Turn Back the Clock


The Bad Seed

Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


            Back when I was in high school, you had to opt for certain elective courses, needing a certain amount of these courses in order to graduate.  One of the electives I chose was psychology.  While in that class, I was told about a film that was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson which was based on a novel by William March.  The film was called The Bad Seed and had been produced and directed by Mervin LeRoy in 1956.  This psychological thriller was ahead of its time and I loved it so much that I recently purchased the film on DVD.

            The Bad Seed stars Patty McCormack as Rhoda Penmark, an eight-year-old child seemingly perfect in every way.  Perhaps too perfect.  But the pretty, well-groomed, polite exterior hides a shocking secret.  After Rhoda’s military father (William Harper) heads off to duty in Washington, Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly) discovers that her daughter is anything but perfect and the truth can be deadly.

            Rhoda’s true persona doesn’t become apparent until a young boy named Claude Daigle drowns at the Fern School picnic.  Christine is horrified at the news, but Rhoda seems untouched by the incident, actually complaining that Claude’s death actually stopped the picnic before she had a chance to eat anything.  Shocked by Rhoda’s reaction, Christine receives even more surprising news from Rhoda’s teacher who reveals that Rhoda was actually seen with Claude near the spot where he drowned.  Witnesses had seen Rhoda trying to take away the penmanship award that Claude had won…an award that Rhoda had coveted quite obsessively.

            Claude’s mother, Hortense (Eileen Heckart), learning that Rhoda was the last to see her son alive, visits the Penmark home, hoping to discover what might have happened to her son.  Slightly tipsy from excessive drinking used to drown the sorrow of losing her only child, Hortense tells Christine that she had wanted to bury Claude with the penmanship medal he had been so proud of, but that it was nowhere to be found.  She also reveals that Claude had actually been found with several crescent shaped injuries to his hands and head.  Later, Christine finds the penmanship medal in Rhoda’s jewelry box and still later, Christine catches Rhoda attempting to throw her shoes down the incinerator, shoes with metal taps at the heel that happen to be just the same shape as the injuries to Claude Daigle.

            As the film moves forward and Christine becomes more and more desperate about what to do with her daughter, she begins to think more about mysterious dreams from her past.  She approaches her father about the dreams and the shocking revelation about her own childhood and Rhoda’s later sociopathic behavior prompt Christine to take drastic action to prevent Rhoda from harming anyone else in the future.

            This movie was striking in many ways and one of the biggest and most striking features was Rhoda Penmark as portrayed by Patty McCormack.  Patty McCormack was about the scariest little girl I had ever seen.  She was sugary sweet one minute and downright evil-looking the next.  Nancy Kelly was terrific as a mother becoming unhinged by the discovery that her child is so much more than the too-grown-up little girl she thought she was.  The revelation that her daughter is a cold and calculating murderer and that those murders began before she turned eight is more than she can handle and Nancy Kelly expresses these heartbreaking, earth shattering feelings perfectly.  Eileen Heckart was capable of adding levity to her situation, despite playing a grieving mother.  The way she delivered her lines and the shock value of the truth she was speaking always seems to extract a chuckle from me.   Also of mention are the performances of Henry Jones as LeRoy, the janitor and nemesis of Rhoda, and Evelyn Varden as Monica Breedlove, the annoying and somewhat full of herself landlady who simply loves Rhoda.

            The music in the film was composed by Alex North, an American composer best known for the musical scores he created for  Spartacus, The Children’s Hour, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Cleopatra and The Dragon Slayer.  The musical score created for The Bad Seed was designed to show the emotional and mental states of each of the main characters.  I loved how North expressed the inner workings of the malevolent mind of Rhoda by taking a musical piece and playing it faster and faster until it becomes a cacophony of sound that fairly shrieks in your ears as it reaches its climax. 

            As I said before, The Bad Seed was a film ahead of its time.  First of all, there weren’t a great many films out there that dealt with mental illness in children, much less a mental illness that brings a child to become a murderer.  That sort of thing, although it existed in those days, was frowned upon in the movie industry.  Children could be annoying, rude, funny, playful, perfect or impish, but never, never cold, calculating, murderous monsters.  Another way that this film was ahead of its time is the ending.  This was something never done before in either the book or play the film was based upon.  In fact, I venture to say that this was something never done before in film in this sort of way.  To say more would be to reveal the shocking ending to those who haven’t seen it and I simply won’t do that.

            The DVD version of this film comes with commentary by Patty McCormack and Charles Busch, the theatrical trailer and a new making-of documentary entitled Enfant Terrible: A Conversation with Patty McCormack.  In this documentary, a very grown up Patty McCormack takes us through the entire process from her auditioning for the play to her acceptance in the role, her performances, the film and more.  This is truly a very informative documentary and not one that any movie enthusiast will want to pass up on.

            The Bad Seed is a psychological thriller that still has relevance today.  I should warn you though, if you are a parent, beware.  This film will have you looking at your child and his or her antics in a different and somewhat paranoid light.  That’s how well done the film really is.  Fans of the films of this era will be thrilled with the most recent DVD release.  I definitely recommend this film to anyone and everyone, but most especially to psychology majors as it shows incredible insight into mental illness.


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