If you’re looking for an effective form of birth control, get a copy of the 1956 film THE BAD SEED. This is one of the first films to kick of the evil child genre, and in my opinion the most unnerving. The mix of the wholesome 1950’s television feel, with a theatrical style and characters that you won’t ever forget…this is a must see classic.
In 1954 William March wrote a novel “The Bad Seed” that took off so well it was adapted into a Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson (Death Takes a Holiday) that same year. Soon after, Mervyn LeRoy (Producer of The Wizard of Oz) was so impressed by the play that he not only adapted it to film but kept six of the leading actors to reprise their roles for the big screen.
Rhoda is the picture of perfection who is insufferably sweet and looks like a porcelain doll made of flesh. She has a family that would make the Brady Bunch look like the Kardashians, with a doting mother and father. After one of Rhonda’s classmates named Claude drowns during a school outing her mother starts to suspect that the pigtails and saddle shoes are masking a psychopathic monster. The film is dripping the usual 1950’s American dream feel which makes Rhoda’s diabolical nature the more disturbing.
Patty McCormack’s depiction of the killer is amazing, she goes from sweet as can be to terrifying with one facial expression. The scenes between her and Christine played by Nancy Kelly become increasingly tense as the film goes on. Rhoda is the dominate force in the mother child relationship and holds Christine at her mercy. This becomes more apparent as Christine struggles with her love for Rhoda and her fear of her. The only character that seems to see through the innocent act from the beginning is the handyman Leroy played by Henry Jones. Leroy’s exchanges with Rhoda almost seem out of place for the time period, with him talking to her about executing children “they got a little blue chair for little boys and a little pink chair for little girls”.
I of course need to mention Eileen Heckart as the deceased boy’s mother. She only has only two scenes in the movie, where she appears at Christine’s home drunk looking for answers and providing some great commentary. The scenes have a dark humor to them but still manage to show the heart-breaking torment of a parent whom has lost her child. Like most classic films, the story is reliant on the actor’s performances and dialogue. Thankfully LeRoy did not ask the performers to tone down the “theatrical” acting that pushes the melodrama and sense of dread. There is an ongoing subplot asking if “evil” can be hereditary and if a child can inherit psychopathic characteristics making them simply “Bad Seeds.” This helps to create more tension and lead to Christine’s growing sense of helplessness.
The contrast created by the extreme characters in the innocent 1950’s atmosphere make the film as effective as it is. McCormack plays a blonde pigtailed Hannibal Lector sharing the scenes with other rich characters whom will stay burned in your mind. LeRoy’s technique of making a film while keeping all the things he loved from the theater creates a unique watching experience.