The Bad Seed (1956)


For the most part, “The Bad Seed” is a classic horror film that lives up to its reputation of being an infamous movie about a little monster who will stop at nothing for gratify herself and her own ego. She’s the product of over privilege and an abundance of deifying from the people around her. To get it out of the way, my one gripe with “The Bad Seed” is ultimately the ending. Since audiences couldn’t bear watching a film end on a downbeat with the villain winning, and the studios insistent on the bad guy losing in the end, no matter how contrived or tacked on it seemed, the climax to “The Bad Seed” keeps the film from being a perfect thriller.

For 95 percent of the film, “The Bad Seed” is a brilliant and masterful unraveling of the horrors involved with the realization that your loved one is perhaps a psychotic monster. That is until the very final scene and the curtain call that pretty much stomps out any and all impact the film has as a whole. It’s akin to being scared in a haunted house only for the mechanics to show you how it’s done in the end. From what I’ve read, the original stage play upon which the film is based, ends with Rhoda winning. What a shame. That said, “The Bad Seed” is still a mesmerizing and engrossing dramatic thriller that is teeming with cult value and camp appeal. If you’re looking for a movie about a demented child who gains pleasure out of murder with a high body count, “The Bad Seed” isn’t for you. Go check out “Who Can Kill a Child?” or “The Omen” for that appetite.

Director Mervyn LeRoy actually explores the story of young Rhoda by unraveling the screws before our very eyes through her loving mother. Over the course of the film we are taken on a journey in to the psyche of young Rhoda’s mother who comes to the gradual realization that her young daughter is a ruthless, cruel, and heartless murderer who will stop at nothing to please her own demented sense of egomania and rationalization. “The Bad Seed” is pretty much an argument of nature vs. nurture. Are people born evil and murderous? Or does the environment contribute to their lust for blood? Is a sociopath still considered a human being even though they lack the function to feel, empathize, or distinguish between right and wrong? Most importantly, can evil be inherited? Rhoda Penmark is a young girl whose prim and proper ways make her the focus of frequent love, affection, and coddling fro those around her.

Gifted with the ability to charm everyone, she’s a young bright blond hair whose entire presence causes those around her to drown her in praise and love that borders on the obsessive at times. “The Bad Seed” works mostly as a dramatic thriller which features Rhoda’s mother coming to grips with a young boy’s murder in town while trying to comprehend why young Rhoda feels complete apathy at the prospect of the gruesome death. As the plot unfolds, LeRoy delivers more and more clues as mom Christine Penmark begins to learn secrets about her own life that may reflect the very actions young Rhoda is taking to ensure self-preservation. The journey Christine takes is absolutely gut wrenching and actress Nancy Kelly delivers a remarkable performance as a well meaning mother who must face the inevitable about her young daughter Rhoda, and is inevitably driven mad by the prospect by the climax.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible supporting performance by Eileen Heckart who plays the distraught mother of Rhoda’s newest victim who struggles to learn about the final moments of her son’s life to no avail. As for Patty McCormack, she’s especially devious and serpentine as the ruthless little child who will stop at nothing to whet her appetite for destruction as she basks in the worship of those around her, including the upstairs house manager Monica, who is so blissfully unaware of her evil tendencies, it’s pathetic. McCormack is mesmerizing as young Rhoda whose pigtails and frilly dresses provide a cover for a young girl whose justification for murder is so demented, it drives her mother to the brink of insanity.

McCormack is a powerful actress and makes young Rhoda a villain to truly fear. Most of Rhoda’s screen time is devoted to her outwitting and manipulating the people around her including the wily groundskeeper Leroy (a scene stealing Henry Jones), who is convinced Rhoda is up to no good. Much of Rhoda’s own psychotic tendencies is left ambiguous and provides fodder for the audience to debate on after the film has ended. Did Rhoda inherit her evil from her grandparents? Was she born a sociopath? Or did she just gain a god complex due to the obsessive worship of those around her? One has to wonder. Sadly hobbled by a climax that prefers to play it safe and keep audiences happy, “The Bad Seed” is a near perfect thriller that features a trio of incredible performances, and introduces us to the perfect evil: a cherubic girl with a ruthless lust for blood.