Academy Award nominations, mainly for the acting. And while the film may be very campy and hokey to modern audiences, it still maintains a level of charm and the subtext still manages to resonate after all these years.
The screenplay by John Lee Mahin is based on the theater version of the story, which was written by Maxwell Anderson, which in turn is based on the 1954 novel by William March of the same name. The film version is based more on the play, as most of the actors from the stage production are in the film as well. The narrative is balanced by what THE BAD SEED is about on the surface, and the psychological subtext that the story is trying to tell its audience. Both are strongly written, but the subtext tends to overshadow everything else going on in the story.
The idea of and the debate about Nature vs. Nurture, in my opinion, is what THE BAD SEED is really about. This is a topic that still manages to capture the attention of the public, especially with all these crime and investigation programs that grab huge ratings. In 1956, this was really a huge deal as the public started to become more interested in psychology and the writings of one Sigmund Freud. Another psychologist, John Watson, talked about the way people behave and the reasons they do so respectively. He, and some others, believed that people behaved accordingly to their environment, rather than genetics. We are all born with both good and evil, as it’s human nature. But the path we take is due to our surroundings and how we’re nurtured by those around us. Even today, the debate wages on, as serial killer profiles and stories of addiction blur the lines a bit. Some serial killers, who grew up in fantastic environments, still did bad things. So were they born that way? There’s no clear answer really.
THE BAD SEED does answer the debate in its own way, which I won’t spoil if you haven’t seen it yet. But the discussions about the topic are abundant in the narrative, as Christine talks to her friends and family about what makes people do bad things – DNA or their surroundings. While the topic is interesting on its own, it’s the way the characters express their opinions that keep the film fresh. Christine’s father believes in the nurture aspect, as he doesn’t think people are born bad. He believes that people behave according to their social status, race, religion, and their neighborhood. As a WASP-y man with a lot of money, respect, and power, it’s easy to see why he would think this way. It’s all he’s ever known, or at least let himself accept as gospel. Christine’s friends, especially her landlord Monica, treat psychology as some sort of game that you play at social events or parties. She is always analyzing others, even claiming that analyzing her marriage ruined it, but doesn’t really know anything. She’s so busy being ignorant, because she believes that reading articles about psychology makes her some sort of expert, that she can’t see the psychological trauma Christine is going through and how big of a manipulative sociopath Rhoda is. In a lot of ways, THE BAD SEED was a foreshadowing to our current society. The media analyzes situations, making up stories as to why people in our pop culture do what they do without any sort of backing or evidence. We get suckered in by this and begin doing this to others, without really knowing what we’re analyzing. It’s our innate quest and hunger for knowledge. Wanting to know things isn’t terrible. But the way knowledge is used can be damaging to others.
Christine struggles because she knows the truth, but the people around her are blind to it and tell her otherwise. She questions her true parentage, feeling that her real father was a serial killer. Even though she didn’t do bad things, her daughter is committing crimes without any sense of conscience or remorse. But by knowing what Rhoda did to poor Claude and not telling Claude’s mother about what she knows, she is enabling Rhoda in continuing her behavior. And as a parent, that makes her just as bad as Rhoda. So is evil really because of our environment? Or is it in our genetic code?
While much of the film focuses on this aspect, the surface narrative – Rhoda killing Claude for an award she felt she deserved, while Christine struggles with it and begins having a nervous breakdown out of guilt, is what keeps THE BAD SEED moving. It also develops the characters in the narrative, making them all identifiable instead of stereotypes. Even though she’s a supporting character, Rhoda is the catalyst of the story. Because of her, the other characters react the way they eventually do. Rhoda is a complex character, as she shows affection to her parents and Monica, but makes you question whether or not she’s legitimate or manipulating them into getting what she wants. She’s obviously a sociopath and evil, but is subtle about it – which is the most dangerous kind. She captures the hearts of those around her, except for slow-witted Leroy, drunk Hortense, and guilt-ridden Christine herself, who all see her for who she is. We never actually see her perform the dastardly acts that she does commit, making her more effective as a villain, since it allows our imaginations run wild about her methods. Rhoda is the driving force of this film.
Because of her, Christine [instead of blaming Rhoda for what she’s done] feels guilty and blames herself and her genetics for all this. She’s a stressed out wife and mother. Her husband is never around, leaving her to raise Rhoda all on her own basically. She has no one to confide in when she learns about Rhoda, because her friends and family think she’s just overreacting. She constantly tries to push Rhoda towards the moral path, but fails each time. Christine practically gives up and enables Rhoda by lying for her, even though her emotions say otherwise. We, as an audience, feel as if Christine should punish Rhoda for her crimes. But at the same time, we understand why she’s conflicted because we don’t want our children to suffer. It’s a strong, yet flawed [in a good way], character.
