The Bad Seed (1956)

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The Creepy Kid movie plays on what I imagine must be first and foremost thought on every parent’s mind as they brush their teeth each morning, look in the mirror and ask themselves: How do I keep my kid from becoming a serial killer?

Peggy McCormick plays Rhoda, the Bad Seed at the center of the plot. Her head is all face, with huge eyes, big brows, and a wide mouth full of big teeth in between those two innocent pigtails. Cloyingly cute as she effortlessly curtsies her way through the adult world, able to bounce between syrupy sweetness and ear-piercing tantrums within seconds, she begins to grate on you within minutes of her introduction. No surprises there.

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None of the grown-ups in her life are as taken by her charms as her father and military colonel, Kenneth Penmark (played by Richard Gere lookalike William Hopper), and the busybody landlady Monica Breedlove, whose rapid-fire, gossipy affect will drive you similarly crazy.

Other adults remain more appropriately cautious, however. Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly), whose parental instincts are good enough to be suspicious of such perfect behavior, asks Rhoda’s teacher if her prematurely mature little girl fits in with the other kids – and smart enough to be troubled by the guarded answer she receives. And a mentally challenged and creepy groundskeeper nevertheless understands bullshit when he sees it and helpfully fills in the gaps by speaking aloud to himself what we’re supposed to be thinking.

When one of Rhoda’s classmates drowns on a school outing, people slowly call into question her role in his death – particularly given her complete lack of emotional damage.

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Shot in a sort of Film Noir Lite, the staginess of the production betrays its origins as a play. Unlike the sometimes overblown Hollywood melodramas of the time, realistic dialogue (the bread-and-butter of 20th century playwrights) kept me engaged, even when it began to drag a bit midway through. Most of the core action happens off-screen, leaving the characters with much talking, soul-searching and hand-wringing in its wake, which renders The Bad Seed closer to the Drama end of the Thriller scale.

Though peppered with a few stock character archetypes, the charming politeness of a bygone era, and an annoyingly terrible performance by Hopper, even a modern audience can find much to enjoy about this emotional ride if granted a little patience for the slower pace.

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By all accounts, the movie was a hit when it opened in 1957. Both Nancy Kelly and young Peggy McCormack garnered Oscar nominations for the roles they originated on stage and dove straight into successful television careers, along with Eileen Heckart, whose portrayal of the dead boy’s alcoholic mother is absolutely heartwrenching. Between the writing and the acting, there’s a lot going on here that works.

The real star of The Bad Seed, however, is not Rhoda but Christine, as we witness her gradual breakdown while she navigates from concern to self-flagellation through her sense of parental responsibility. Kelly’s performance here is nothing short of outstanding.

Children of the Damned and The Innocents are more visceral by far. Your teenage kids are probably not going to be thrilled and chilled by The Bad Seed. But as a parent, it’s probably your worst nightmare.

 

Now that you’ve seen the film…

******* SPOILER ALERT ********

The Bad Seed is a solid and nuanced story. It’s also definitely a product of its time. I’m sure the psychoanalysis Christine frequently submits herself to made for fascinating lobby discussions. Some of that original mystery inevitably gets lost in a world where disturbed children plot school shootings seemingly once a month. While we’ve come to realize that bad seeds aren’t as rare as we thought, we’ve also played through Freud’s nature-versus-nurture theories over the decades since and now understand there’s a complicated case to be made for both.

Ultimately, The Bad Seed can’t commit to the ending it deserves: Christine dying while Rhoda lives on. But it doesn’t take a few spare minutes on Google to understand that the more proper ending of the play and novel would not fly under the film industry’s self-imposed Hayes Code, which dictated that crime could not pay. So the girl had to get it at the end. Even if it was the old hand-of-god-via-lightning-strike. I wonder how many in the original audience groaned at that one.

And of course there’s that disarming post-credits curtain call wherein Nancy Kelly makes a big point of tickling and spanking a giggling Patty McCormick, like it’s all a big joke. Hey guys, we’re all just acting here, so let’s break the fourth wall so you don’t leave the theater too depressed. It’s only a story! I guess that’s the filmic equivalent of meeting and greeting the actors in the lobby after the play – a practice I pretty much despise.

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