Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Bad Seed

You can't read it from that jpeg, but the tag line for The Bad Seed is "A hidden shame out in the open --- and the most terrifying rock-bottom a woman ever hit for love!"  Having seen the film, I can honestly say that is one of the least appropriate tag lines ever.  It doesn't come close to accurately describe what happens in this movie!  At all!  Despite the silliness of the movie poster, The Bad Seed is one of the more critically acclaimed horror movies of the 1950s and 60s; it was even nominated for four Oscars (three for acting!) and it won a Golden Globe.  How have I not seen this movie until now?  Well, this is just a guess, but horror movies don't usually age well.  On the other hand, this is also the inspiration for the name of Nick Cave's back-up group, so this might be more influential than I initially thought. 

Christine (Nancy Kelly) lives a pretty sweet life.  She is happily married to an army man (William Hopper) that spends a lot of time away from home, she has a beautiful home to housewife inside, and her daughter, Rhoda (Patty McCormack) is an adorable and perfect little girl.
Adorable.  Perfect.
Rhoda prides herself on being uber-polite to adults, keeping her shoes and dresses spotless, curtseying, and being the very best in school.  She's a little too flawless, though.  It's kind of weird that Rhoda is obviously taking great pains to be seen as perfect.  She's not; Rhoda lost out on her grade's penmanship medal to stinky Claude Daigle.  Rhoda wanted the medal so badly, but what's passed is past; what can she do if the teacher didn't choose her?  That's a good question.  On an obviously unrelated note, Claude Daigle was found dead at a school picnic that day; his penmanship medal was not recovered.  Hmm...I wonder who would do that...?
"Choose your next words carefully, bitch."

The Bad Seed is based on the play and novel of the same name, so it isn't too surprising that the sets in the film are fairly limited or that the script showcases a lot of dramatic posturing.  That's not a problem, by any means, but knowing that it is based on a play explains a few things, like when characters almost break the fourth wall or monologue.

While I'm not too sure The Bad Seed deserved four Oscar nominations, the acting still holds up.  Nancy Kelly looks positively haggard as the film progresses, which fits her character's state of mind perfectly.  Too often, we see allegedly teenage characters with only a little dirt or blood to indicate that they are starring in a horror movie; Kelly looked the worse for wear, and that is without the benefit of a monstrous villain.  Patty McCormack's performance was very interesting.  Yes, it's a pretty good job for a child actor, especially in the 1950s, but I think she did a good job conveying how unnatural this character behaved.  The exaggerated manners toward authority figures and the horrible little monster underneath reminded me of a homicidal Eddie Haskell from Leave It to Beaver, which might sound weird, but I think it fits pretty well.  Eileen Heckart is the third actress in the film that was nominated for her work, and she played the grieving and drunken mother of poor Claude Daigle.  She was...okay.  Her speeches were good, but her portrayal of a drunk was a little too cartoonish for my taste. 
Guess which is the drunk character
Henry Jones was also a little silly as the mean-spirited handyman, but that was more due to his (possibly) Cajun accent than anything else.  I did find it interesting that such a prolific scholar ever spent time as a handyman, but this film was made 30+ years before the next film I saw him in.
Henry Jones, handyman

Mervyn LeRoy directed this film, and he deserves credit for making something so unlike the rest of the horror movies being made at the time.  In the 1950s, you had basically two choices for scary movies: monster movies (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, etc.) or ridiculous science fiction films that added horror elements to their plots (Plan 9 From Outer Space, Attack of the Crab Monsters, etc.).  The Bad Seed is a well-crafted thriller that is still moderately effective today.  The pacing is a little slow, mostly because I think LeRoy wants to over-explain how a child could be a killer, but I don't think this hurts the overall tone of the film.
I get it.  Kids are evil.  You don't have to tell me twice.

There are a lot of things that have aged poorly in The Bad Seed, though.  The acting, while very good for its time, oftentimes feels campy from a modern day perspective (and that's not helped out by the film's ending one bit).  The news of Claude Daigle's death was spread via the radio, which is appropriate for the time period; however, the radio announcer was laughably well-informed on the story --- if a news reporter listed that many details on a crime today, it would be a sure thing that the reporter committed the crime.  For as good of a job as Nancy Kelly does with her role, her character is shockingly naive at times, which made me want to smack some sense into her.  I also don't believe any decent parent would let this guy spend any time near their child, handyman or not.
That's what we call a pedasmile.
Also, if you think the end of the film doesn't quite fit with the rest of the story, there is a reason for that.  The Motion Pictures Production Code (AKA "Hays Code") wouldn't allow the film to maintain the ending from the novel or play.  If you'd like to know how it ended, then read on; otherwise, SPOILER ALERT: In the book and play, Christine dies and Rhoda survives, ending the film on a pretty awesome and sinister down note.  The Hays Code prohibited filmmakers from having crime pay or the bad guys win, so they tacked on the film's irrational conclusion.

The Bad Seed was years ahead of its time and it still holds together pretty well, even if parts of it feel archaic.  The actresses featured in the movie all do great jobs, which is rare enough in a film, much less a 50+ year-old horror movie.  This could have been another disposable drive-in flick, but it is instead the prototype of creepy children in cinema.  The film's unintentional campiness detracts from the horror a bit, but this is still a fun watch.

1 comment:

  1. As not only a dear friend, but also co-star of my TV pilot HAVE YOU MET MISS JONES? It was an absolute honor for my creative partner and I to have Patty McCormack accept the role of Connie -- a part that was written for Patty herself! The TV pilot is currently on Youtube for people to watch and the producer and star James Di Giacomo is presently in talks with a couple major Hollywood studios -- hoping to get this witty dramedy on a major cable network.

    If you loved Patty as "Rhoda," then you will most definitely love her as Angelina's mother, Connie. Patty plays a fouled-mouthed married-to-the-mob type character who carries a gun a in her purse!

    See Patty McCormack in this original comedy series for free on and follow the show on Facebook and Twitter to get up to date info about their progress @MissJonesShow