Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Written by John Lee Mahin (based on the play by Maxwell Anderson based on the novel by William March)
Mervyn LeRoy's 1956 adaptation of the Broadway hit, The Bad Seed, is an iconic landmark in that hazy territory between "thriller" and "horror," and, in its day, it was astonishingly daring. You can't take that away from it, and I wouldn't think of trying. Let's go ahead and call it "a good movie," but while it was a substantial success in 1956, I don't know if anyone today thinks of it as "great," or even "important," or if much of anyone today watches it at all, though they probably should just to trace a trope back towards its source. It was at least influential and popular enough that it gave its name to a whole subgenre, and now any rotten, sociopathic child in any movie is going to be compared, at least implicitly, to the bad seed, Rhoda Penmark. Though who knows, maybe we'd call movies with characters like that "bad seed movies" anyway, given that the phrase itself is centuries old.
So: we begin with an opening credits sequence that plays out over a disquieting soundstage vision of a pier at night, with Alex North's score already taking its manic nursery rhyme quality up to eleven, and compelling us to imagine what horrible sins might be concealed beneath the water. And imagine it we'll have to—that's not necessarily a critique, but it could be, and we'll get to that soon enough—but either way our heroine is Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly), who lives in the apartment house we'll actually be spending 98% of the film in. This is a complex owned by Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden), and Christine resides there with her daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack) and husband Col. William Penmark (William Hopper), though the colonel, sent to D.C., will largely be a non-factor. That leaves Christine with Rhoda, who seems like the perfect offspring—she's bright, clean, and seemingly obedient, if perhaps a little self-involved, and her parents love and dote on her while her "Aunt" Monica outright spoils her, not that spoiling this child would have much meaning. Unfortunately, Rhoda is not having the best time of it at school. Her rival, a boy named Claude Daigle, has recently had the temerity to win a penmanship competition that Rhoda believes she ought to have won, and Claude has had the further gall to wear the token of his victory, a little medal and ribbon, to the school picnic. Shortly, they find Claude's body in the lake with a big gash in his head, as if someone incapacitated him before they threw him in there, and bruises on his hands, as if he was trying to pull himself out and they stopped him. He is, also, less one penmanship medal. But maybe he just fell, got stuck, and the motion of the water battered him against the pier. That's also possible, although I don't think I'd call The Bad Seed "a mystery." Christine expects Rhoda to be very upset, and tries to console her; she's discomfited to find that Rhoda needs no consoling. Then Christine learns, after a tense home visit from the teacher, who intimates that Rhoda should seek schooling elsewhere, that Rhoda was the last person to see Claude alive. And then she looks in Rhoda's room, and finds the medal.
The balance of the movie, then—by far—is Christine groping toward accepting that her daughter is a murderer, and figuring out what to do about that, which she figures out too late for Claude Daigle to be the only corpse laid at Rhoda's feet. Generally, this is to the film's benefit, as Rhoda is probably best in small doses, though McCormack is a terrific testbed for her particular brand of screen villainy, and The Bad Seed absolutely turns on her performance. Just physically, she's perfect for the role, which she originated on the stage the previous year (and we'll get to that, too), and the pinafore dresses and severe Nordic pigtails of the costume and hair design really accentuate the idea that McCormack embodies, which is basically a life-sized doll of a little blonde girl animated by a demon. She's an ironic ideal of "perfection" that's thrown off with huge, unnervingly intense eyes that don't belong in a child's face, and a predator's smile; the kid almost comes off like she's made out of ceramic, and it's faintly creepy that this creature is moving at all. (Village of the Damned goes in a slightly different direction with its child acting, but.otherwise owes everything to The Bad Seed.) She's also just great at being a real shit of a kid, pushing her childish affectlessness to a spine-tingling level, with more-or-less her only "real" emotions expressed via half-camp, half-legitimately-scary temper tantrums; she's intelligent enough to know how to behave "properly," but when she does it's effectively a parody of an angelic little girl, so that Rhoda is basically mocking everyone with her curtsies and good manners. McCormack makes the inner laugh almost audible within the insincere reading of her lines, so that only a parent, like Christine, or a very naive person, like Monica, could possibly miss it, and Rhoda is almost aware that only a stupid person would let her get away with it.
That does tie in with some of the film's problems, not least that she's only that intelligent and no more—the story unwisely wants to ground itself somewhat, and therefore obliges itself toward some level of "realism." While it's undeniable that everybody behind the camera knew that this was solely a gross little shocker, one suspects that the Pulitzer-shortlisted play and the well-liked novel upon which it was based had more "serious" aims than "evil fucking kid murders folks, isn't that bananas?", and maybe these aims didn't seem goofy on stage, but I doubt it. I'm getting slightly ahead of myself, but almost all of The Bad Seed's problems, as compound as they are, are bound together, and those problems are anything that isn't the central dynamic of Christine slowly, painfully opening her eyes to the obvious truth about her daughter. I still want to praise Nancy Kelly's mom—like her screen daughter, she's riding her own half-camp line, except she's trying to balance it with effective melodrama—but even if nobody else was in the movie but McCormack and Kelly, you would ask aloud while you're watching it, "is this the original stage cast?" More to the point, you'd ask, "do they still think this is the stage?" It's not, in fact, the entire original cast, but the movie's most unmanageable problems do stem from people who should've had much better handles on their roles.
