Scary Movies: The Bad Seed

Rhoda’s such a nice little girl…

Okay, here’s the review of our final film of this year’s horror movie season: The Bad Seed, from 1956. In keeping with this year’s theme, Creepy Kids, this one features the creepiest kid of all. More plausible than Damien, more murderous than Danny, Rhoda truly wins the crown, making her the princess of creepy kids. My guess is she’d like to be awarded with something shiny and valuable, and you’d really better not try to take it from her.

Colonel Kenneth Penmark has to leave for six months duty in Washington, leaving his wife, Christine, and his eight-year-old daughter, Rhoda, behind in their spacious apartment in a small apartment building. Rhoda is effusive in her good-byes, and the landlady, Monica, remarks on how well-behaved she is. In fact, everybody remarks on how well-behaved she is, except LeRoy, the handyman and groundskeeper, who pretends to be dumber than he is but is really pretty shrewd.

The day after her father leaves, Rhoda’s class goes on a field trip for a picnic. Back at the apartment, Christine and Monica are eating lunch together when a news report on the radio informs them that a child has drowned at the local lake where the class is having their picnic. The victim turns out to be Claude, a boy that Rhoda had recently had a dispute with, as Claude had won a medal for penmanship that Rhoda felt she deserved. Christine is worried that the death will disturb Rhoda, but in fact, Rhoda hardly seems to think about it.

Later, Rhoda’s teacher, Miss Fern, stops by. It seems Rhoda was the last person to see Claude alive, and Miss Fern insinuates that Rhoda may have had something to do with the drowning. While Miss Fern is there, Claude’s parents, the Deigles, also stop by, and Mrs. Deigle accuses Christine of hiding something. Of course, this is upsetting, and Monica helps escort the visitors out.

After everybody’s left, Christine is tidying up Rhoda’s room when she finds the penmanship medal hidden in Rhoda’s jewelry box. She confronts Rhoda about it, and Rhoda is unable to give a straight answer, constantly trying to evade the question and change the subject. Christine is suspicious, but unable to actually believe that Rhoda might have committed the murder. Later, Rhoda is playing outside when LeRoy sidles up and informs Rhoda he sees right through her tricks, and knows she did it. Rhoda is nonchalant, but notices that LeRoy spends a lot of time in the coal cellar, which locks from the outside. Oh, LeRoy, you shouldn’t have upset her!

So did Rhoda really commit the murder (or later, as we discover in a series of shocking revelations, perhaps more than one?)? And if so, what can a mother, a teacher, or a grandfather do with an eight-year-old who possibly committed the gravest of crimes? The movie makes a real attempt to address these questions in a serious, not-too-sensationalist way, but I’ll leave the answers up to you to find out.

One question I think I can answer is, is The Bad Seed really a horror movie? Or is it more of a psychological thriller? It certainly has no supernatural element, no gore, no monsters except in a moral sense. But you know, neither does Psycho, and I think if we count Psycho as a horror movie, we can count this one as well.

The Bad Seed (1956)
Story/Plot/Characters— The Bad Seed was apparently adapted from a Broadway play, with the roles played by the actual Broadway actors, who are uniformly superb. I think its roots in the theatre gives the film a bit of a stagey feel, but the dialogue is far better and more intelligent than your average script. Each and every character is well-rounded, even the small parts are utterly believable. (3.5 points)
Special Effects— Few special effects. (.5 points)
Scariness— Not scary, exactly, but Rhoda, the cool, polished little potential murderess, is definitely creepy, and the tension builds throughout the movie as just what Rhoda is capable of becomes apparent. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness— The busyness of the Penmark’s elegant, well-appointed apartment, with landladies, schoolteachers, friends, and grandfathers constantly stopping by to chat and have a drink, has not a trace of isolation or gothic atmosphere. However, the grounds, with its nooks and crannies, its too-serene quietude, and its inappropriate groundskeeper appearing out of nowhere to accuse an eight-year-old of capital crimes, more than makes up for it. (1 point)
Total=6 points (Pretty Good)

Admittedly not the most horrific of horror movies, but an intelligent and chilling character study of a child apparently born with no capacity for guilt or sympathy.

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