"Children can be nasty, don't you think?"
Before there was "Rosemary's Baby." Before there was Regan in "The Exorcist." Before there was Damien in "The Omen." Before there were any of the other demon-possessed children in movies, there was little Rhoda Penmark in "The Bad Seed." I'll tell you, the movie caused a sensation when it first appeared in 1956, the year I saw it as a youngster. It was quite the shocker for its time and had parents all over the country talking. By today's standards, however, it seems more than a little melodramatic, for some folks maybe downright campy, and has obviously lost much of its former controversial tone. Indeed, it's hard now to see what all the fuss was about.
One can understand why Warner Bros. wanted to do the picture. The subject matter, dicey and lurid at the time about a eight-year-old murderer, must have been irresistible. William March had written it as a successful novel in 1954, and playwright Maxwell Anderson ("What Price Glory," "Key Largo," "Saturday's Children") had adapted it for the stage with equal success in 1955. The studio hired noted screenwriter John Lee Mahin ("Red Dust," "Treasure Island," "Captains Courageous," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," "Quo Vadis") to do the script and celebrated director Mervyn LeRoy ("Little Caesar," "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang," "Anthony Adverse," "Madame Curie," "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," "Little Women," "Quo Vadis," "Gypsy") to helm the project.
The story is dark and gloomy and shocking, and, more important, it touches upon several subjects then popular in the country: psychology and juvenile delinquency. Therefore, what if you combined the two matters by making a plot that involved a psychologically disturbed child who was killing people? Perfect. Audiences loved it.
We begin with what appears to be an ideal family unit: a loving mother, Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly), an adoring father, Col. Kenneth Penmark (William Hopper), and a sweet and innocent daughter, Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack). The thing is, the daughter is too sweet and innocent; she's too perfect, her smile too broad and too ready, her compliments too clearly pretentious. Besides, despite her outward appearance of perfection, she's a rather pushy little devil and given to tantrums and other fits of temper. There's more to her than meets the eye.
Then, one of Rhoda's classmates dies, drowned during a school outing to the river. Rhoda is not at all concerned about it. In fact, she seems to think it was kind of fun, kind of "exciting" in her words. She's plainly a dedicated liar in need of psychiatric care. As things proceed, we learn that a year earlier an old lady who lived above the Penmarks fell down the stairs and broke her neck. Coincidence? Perhaps not when we learn of a deep, dark secret in the mother's past.
The idea the characters kick around in the film is that some people are simply born bad, without morals or conscience. They inherit their evil from nefarious ancestors; they are "bad seeds." Could the precious little Rhoda be such a seed?
The problem with the film lies in its source, a stage play. Director LeRoy pretty much shoots the story as a play, confining almost all the action to a single room in the Penmark apartment. For the sake of continuity, the studio hired most of the original stage actors to recreate their parts for the movie, which may not have such a good idea. They all project their lines to the balcony, as if still in the theater. Worse, they don't so much react to one another in conversation as they do talk at one another. It's as if they're all reciting their well-worn lines with little conviction or spontaneity. They are all too theatrical, a condition exacerbated by the playwright's dialogue sounding too precise, too well thought out, too literary in the first place. None of it feels real, particularly when the compulsory weirdo handyman (Henry Jones) enters the scene.
So we've got a film that's too stagey, populated by actors who are too histrionic. It's all very talky and also very predictable. Yes, Miss McCormack creates a creepy, sometimes even scary little girl, yet she's also so obviously nuttier than a fruitcake and her mother no better, it sort of undermines the whole horror aspect of the situation. The film becomes a potboiler far too quickly, spruced up with fancy psychological overtones that might have worked fifty years ago but seem old-fashioned today.
Finally, because of the censorship rules in 1956 regarding the fate of any wrongdoer in a motion picture, we get possibly the most-absurd ending ever tagged onto a major mainstream movie. Then, if that weren't bad enough, the filmmakers include a curtain call that is downright painful to watch. I tell you, the last few minutes of this movie are almost as criminal as any murderous act committed in the plot.
I wanted to like "The Bad Seed" as much as I did when I saw it as a kid. Didn't happen.
Warners apparently shot the movie at 1.37:1 (IMDb) and then released it in a matted 1.85:1 version to most U.S. theaters. Here, the studio provides a 1.78:1 presentation of the black-and-white film, transferred to Blu-ray using an MPEG-4/AVC encode and a single-layer BD25. The picture quality is probably as good as the original print, with a little cleaning up in the process. There are no signs of age, no noticeable lines, scratches, ticks, specks, or fades, and the video engineers retain a light veneer of inherent film grain. There are decent but not pronounced B&W contrasts and fairly good detailing and object definition involved, so I doubt that it will disappoint fans.
The soundtrack is an ordinary monaural of the era, reproduced here via lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Since the sound comprises almost entirely dialogue (and composer Alex North's background score), it doesn't need to be too dynamic, and it isn't. The main thing is that the midrange is very natural and very clear, with practically no hint of noise or hiss. Just don't expect much in the way of treble, bass, or impact.
The two primary bonus items are an audio commentary by Patty McCormack and Charles Busch and a fifteen-minute featurette: "Enfant Terrible: A Conversation with Patty McCormack," both made in 2004. For me, these extras were more entertaining than the feature film, especially Busch and McCormack discussing the story and its characters.
The extras conclude with thirty-six scene selections; a standard-screen theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The disc comes packaged in a flimsy Blu-ray Eco-case.
I couldn't help thinking as I was watching "The Bad Seed" for the first time in over fifty years how Hitchcock might have approached the material. After all, Hitch had just the year before directed the movie version of the stage play "Dial M for Murder." But, then, I seriously doubt that even if the studio had approached him about directing "The Bad Seed," he wouldn't have touched it. At least not if he saw the screenplay we get here. He'd have seen something contrived and, yes, corny. Gads, that ending.
"I thought I'd seen some mean little gals in my time, but you're the meanest."