Some films don’t sit in areas of style or content that fit a particular genre. THE BAD SEED (1956) is thought to be Horror film, a Film Noir or a thriller. Where it fits in the canon is not important only that it is a strong film yet not to everyone’s taste. THE BAD SEED (1956) fits right along with WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (1962) and HUSH HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) as a story of urban terror.
The Warner Brothers picture came from a Maxwell Anderson play from a novel by William March. Shot in moody black and white which still packs a punch for stories of this nature THE BAD SEED became one of the biggest hits of 1956. You can have a good story, good images but if the actors and Director and other personal make poor choices then the film can be a missed opportunity this is not the case.
THE BAD SEED shines from the moment it opens with the quirky music mixing child rhythms and simple piano melodies which will become important later on by Composer Alex North. The star of the show is Patty McCormick as the eight year old Rhoda Penmark who is doted on by here parents Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly) and Col Kenneth Penmark (WillIam Hopper).
The love expressed is sickly in nature with platitudes of ‘doing no wrong’ and ‘The perfect child’ gushing out as Col Hopper is leaving on a work trip. McCormick uses a high pitched voice to utter her ‘Daddie’s’ and ‘Mommie’s while all dressed in “Pippi Longstocking’ braids and little dresses. Christine doesn’t look like a child of the fifties but a strange Doll contrivance reminiscent of the use of a other Doll in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (1962) .
Nancy Kelly as her mother Christine is high strung herself yet doting on her Daughters whims. She tries to be a firm parent in tone at times yet looses the point of her talk when the master manipulation begins by Rhoda. She desperately wants her husband to stay but Military work calls him away so he must go. They have a strong marriage bordering of desperation on Christine’s part as shown when they kiss almost frantically as the Colonel is leaving. One senses this is a wife and a mother on edge of what we do not as yet know.
Evelyn Varden plays Monica Breedlove who is a sort of nanny/ companion to both Christine and Rhoda. Breedlove is forever complimenting Rhoda on her perfect she is when she curtsy’s when guests arrive is always saccharine polite. She tells Rhoda that she should have won the Penmanship medallion which was given to a classmate Claude Daigle as she was the best at her school only the others didn’t see it. Rhoda is disappointed deeply yet the anger and temper simmers just below the surface as her expression darkens.
This not a childish disappointment to be gotten over by gifts or ice cream. There is something behind Rhoda’s eyes when she hugs you see her expression switch to something malevolent when not visible then back again to sweet when she is seen. Rhoda entertains herself by taking the covers the soft heel covers off a pair of shoes to create tap dancing boots so she can click on the wooden floor much to her personal glee. Rhoda and her mother leave for a picnic and nearby park with her school friends.
Later when back at home Christina and Monica her a radio News report that a yet un identified child has drown at a nearby park lake. This throws the home into panick as everyone thinks it is Rhoda but child is identified as Claude Daigle; the boy who won the prize. It is also said that he had several abrasions on his face and head thought to bruising from the water knocking him into the wharf. Christine is also worried that Rhoda will be traumatized as she saw the child’s corpse.
Rhoda’s teacher Mrs Fern (Joan Croyden) visits saying that Rhoda was last person to see Claude alive and was seen grabbing at his metal which would indicate a connection yet she stops short of accusation.
The story becomes darker as connections are made and Rhoda’s deep psychosis comes to the surface yet always unpinned by the smile. Christine finds Claude’s penmanship medallion in Rhoda’s jewelery box and demands to know how she got it. Rhodas cajoles her even to the point of physically stroking her mothers next cooing that she ‘has the best Mommie in the world and the best family’ in an act similar to a master petting an animal.
Christina makes desperate calls to her husband yet he cannot get away from his duties but will try. Christina also goes through the revelation of a horrid family secret by her father Author Richard Bravo (Paul Fix) who comes to visit and see his grand daughter. Christine finds her own origin in terms of a parental confession is not what she thought it was but something entirely different that has unleashed something beyond her control.
Several other roles complete add color to this story particularly Ellen Heckart as the mother of the boy killed at the picnic Hortense Daigle. Heckart gives one of the best performances as a intoxicated broken mother seeking answers from Rhoda. She know s Rhoda with with her soon Claude on the wharf and wants to know ‘any little thing’ or ‘thought’ he might have said in his last moments. She makes catty remarks about people’s hair being dyed and how she is not educated and rich like all the people in the house only to be lead away by her husband Henry Daigle (Frank Cady)
Jessie White as Emory Wages and Gage Clark as Reg Tasker round out the family friends all thinking that Rhoda is the perfect child.
Special mention to actor Henry Jones as the slow, dimwitted gardner/ handyman LeRoy Jessup. Jones in the best role I have seen him play shines as the only person who sees Rhoda for what she is and enjoys what he sees. Jessup calls her at one point ‘Mean’ which is okay for him as he is ‘Mean’ as well. Jessup taunts her with the fact he knows what she is thinking particularly in a wonderful moment as the two exchange vicious barbs while Rhoda is having a imaginary tea party outside with a gift she got from her father. Rhoda tosses him some straw packing material from her gift for his bed which is located in house basement next the furnace. Jessup knows all about Rhoda before anyone else does as he taunts her about her shoes with hard soles which will become important.
Revelations grow culminating in a shocking abrupt moment similar to NIGHT MOTHER (1986) which was also a play and a film. The evil will be avenged by something greater than us all even if it contains a ‘curtain call’ credit sequence meant to restore reality.
THE BAD SEED (1956) is not your average thriller film as it being characters thrust into a orbit around a single person unleashing a chain of events. The actors were many that originated their roles in the Broadway production. Academy award nominations of which all would lose featured one for Nancy Kelly for Best actress, Best supporting actress for both Patty McCormick and Elleen Heckart and Best Cinematography for Harold Rossen
THE BAD SEED was remade for television in 1985 and was poorly received only to be remade again in 2018 with Rob Lowe directing. Patty McCormick takes bow as Doctor March in the film.
THE BAD SEED (1956) features a wonderful ensemble and creative team that brings this story that appears simple on the surface yet grows more insidious. You may notice that some of actor blocking and movement is theatrical in nature. You watch the disintegration of a family and a change of values for all. True today we never really know what really goes on behind someone’s eyes.
You’re right – it’s hard to classify this film. It has some terrific performances, though, and Henry Jones is mesmerizing as Jessup.