Horror 101: The Bad Seed (1956)

Summary

Based on a novel by William March and a play by Maxwell Anderson, The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956) follows Christine (Nancy Kelly), who seems to have it all: a lovely home, a loving husband, and the most well-behaved and wholesome kid in the world. When Christine’s daughter’s, Rhoda’s (Patty McCormack), classmate is killed in a terrible accident, Christine starts to grow more and more suspicious that Rhoda had something to do with it. All this while Christine is suffering from a recurring dream that she is an adopted child; and once Christine’s father reveals the truth, it rips Christine’s world apart.

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What I Liked

There is so much to unpack with this movie! Where to even start? I guess with the theme of nature vs nurture. The film reflects the popularity of studying psychology that began in the 1950s:

People were more cognizant of “the writings of Sigmund Freud, and the prevailing attitude of the era that came from John Watson, whose approach was termed ‘behaviorist’ because it emphasized the importance of environmental determinants in shaping human behavior” (Muir 277)

This idea of a child’s surroundings determining who they are as a person pervades the movie, especially when Christine’s father, Richard Bravo (Paul Fix), a crime writer advocates this theory. When it’s revealed that Christine is the daughter of the notorious serial killer, Bessie Denker, and Bravo adopted her. Not only did my jaw hit the floor at this revelation, but I also realized that Bravo was putting his belief in nurture over nature into practice; he was trying to prove that the daughter of a serial killer, with the right upbringing, could be a decent human being. It’s just sick irony that Rhoda, the granddaughter of Denker is a sociopath.

Just like it is in the realm of psychology, the nature-vs-nurture topic is an ongoing debate in The Bad Seed. Clearly, Rhoda had a wonderful upbringing, as did Christine, leading us to believe that Rhoda was born a sociopath. On the other hand, we have Christine, who tries in vain to figure out Rhoda to no avail and, in doing so, is driven mad; a product of her surroundings, if you will. And it’s no surprise that Christine is driven mad, the movie hardly ever leaves the confines of the Penmark’s apartment and Christine’s husband, Col. Penmark (William Hopper), is away on business. This makes for some wonderfully scary scenes, for example, when the apartment building’s janitor, Leroy (Henry Jones) is heard screaming, being burned alive, as Rhoda plays her favorite tune on the piano, “Au clair de la lune,” over and over, faster each time.

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What I DIdn't LIke

This claustrophobic feeling, while a great tool for putting the viewer in a similar mental state to Christine, feels a little stagey. I mean, it does make sense, given that the movie was once a play on Broadway. And just in case the film didn’t feel stagey enough, there is an odd curtain call at the end of the movie, where all the actors are announced; it ends with Nancy Kelly comically spanking Patty McCormack for being naughty. I wasn’t a fan of this Broadway bit; it didn’t match the dark, heavy tone of the film, but I imagine in this Production Code era, audiences couldn’t be trusted with such dark material.

Speaking of the Production Code, we have them to thank for the wonderful (read: confusing) deus ex machina style ending. Basically, Rhoda goes down to the pier with a net on a metal rod to fish out her dead classmate’s penmanship medal (what she murdered him for). Suddenly, a bolt of lightning hits the rod and kills Rhoda. And then the movie is over. Odd, right? Well, the ending of the play and book have Rhoda getting away with the crimes, a big no-no when the Code stated, among other things, that crime cannot go unpunished. As random as the ending is, I do agree with John Muir, as he states in his book Horror FAQ, “In the end, it is only correct, then that Mother Nature (the lightning strike), not Mother Nurture (Christine herself), is the one to deal with the antisocial Rhoda” (280)., thus ending the argument of nature vs nurture.

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Should It Be on the List?

Overall, I thought The Bad Seed was a great film and deserves to be on the list of horror films you must see before you die. As for why it’s including in the book (101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die), it fits in with other films of the 60s, like Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) and Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960), that showed that evil could be within us, your neighbor, and innocent-looking child, and not just a radioactive monster from space. And for its time, even put up against Psycho and Peeping Tom, The Bad Seed is so dark, and it needs more recognition.

MY RATING: 5/5
IMDB: 7.5/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES: 65% (Critic)/83% (Audience)
LETTERBOXD: 3.6/5

 

Works Cited

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.