Kelly frequently overreaches (there's some business, for example, where she's slapping a table as a traumatized tic, but she does it with the back of her hand, because... uh, it's more specific, I suppose, even if it's also weird and inhuman; she also shrieks a lot), but those overreaches are successful enough you don't begrudge her the failures, and even the failures are interesting. Meanwhile, not everyone else is outright bad (Varden, for example, is ably fulfilling her function as a font of pop Freudianism, which, since she's an idiot, the story uses her to satirize, clearing the field for its preferred notion of full-tilt genetic determinism). But the actors who are bad are awful, and, apparently, to get to the "Christine slowly, painfully" part, The Bad Seed needs her to have a dozen conversations with other adults, albeit often of such tenuous connection to the core thread of the film that in my plot summary up there I doubt I listed half the cast.
Christine's father (Paul Fix) is big enough to mention, but he enters the picture solely to provide an outlet for the film's questionable thoughts on hereditary psychopathy (and perhaps to generate the "mystery" element that the murders, by definition, can't, and if it's easily-solved it's also because the plotting is admirable, mechanically-speaking). The cast's worst offenders, however, drag down the film's average like an anchor, and any time they're around the movie drops from potential minor classic to cringey garbage. Some of these actors played these characters 334 times, and really had no excuse not to be more credible versions of themselves: the first is Eileen Heckart's embarrassingly-unmodulated "wailing drunk" stereotype of a grieving mother, whose every appearance stops the plot dead in order to voice her inchoate suspicions and class resentments; the second is Henry Jones giving extraordinarily tedious sling blade as the apartment custodian, and you can see the temptation to end every single line with a "hurrr, hurrr" in his eyes. At least he's necessary, which is more than you can say for half the cast: his function is to hate Rhoda, and suspect her—which is to say his function is to stack the body count—and I'm not arguing that The Bad Seed does not need this, but I'm not sure it needed this particular character type, and it definitely didn't need this lazy performance of it. You'd think Heckart and Jones would've been humiliated into doing something better for the film version of their play, having been confronted with the possibility of their being out-acted for future posterity by the calculated choices of an eleven year old whose only job was to act like a freak.
They are, anyway, probably the worst performances I've ever seen in a LeRoy movie (along, in fairness, with two above-average ones), and that's his fault, of course, but otherwise he's not too slack—yes, you'd easily guess "this is an adapted stageplay" even if the performances were screen-sized (or the performers, besides McCormack, were people you'd so much as ever heard of), but he does just enough work to keep his movie feeling like it is one. (But then, considering he also produced, it's frustrating he didn't insist on a treatment that somewhat opened up the material; I mean, Claude himself only exists by hearsay.) It's disappointing that a film so horror-adjacent provides little great horror imagery beyond what McCormack can conjure on her face. But again, it's enough, and there's at least one very strong composition, when Rhoda destroys evidence, and Rhoda steps into chiaroscuro shadow to dump the offending items down the incinerator chute, and Christine's blood curdles as she beholds what kind of thing she's borne.
Accordingly, it's mostly just conceptual horror, but, in 1956, what a concept that was; The Bad Seed not only feels dangerous, but keeps surprising with just how bleak it can get. It bears possibly the bleakest ending any 50s movie ever had... or, you know, it would've, but for the Goddamn Production Code, which took the play's breathtaking finale and blunted it with cowardice. (In the play—and this is another example of the script setting something up so you can really think about it for a while before it happens—Christine attempts to kill her daughter with sleeping pills and then herself by gunshot, but the film has her bungle the suicide, because I suppose "attempted suicide" was acceptable, but "completed suicide" was not; in the play, Christine is dead, but Rhoda lives, and that is some deliciously fucked-up shit). Now, the film drags into a second finale that comes perilously close to ruining everything, insisting upon cosmic retribution in the most ridiculous way, so that if I, for example, described it as like a bolt of lightning, I would be misusing a simile. (Which is doubly infuriating, because they've set up a situation where Rhoda's sheer pettiness would already have allowed for a perfectly good measure of poetic justice.)
If there's anything about it that feels of a piece with the film, it's that it is the exact kind of ending that a nasty child would come up with if they were resentful about being told what to do. It also has the effect of appending another couple of scenes to a movie that, given its goals, is already too long, ultimately coming in at 129 minutes, which is an insane runtime for a movie that's so fundamentally exploitation that it comes with a closing intertitle that asks you not to spoil the film's climax. I assume they meant "the actual climax from the stageplay" and not the "final shot of the narrative," and as I do like that climax, I have obeyed them. However, I did say "of the narrative." The Bad Seed actually concludes with an utterly unique gesture—it wasn't even in the play!—that I'm frankly more loath to spoil than either ending of the story, but following Rhoda's misadventure, The Bad Seed has an end credits sequence, a stage-style curtain call montage, that itself ends with the most hilariously meta move I've seen in any American movie of its era, for when it arrives at Kelly, coming last, she playfully roars out "and as for you, young lady!" and gives her little murderess a spanking. I kind of love how completely it deflates the film and reframes all of it as nonsense; anybody that hates it, I'd suggest, takes either The Bad Seed or screen spankings too seriously (still, it's good to know it wasn't in the play, insofar as "one spanking" is funny but "334 spankings" would be child abuse). Without spoiling it, then, it was probably very useful for an audience in 1956 unused to this kind of darkness to be reminded it's always all make-believe, and it definitively confirms that LeRoy was going for nothing but trashy fun, so if he's only barely seemed in command of his film otherwise, still, he achieved what he set out to do.