Killer kids really started pulsating on the horror radar with The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Horrific as these tots were, their actions were explained away by demonic possession and satanic lineage, respectively. Regardless of their cause, the sight of a youngster engaged in heinous behavior was still shocking. Now, roll back the clock a couple of decades and drop a sociopathic eight year old girl in the middle of apple pie strewn Ozzie & Harriet America, and what do you get? The Bad Seed (1956), that’s what; a wonderfully odd ode to li’l murderers and the mothers who love them.
Released by Warner Brothers in September of ’56 and rolled out to the rest of the world over the next year and a half, The Bad Seed brought in over $ 4 million in US rentals off a $ 1 million budget, making it an unqualified success. Not only that, it received four Academy Award nominations: Best Actress for Nancy Kelly (Song of the Sarong), Best Actress in a Supporting Role for both Eileen Heckart (Burnt Offerings) and Patty McCormack (Frost/Nixon), and Best Cinematography (Black-and-White) for Harold Rosson (Singin’ in the Rain). That is quite the pedigree for a bizarre film about a killer moppet with impeccable manners. Who says horror doesn’t get any respect? (Everyone who loves horror, that’s who.)
Little Rhoda (McCormack) is seeing her military big shot daddy (William Hopper – Rebel Without a Cause) off as he heads back to Washington. “Baskets of kisses” are cloyingly exchanged for “baskets of hugs”, and so we know right off the bat that she’s a daddy’s girl, to the dismay of mom Christine (Kelly). Rhoda’s closest confidant is landlady Monica (Evelyn Varden – Night of the Hunter), who also believes the child to be squeaky clean. Then a school picnic reveals that one of the children has drowned, and all the circumstantial evidence points to Rhoda. Nobody would dare think an innocent cherub like Rhoda could be responsible, until two things occur: First, the discovery that Christine’s lineage may have some bats in the belfry, leading to several grown up discussions regarding nature versus nurture; and second, the knowledge that Rhoda was quite insistent the penmanship medal awarded to poor little drowned Claude should have gone to her. As the evidence piles up, Christine must decide if punishing her with no dessert is enough of a deterrent to end Rhoda’s killing spree.
The Bad Seed had a meteoric rise in popular culture. William March’s novel was published in April of 1954; Maxwell Anderson’s Broadway production opened in December of that same year, which was followed by the film less than two years later. And it’s understandable – the subject matter was fresh and novel; what parent could fathom their child being a killer? Their teenager, sure – the ‘50s brought about the rise of teenage culture and subsequent rebellion, but wee ones? Unthinkable. Now, as subversive as the idea was, this was still the ‘50s; the execution is all insinuation and description – audiences weren’t even allowed to witness a toilet flush until Psycho. Different times called for different measures, and where the film version of The Bad Seed earns its weirdness stripes is in presentation.
Instead of taking a more naturalistic approach to the material, director Mervyn LeRoy (Mister Roberts) essentially transports The Bad Seed from stage to screen with no change in tone whatsoever. Other than a couple of briefly shown artificial outdoor sets, all the activity is confined to the living room, kitchen, or Rhoda’s bedroom. Luckily, the skilled camerawork of Rosson keeps the tedium to a minimum, doing what he can to engage the audience visually. But it can’t completely shake the staginess of the production, and I think that’s done on purpose; by keeping up the wall of artifice (one entrance, one exit, hit your mark here) the viewer doesn’t feel too close to the material – audiences still needed to be reminded that this was fiction, nothing more.
This opinion was shared by the producers and ratings board as well – in the book and play, Christine fatally wounds herself with a gun after she gives her daughter an overdose of sleeping pills; yet Rhoda survives to kill another day. A delicious ending and one that bookworms and “sophisticated” Broadway audiences could wrap their heads around, but that wouldn’t work for The Motion Picture Production Code – at that time in film, crime had to pay. And I wouldn’t dream of giving away their ultimate solution for those who haven’t seen it yet, but it is amusingly abrupt and effective.
And if that wasn’t enough to course correct the moral turpitude of the material, the cast, as in the stage production, individually takes a bow for the camera, ending with Kelly putting McCormack over her knee and giving her a good spanking – making sure the audience knows it’s just pretend. Jesus. I’m fairly confident the Production Code bought their reefer from the heppest teens in town.
It doesn’t end there, folks – most of the Broadway cast was ported over for the film, and judging by the results, no one told them they weren’t still on The Great White Way. The performances are very melodramatic; the actors shooting for the rafters with each gesture and arched eyebrow. Which isn’t to say they aren’t good – McCormack, Kelly, and Heckart (as Claude’s grieving, alcoholic mother) all do well, just for the wrong medium. The film is all tell and no show, which is usually deadly on film unless the subject matter is as provocative as it is here. Is evil bred? Is it born? (Maybe its Maybelline, I dunno.) It is the topic du jour amongst the adults here; Christine’s dad and his cronies arguing for what seems like forever (at 129 minutes, at least a couple of cocktail conversations could have been trimmed). Regardless, the plot keeps winding back around to Rhoda’s behavior and her professed innocence, and when she finally explodes and confesses her irreversible sins to her mother, the effect is chilling. This is where McCormack earns her accolades, calmly detailing the horrific events as if describing the lunch menu in the cafeteria.
The Bad Seed, the play, was definitely ahead of its time; it had the balls to put forth something taboo and groundbreaking for discerning audiences to absorb. By transposing the show directly to the screen, the filmmakers of The Bad Seed have created an oddly endearing melodrama that oscillates between the absurd and the thrilling. And regardless of which way the pendulum is swinging, the viewer is left hypnotized. Rhoda is definitely psychotic and a liar – but she’s so good at it, I think she deserves some kind of medal.
The Bad Seed is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.