After viewing this movie, Judge Paul Corupe takes the long way to work to avoid the local daycare center.
"What would you give me for a basket full of hugs?"—Rhoda (Patti McCormack)
Terms like "cult film" and "camp classic" are bandied around far too often nowadays. Sometimes, in our search for previously undiscovered midnight movies in the making, the true heirs to these widely coveted titles get lost in the shuffle. Cult classics like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Freaks, and Reefer Madness have transfixed each new generation of moviegoers through the magic of repertory theatres, VHS, and now DVD viewings. Although not quite as well respected, 1956's The Bad Seed can also lay claim to the time-tested honor. Starring Patty McCormack in her career-defining performance as Rhoda, the evil eight-year-old you love to hate, this overly-theatrical classic finally makes its long overdue on DVD debut courtesy of Warner Brothers.
Facts of the Case
Everyone who meets Rhoda (Patty McCormack, Mommy) thinks that she's the most adorable little girl in the world, but her mother Christine (Nancy Kelly, Double Exposure) isn't so sure, especially after Claude Daigle, Rhoda's rival for a penmanship award is found dead at a riverside picnic. When her daughter admits lying to a teacher about her whereabouts during the tragic incident, Christine detects a chilling persona beyond Rhoda's curtsies, compliments, and precocious mugging. Christine begins to vaguely ask her friends and family about the nature of criminal behavior in children—is it attributable to a defective upbringing, or can a child actually be a "bad seed," tainted by a hereditary predisposition for evil? Apartment Handyman LeRoy (Henry Jones, Dirty Dingus Magee) inadvertently learns the answer when he accidentally hits on the truth in maliciously teasing the girl about Claude's death. Soon, Christine realizes that she is the only one who can stop Rhoda from her rampage of pint-sized cruelty.
William March's novel, The Bad Seed was a huge success on the printed page, and was quickly adapted for the stage for Nancy Kelly and Patty McCormack. When Warner Brothers decided to bring the Tony-winning play to the big screen, they wisely brought Kelly, McCormack, and four of the other leads out to Hollywood to reprise the roles they had made famous under the bright lights of Broadway. Director Mervyn LeRoy does little more here than put his actors through their well-rehearsed paces, and as a result, the film version of The Bad Seed is extremely well acted, but remains essentially a filmed play.
Although some effort has gone into opening the film up with a few new locations beyond the play's one original set, McCormack and Kelly still emote like they're trying to reach the audience in the back of a crowded theatre. McCormack earned an Oscar nomination for her alternately lovable and viscous personalities, but the grandiose acting styles—emphasized even further by Mervyn LeRoy's close-ups-turn the film into an extreme exercise in heightened stage melodrama. Instead of playing the film for chills, the story is pushed as far over the top as it will go, and for better or worse, the theatricality of The Bad Seed becomes either its saving grace or its death knell. This film is a delight for camp fans, and a serious disappointment for those who wish to peer beyond the film's own intentionally sickly-sweet façade.
The biggest problem with the film is really the source material, which was problematic when it first came out and has not aged well since. March's main conceit in The Bad Seed, that evil is an inherited trait passed on from one generation to the next, has become nothing but more misanthropic with time. While it makes a good pseudo-scientific "what if?" premise for a thriller, March, an admitted pedophobe, seems to take the idea a little too seriously, and even in the condensed film version, the Freudian subject of genetic fatalism remains an inescapable and distasteful major theme. An extra swipe is taken at Christine's father, a supposed leading criminal expert, whose "progressive" theory of environmental influence on criminal behavior is blatantly attacked. Certainly, it isn't much of a leap from saying that certain families are predisposed to murder and crime to claiming criminal predestination on a particular race or country. March seems to be using Rhoda's metal-soled tap shoes to walk down a dangerous path indeed.
Those seeking to compare Rhoda to other cinematic hell spawns will also be heavily disappointed. Traces of the kind of unsettling childhood evil presented in The Bad Seed can be found in the "It's a Good Life" episode of The Twilight Zone, as well as in feature films like Village of the Damned, The Omen, and Children of the Corn, but these later paeans to demonic children are far superior in their handling of the topic. Rhoda is a creepy little girl, to be sure, but this film's moments of excitement and tension are few and far between. It's a bit of a stretch to call The Bad Seed a horror film or even a thriller, since it focuses almost entirely on the rest of the cast's melodramatic reactions to Rhoda's atrocities rather than the atrocities themselves, which always occur off-screen.
However, with a high camp spin, The Bad Seed transcends March's questionable views and a surprising lack of suspense to offer delight in the sordid details. The film presents a slightly skewed reality, marked by heavily drinking characters, implicit sexual undertones between Rhoda and several of the adults and an explosive ending (although lessened from the much more extreme finale of the book). Particularly fun is Eileen Heckart's turn as Claude's mother, who keeps dropping by Rhoda's house in an alcohol stupor to cast veiled accusations on the girl.
Warner Brothers has put a good effort into this release of The Bad Seed, and fans of the film will be pleased with the results. Presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, this disc sports a clean, vibrant transfer. Contrast is quite good, with solid blacks and an excellent level of detail. The audio is also a major improvement over previous VHS editions, startlingly bright and clear with no artifacts or hiss to speak of. You'll have no trouble at all hearing any of the clearly enunciated dialogue.
After watching the film, be sure to sit back and enjoy the commentary with Patty McCormack and Charles Busch, the director of another camp classic I have mixed feelings about, Psycho Beach Party. This turned out to be one of the best commentaries I've heard in a good while. Like watching the film with a pair of old friends, Busch gives the track an air of fun and provokes his subject into recounting some great stories, even filling in some gaps when details become hazy. Also on this disc is the original theatrical trailer ("don't give away the ending!") and a second, 15-minute interview with McCormack called "Enfant Terrible." Pretty much everything she talks about is covered by the commentary, making this extra completely superfluous, except for those who want a glimpse of "Rhoda" as she is today.
While The Bad Seed doesn't work quite as well as it should, the film remains enjoyable as a piece of camp filmmaking, and its place as a cult classic is only solidified with this enjoyable DVD. Worth a look, especially for those who haven't yet seen it
Rhoda is to give back the penmanship award, but everyone else is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Patty McCormack and Charles Busch
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