Other characters struggle with Rhoda as well. Monica doesn’t believe that Rhoda is nothing more but the most perfect child, never understanding why Christine seems to detach from her daughter each day. Leroy, even slow, tries to goad Rhoda into doing something bad so she can get caught. However, since he’s seen as lower class, is never taken seriously and treated as an outcast. And Hortense, lower class as well, is portrayed as an emotional drunk by the ‘classier‘ characters, even though she’s visibly a grieving mother who wants nothing but answers about the death of her son. Interesting characters make an interesting film, which is a strong reason why THE BAD SEED still works.
Do I have any issues with the screenplay? The film is a bit dialogue heavy at times. The constant discussions over the Nature vs. Nurture issue do become a bit tiresome, even though what discussed is interesting. I think a lot of the scenes could have reached their turning points much sooner than they did. Because of it, the film is a bit too long and might turn off modern audiences.
My biggest personal gripe has to be the ending itself. I won’t spoil it, but I’m not a fan of it or the ‘epilogue’ after it. I know some people like it a lot, and I respect that. I know that the Hays Code was in place during this time in cinema, where the villain could not get away with their crime and had to be punished by the film’s end. And I’m sure back in 1956, the ending was universally accepted. But in 2012, it just comes across as campy, hokey, tacky, and however you want to call it. Yes, I understand that Rhoda needed to be punished. But couldn’t the ending be presented better? It’s too bad the ending to either the novel or the play couldn’t be used because the character arcs for both Christine and Rhoda would have been more effective. As for that little bit after the actual conclusion, I honestly can’t take it. I understand it was meant to tell audiences that no children were harmed on the set of THE BAD SEED, but c’mon! I would have accepted the ending better if this portion was left out. I just find it too silly to take seriously. If I were reviewing this as a viewer back in 1956, I wouldn’t complain. But in 2012, it leaves a lot to be desired.
The direction by Mervyn Le Roy is really great. A lot of modern audiences complain that THE BAD SEED takes place far too much inside the Penmark living room, which it does to be honest, making the film look more like a play rather than a thrilling piece of cinema. While the film is not visually exciting, I kind of like the stage look. Think about it – having much of the film take place in a single location creates a feeling of claustrophobia. We barely see the outside world, except for some incidents that involve Rhoda. But Christine is usually always inside her home, due to the traditional idea that a wife should be a homemaker and taking care of the children. She’s stuck inside with Rhoda, making her struggle about Rhoda’s behavior more effective because she’s unable to escape it without making the situation worse. It creates tension because she’s trapped inside with the monster, and she has no idea how to deal with her. I think the presentation, especially with how characters enter and exit, is interesting and doesn’t really bug me much at all.
The black-and-white cinematography looks nice as well. It was even nominated for an Academy Award, even though the picture looks pretty simple and doesn’t appear all that special. The use of not showing how Rhoda kills her victims is effective, creating an aura of mystery about how dangerous this ‘sweet‘ little girl really is. The editing is good, and while the pace is a bit slow at times, you’re never really all that bored. It’s a nice looking and well directed film.
The acting in THE BAD SEED is probably the highlight of the film. Nancy Kelly is great as Christine. The character is put through a lot during the entire film, and Kelly hits every note like a champ. You feel her guilt and her struggle in a really believable way. Her evolution from happy wife and mother to depressed and guilt-ridden is impressive. Patty McCormack is excellent as Rhoda. Even though she’s young, she plays the character with a great sense of maturity and control that many of her older peers have trouble with. She also plays with a series of emotions, all convincing. She plays both the good and bad sides quite well, humanizing what could have been a one-note performance. The other actress that makes a presence is Eileen Heckart as Hortense Daigle. Her performance of tragedy and grief is so convincing, that you feel truly bad for her. She plays an alcoholic well and steals every scene she’s in when she appears. It’s no wonder why all three ladies were nominated for Academy Awards. They’re all really quite good. The other actors, especially Henry Jones as Leroy and Evelyn Breedlove as Monica, are great as well. A very solid cast.
THINGS I’VE LEARNED WHILE THINKING DEVIOUS THOUGHTS BEHIND MY SWEET SMILE
– Rhoda was so pissed that she didn’t receive a medal that she felt she deserved, that she ended up killing her competition. I had no idea she grew up to become Tonya Harding.
– Leroy has the hots for Christine. This is the 50s version of Desperate Housewives!
– An eight-year-old boy drowned in a lake. If only those camp counselors were watching him…oh wait, wrong movie!
– Monica’s horoscope said that she should pay attention to small objects and get things done. I think it’s time for her to upgrade from Asian to African, if you get my drift.
– Rhoda wondered if it was true if police put powder on blood, it’ll turn blue. She’ll learn all about this type of chemistry when she’s 16 & Pregnant.
– Rhoda ended up burning Leroy near the incinerator. He may mow the grass, but that little girl is gonna smoke it!
THE FINAL HOWL
THE BAD SEED may be dialogue heavy and have an ending that cheapens the story [in my opinion], it’s still a solid movie that lovers of ‘evil kids‘ should watch and will most likely enjoy. Great performances and an interesting narrative makes this one stand out amongst its peers. Remember – the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. You better watch out before disciplining your kids. You may be the one getting punished. A basket of kisses for a basket of hugs…keep that in mind.