The Bad Seed

The Bad Seed (1956) movie poster

(1956) director Mervyn LeRoy
viewed: 09/17/2011

Of all the films that I’ve watched with the kids, The Bad Seed, while totally rated G and featuring a starring role of an 8 year old girl, is perhaps one of the most perverse, shocking, and creepy films that I’ve watched with them.  Of course, I knew that in advance.  I remember seeing this film for the first time when I was a kid, not as young as Clara or even Felix perhaps, but I was well aware of how effective The Bad Seed really is.

And it still is so.  Very much so.  It made a massive impression on Clara in particular.

She followed the story through in detail and recounted it in said detail.

It’s the story of a serial killer, an eight year old serial killer.  The story, adapted from a novel and a play (also adapted from the novel), turns on the popular psychology of the 1950’s, the concepts of nature vs. nurture, of a genetic trait of evil that overpowers any good happy, all-American wholesome family quality that has been in place for the little prim blond psychopath.  Really, it’s a super subversive concept, especially set in the American small town ideals of the 1950’s, that evil could come in such a seemingly proper and pretty little girl like Rhoda.  Evil, and a very creepy evil at that, teems in the performance of Patty McCormack.  She’s really convincingly deranged but also exhibiting the outer appearance of all goodness and light.

There are a couple of scenes in particular, when Rhoda switches from either blase indifference or treacly sweetness to hardened, fierce viciousness that really struck Clara.  When LeRoy (Henry Jones) jibes at her about her guilt, though he’s teasing cruelly, he hits a little too close to the truth and Rhoda snaps.  I said to Clara that he “touched a nerve” and that really struck her, how vividly McCormack played the little girl with a deep, dark side.

The cast is terrific, including Rhoda’s mother (Nancy Kelly), their landlady (Evelyn Varden), and others.  It has that tenor of a play from the 1950’s, the explication of narrative, the social issues, the dramatic tension, and that all the violence happens off-screen.  It’s none the less impactful for all that.  Of course it’s all handled deftly by director Mervyn Leroy (I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Scarface (1932)).

It’s funny that even the ending, which was apparently altered for the movie by the Hays Code from Hollywood, in which the mother dies and little Rhoda keeps on killing, to her punishment in a true “hand of God” moment in which she is struck down by a lightning bolt is utterly perverse.  This is still an 8 year old girl, un-redeemable and as wholly evil as she is depicted, getting blasted to bits in the ending.

The film is really top notch.  And subversive as it is in its potential critique of what lies lurking beneath the most innocent of surfaces of the 1950’s, it’s still tremendously effective today.  It’s still a very perverse thing in many ways, darker even in its comic element than a lot of other things that we could be watching or reading.  It made a big impression.

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