The Bad Seed (1956) dir. Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Patty McCormack, Nancy Kelly, Henry Jones, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden, William Hopper, Gage Clarke, Joan Croydon
By Greg Klymkiw
"I thought I'd seen some mean little gals in my time, but you're the meanest." - Henry Jones as Leroy in THE BAD SEEDMovies about kids who kill is a most noble tradition.
It's yielded a cornucopia of depraved little buggers who've sliced and diced their way through a variety of thrillers and horror films with all the requisite aplomb required to deliver maximum visceral impact. Few will forget the shot of little Michael Myers in John Carpenter's Halloween, standing ever so still in the front yard of the quaint suburban home in the leafy innocence of Haddonfield, Illinois, grasping a butcher knife, staring with the eyes of a shark and splattered with the fresh blood of his nubile teenage sister who was previously lolling about in post-coital bliss. Damien, the pubescent Antichrist from Richard Donner's The Omen remains one of the more memorable killers in movie history - especially the magnificent moment when he pedals furiously on his tricycle and knocks his pregnant Mom off her plant-watering perch and sends her crashing to the floor from the balcony. Then there's my personal favourite of all kids-who-kill pictures, Alfred Sole's criminally neglected 70s thriller Alice Sweet Alice which features some of the most repulsive killings imaginable. It matters little that the true murderer appears to eventually be someone else - for most of the film's running time, we're convinced the killer is sexy tweener Paula E. Sheppard and we do get to see her, with the most sickening smile imaginable, grabbing a kitten by its neck and strangling it in front of its owner, the disgustingly corpulent, unwashed Mr. Alphonso, adorned in piss-and-shit-stained pants, and screaming in falsetto, "You little bitch! You've killed my cat!"
The cinematic patriarch of this delightful genre is, without question, Mervyn LeRoy's still astounding late 50s film adaptation of William March's bestselling novel and Maxwell Anderson's hit play The Bad Seed.
Opening with the departure of Col. Penmark (William Hopper, "Paul Drake" from Perry Mason) for an extended business trip to Washington, we're introduced to his beautiful, love-starved wife Christine (Nancy Kelly), who pleads with him to come home soon and their insanely precious daughter Rhoda (the unforgettable Patty McCormack), adorned in a frilly white frock, tap-dancing delightfully into everyone's hearts, her blonde pigtails bobbing, her smiles ever-so warm, her language precise and formal and greeting all who enter the home with a curtsy.
Rhoda is the perfect child for the perfect All-American family.
Wrapping her arms around Daddy, she chirps: "What will you give me for a basket of kisses?"
Daddy responds, as he clearly does every time she asks: "Why, I'll give you a basket of hugs!"
Rhoda is perfection incarnate.
She's also spoiled, jealous and a sociopath.
With Dad out of town, Christine begins to notice a few oddities in Rhoda's behaviour (odder than usual). Her daughter expresses the most vitriolic banter about a schoolmate, little Claude Daigle who has won the penmanship medal at the exclusive private school she attends. Rhoda is convinced she deserved the medal and obsessively natters on about how Claude was singled out for favouritism - pure and simple. There might be some truth to this. Rhoda is almost insufferably aware of her perfection and Claude is an adorable young lad from a "lower-class" family who have sacrificed and scrimped to get their boy into a good school.
At a school picnic, the unthinkable happens. Claude drowns. Foul play isn't suspected, but there are some very odd crescent-shaped marks on his face. We eventually learn these quarter moons are identical to the steel plates affixed to the soles of Rhoda's tap shoes. As the tale progresses, Rhoda engages in behaviour that becomes ever-more nasty and self-centred. Christine discovers a few surprises in Rhoda's room and also learns how she herself was an adopted child - that her own birth mother was, in fact, a notorious serial killer.
Is Christine's own flesh and blood afflicted with the bad seed?
Was that previous accidental death in the town they used to live in, all that accidental? Was little Claude Daigle murdered? Who tossed lit matches into the basement storm shelter, locked it and listened to the blood curdling screams as the suspicious caretaker burned to a crisp?
Not much of this is presented as mysterious. We know pretty early on that all is not right with Rhoda and soon, her Mom knows it too. What we're presented with is not so much a thriller, but a delicious melodrama. And who better to deliver the goods than the brilliant Mervyn LeRoy? Retaining much of the claustrophobic atmosphere of the play and its original Broadway cast, he lets the actors emote as if they were on stage and renders many of their key moments in closeup so that the melodrama is heightened further.
LeRoy, of course, delivered the goods on some truly great melodramas from his old studio days: the grand amnesia romance Random Harvest, the weepy tale of orphans Blossoms in the Dust and one of the finest tear-jerkers about the effect of war upon the women who are left behind in his great remake of Waterloo Bridge. He also presided over the nobility of Margaret O'Brien suffering in Little Women, the grand melodrama of Christians being led into the lions' den in Quo Vadis and, lest we forget, Edward G. Robinson croaking out his final words in Little Caesar, "Is this the end of Rico?"
With The Bad Seed, LeRoy acquits himself magnificently. There are a few tiny clunky moments, but they're easily forgiven. When the movie is working at the peak of its power, it has few equals. The subplot involving Claude's alcoholic mother is especially heart wrenching. Played by the brilliant Eileen Heckart, her handful of appearances in the film are accompanied by one of the most astonishing pieces of music from Alex North's score. (I highly recommend the soundtrack album - in particular, the piece referred to which is titled "No More Children".) Heckart's performance is bigger than big - she suffers and stumbles through her scenes with all the passion required AND a mordant wit. One of the movie's great lines is when the booze-soaked Heckart matter-of-factly quips, " It's a pleasure to stay drunk when your little boy's been killed."
Henry Jones as the demented, half-witted borderline pedophile caretaker is also a high point of the picture. Jones oozes creepiness and slime with such abandon, that he might well have rendered one of the greatest on-screen villains of all time. He recognizes the evil in Rhoda because he feels it within himself. It's implied that he might well have eventually sexually assaulted Rhoda, so his death, while shocking, also feels strangely justifiable.
The movie's pace, at first deliberately slow, but deliberately amps itself up to a shattering climax and a very weird conclusion - tacked on by the Hays Code so that Rhoda doesn't get away with murder. Strangely enough, this censor-initiated coda seems even more horrific than what was there to begin with.
The Bad Seed is completely and utterly over-the-top. Some have suggested it's a product of the time it was made. I'd dispute this vigorously. The movie is a melodrama, and as such, is GREAT melodrama.
At one point, Eileen Heckart remarks: "Children can be nasty, don't you think?"
Indeed they can. And nasty children deliver first-rate entertainment value.
The Bad Seed is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Entertainment. It's a great transfer and includes a terrific commentary track from Patty McCormack.