Monday, September 21, 2009

The Bad Seed

(1956) ****

This was the final entry in my Evil Babies theme, and also a film I watched in the pre-blog 2004 Horrorthon. Little Rhoda Penmark is the perfect little girl whose sunny, winsome ways hide the heart of a miniature sociopath. When a classmate of hers drowns at a school picnic, Mommy starts asking questions, and the answers are bad, bad news.

Anytime you watch a movie that is based on a play, you may have to accept a few conditions. The events will mostly take place in the same couple of rooms, there's going to be a lot of talking. It might be overlong, as is the case with this movie, and therefore not the best Horrorthon choice. And there's a good chance of an excess of melodrama, even if things are done really well.

Fortunately, there's only one person in The Bad Seed who goes over the line, and it's this lady. She plays the grief stricken mother of the drowned boy, who keeps turning up to talk to Rhoda's mom, Christine, drunk in that "movie drunk" way so she might as well be this guy:

At first I thought these naive 1950's people were idiots to be taken in by this creepy little Goldilocks robot. Then I realized the point of Rhoda is that a lot of people find her a bit... off.

The real tension of this movie is watching the people who do suspect the truth. After the student's death, the headmistress of Rhoda's school archly hints at Rhoda's involvement, suggesting Christine send her own flower arrangement to his parents, instead of chipping in on the group one. But when she's pressed as to why, and the next thing she has to say is that an 8-year-old killer exists, she can't do it. She just can't believe such an abhorrent concept could be real, and you can see the conflict on her face.

And while Rhoda's sugary public persona might not convince the modern viewer, she really shines when she has the brief chance to take off the mask. The house gardener, a malevolent, overalls-wearing hick, is not fooled by Rhoda's act and taunts her directly when he has the chance. Since she's not required to be polite, Rhoda's replies to him are smooth, venemous, and laced with murderous disdain.

The Bad Seed peaks when Christine can no longer ignore the evidence and wrings a confession out of Rhoda. It's my favorite scene -- Rhoda may lack the normal human's emotional makeup, but she is far from emotionless. It's all kinds of intense and then... what? You think the confession would spell the end of it, but it doesn't. Really it solves nothing, it just presents Christine with an impossible situation: she can't let harm come to her own child, not even her monster clone of Nellie Olson. Meanwhile, now that Rhoda has someone around whom she can be herself, Christine is constantly reminded of the yawning, hollow void inside her little girl's heart.

Christine falls apart in front of our eyes, and it's a stellar performance. Barely able to accept what's already happened, she's too rattled to keep events from unfolding out of control. This results in the moment above, truly one of my favorite cinematic reaction shots. I'm not saying what she's looking at, suffice to say there are sounds coming from two different off-screen locations in this scene, and their juxtaposition is gold.

Despite what I've already mentioned about the plot, I am going to accede to the wishes of these nice words here.

The Bad Seed has few flaws. Besides Drunkie up there, there is a subplot about Christine's mother that drags more than it thrills. But for connoisseurs of psychological horror, this is a must-see.


Catfreeek said...

I love this film and haven't seen it in many years. Now I want to watch it. Stellar review Octo.

JPX said...

I love this film, which I think is one of the best cinematic examples of sociopathy. I have often recommended this movie to patients in order to illustrate the nature of a personality disorder. Patty McCormack nails the role of the antisocial Rhoda – think of a psychotic Eddie Haskell. What I love about this film is its accurate portrayal and description of a personality disorder. Most films that attempt to discuss psychology do so poorly and generally get it all wrong (e.g., The Sopranos). The Bad Seed delves into the implications of antisocial personality disorder (i.e., lack of conscious, lack of remorse)

Rhoda: “Why should I be sorry? It was Claude Daigle who drowned, not me!”

I agree with your comments regarding the grief stricken mother and her overacting the part. Most of the cast from the Broadway production of The Bad Seed was used in this film. Her histrionics probably worked well on the stage but was over-the-top on film.

It's annoying that the director was forced to change the ending of the film from the book ending, which would have been more powerful.

DCD said...

"not even her monster clone of Nellie Olson"

I laughed so hard at this line!! Great review!