"The Bad Seed"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)
There's something peculiar about eight year old Rhoda (Patty McCormack, making her film debut). Oh, she's well behaved, says please and thank you. Always has a smile on her face. Never gives her mother, Christine (Nancy Kelly) and father, Colonel Kenneth Penmark (William Hopper) any trouble. But, could Rhoda be just a bit too perfect?
"The Bad Seed" (1956) is an interesting examination concerning what is evil? More specifically, what makes a person evil? Is evil the result of environment or is it genetics? It is a question which strikes at the very nature of mankind. Are people inherently good or evil? Can a person simply be a "bad seed"? Someone that is just no good, nonredeemable. They were born that way.
It is one of the questions asked and answered in "The Bad Seed". But it is its subject matter which makes the movie frightening and for my money, one of the underappreciated horror films. Can an eight year old girl be a murderer?
Horror movies generally focus on deranged adult serial killers or evil spirits but to think of a child as evil sets us up for an entirely different psychological and emotional experience. Children are sweet and innocent, not capable for such violence, right? No mother or father would ever accuse their child of killing someone. And yet "The Bad Seed" presents us with such a dilemma for one mother. Can she bring herself to believe her child is evil? And, if so, how did she get that way? Was the child not loved and nurtured enough? Or was it bad genes? And whose genes at that?
"The Bad Seed" was based on a novel, of the same title, written by William March (his last novel), published in 1954 (the year of Mr. March's death) and was turned into a play that same year by the great playwright, Maxwell Anderson. The film was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, a successful studio director at Warner Brothers, whose worked crossed over many different genres. He received an Academy Award nomination for "Random Harvest" (1943). The film also starred many of the original stage cast including Ms. Kelly, who won a Tony Award for her performance, and Ms. McCormack, who was nominated for a best supporting actress Academy Award, one of the movie's four nominations.
The movie deals with psychoanalysis, philosophy and paranoia. Though the main theme of the movie is nature versus nurture. Part of me can't help but think there is some political undertone to the movie, commenting on the Cold War. You can never tell who the enemy is or what they will look like. Though supposedly the movie was inspired by a rise in "troubled youths". It is interesting to note "The Bad Seed" was released one year after "Rebel Without A Cause" (1955) and three years after "The Wild One" (1953).
The main focus of the movie revolves around Rhoda, who is upset she did not win a class prize for best penmanship. Instead a boy named Claude won. Rhoda firmly believes she should have won and as a result resents Claude. Why did he have to win? On this day there will be a school picnic which ends tragically as Claude will be found dead, with his special prize missing. How did the boy die? Where did the prize go? Was Rhoda involved? She was seen with Claude and her teacher knew of her disappointment in not winning the penmanship prize. Slowly Christine learns more and more from others about the events leading up to the boy's death and about Rhoda's reputation in school.
Besides school we see how Rhoda interacts with those that live in her apartment building. Rhoda plays innocent with the landlady (Evelyn Varden), who thinks of Rhoda as her own child, but is much more harsh with the groundskeeper (Henry Jones), who antagonizes the girl, but is the only character that really understands who she is.
As I watched "The Bad Seed" again I paid more attention to Rhoda and the performance given by Patty McCormack than I normally have. There is something fascinating about Ms. McCormack. Listen to her voice and the emphasis she places on certain words. It is meant to sound sweet yet there is something phony about it. She says all the right words but they lack sincerity. And pay attention to her eyes. She's thinking. Always trying to stay one step ahead of everyone. Yet, there is a simplistic nature to her. Is she a child after all. But, we know all isn't what it seems. Because of the insincerity in her voice, some viewers may believe Ms. McCormack is giving a bad performance. It's not. That phoniness is deliberate. The character couldn't be too shrewd and cunning. That would frighten the audience a bit too much. Rhoda needed to be overtly diabolical, so parents wouldn't fear their own children. You have to give Ms. McCormack her due credit. Her Oscar nomination was well deserved.
I suppose though it is the Christine character we are meant to pay more attention to and side with as we watch the movie. Christine is facing the dilemma. Her turmoil is the stuff of great drama but at times the character appears repetitive in her struggle. Constantly debating the same points with herself but never taking a step forward. The character is too weak in numerous scenes. Between the two characters, I find Rhoda to be far more interesting and better written.
Because it was based on a play, much of the movie feels theatrical, primarily taking place in one setting, Christine's apartment. The movie doesn't do much with lighting or various camera angles. It is all shot rather conventionally. What carries the movie is the weight of the story and the performances given by all of the actors. This is truly an acting ensemble piece. Every character serves a purpose. Each line of dialogue is necessary.
However that leaves filmmaker, Mr. LeRoy off the hook. The actors knew the material, after playing the characters on stage. Mr. LeRoy wouldn't need to start from scratch, his actors were comfortable with the characters. His main job would be to make this story "filmable". And he does that, without taking many chances. Mr. LeRoy didn't have much experience directing horror films. It is the one genre lacking in his resume. It may be the only flaw with the movie in that visually there is not much here.
But, one cannot allow that to stop them from seeing this movie. "The Bad Seed" is largely successful thanks to the wonderful performances given by Ms. Kelly and Ms. McCormack. Each lady received an Academy Award nomination and it was well deserved, a rarity for the Academy, they made two good choices.
"The Bad Seed" may not keep you up at night but you'll never look at children the same way again.