[Film Review] The Bad Seed (1956)

The Bad Seed poster

Title: The Bad Seed
Year: 1956
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Crime
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
John Lee Mahin
Maxwell Anderson
based on the novel by William March
Music: Alex North
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Nancy Kelly
Patty McCormack
Evelyn Varden
Eileen Heckart
Henry Jones
Willliam Hopper
Paul Fix
Jesse White
Gage Clarke
Joan Croydon
Frank Cady
Rating: 8.1/10

The Bad Seed 1956

A cinematic interpretation of William March’s controversial novel, with its cast mostly borrowed from its sensational theatrical adaptation, THE BAD SEED is directed by Hollywood veteran Mervyn LeRoy and under the restriction of the Motion Picture Production Code, it changes the ending from its source novel and the play, where something as far-fetched as the wrath of God is served as the ultimate poetic justice. Having said so, a grade-A ensemble cast smashingly chews up the scenes and charges a melodrama with a salvo of scintillating magnetism, psychological suspense and cogitation with hindsight.

The story is a substantial shocker, the nitty-gritty boils down to whether a child can inherit the criminal genes from his or her forebears without any environment influences, aka, become the bad seed. On the surface, the life of Christine (Kelly) is perfect, she and her hubby Colonel Kenneth Penmark (Hopper) love each other so much and their eight-year-old daughter Rhoda (McCormack) is a doll. But after a tragic incident, which cost a boy’s life, happening during Rhoda’s school picnic, Christine has to grip with the most horrific thing could ever happen to a loving mother, the revelation of her own descent from a notorious psychopath and murderess, and now the demonic genes have turned Rhoda into a conscienceless, double-faced killer, who perversely resorts to murder to get what she wants. What a mother should do with her bad seed?

It is a hell of mental roller-coaster, most of the story, happens inside their apartment, various characters barge in and out with a flourish of imposing pretences, a typical setting for its dialogue-driven, performance-showcasing material. Three members of the cast are honoured with Oscar nominations (one leading, two supporting), Nancy Kelly, whose over-the-top acting method miraculously melt well into the upsetting plot-line, her portrayal of Christine’s turmoil is just what we can expect from a theatrical dab-hand, but Kelly multiplies the magnitude with all she get and the effort is tremendously moving, histrionic in a surprisingly wonderful fashion.

Nominated in the BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS category, Patty McCormack (who is co-leading on my list) is another Hollywood child prodigy whose later career is exclusively overshadowed by her star-making role, she nails this rather dark character with pitch-perfect fusion of precociousness and affected innocence. Another nominee is Eileen Heckart, who is a humdinger and upstages everyone else as Mrs. Daigle, the heartbroken and intoxicated mother of the dead boy, literally has only two major scenes, one must see her with one’s own eyes to believe how emotive and powerful she is. The entire cast is swell, Evelyn Varden is garrulous as hell as the landlord/amateur psychiatrist Monica, Henry Jones is vacuously evil as the caretaker and Joan Croydon appears in her sole film work as Miss Fern, the hard-bitten principal of the school.

“Au clair de la lune” will never sound the same after one realises its sinister undertone, THE BAD SEED is a sensation-arousing piece of theatrics, it is immensely satisfactory (even with such a ludicrous upshot), heralds the advent of a new sub-genre of horror where evil prevails with its most innocuous disguise.


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