Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE BAD SEED (1956)

The Bad Seed (1956) ranks pretty high on the list of classic "evil children" movies, although it's not exactly a straightforward horror film. Director Mervyn LeRoy, working from a stage adaptation of William March's original novel, presents the story more as dark melodrama, like Mildred Pierce (1945) cranked up to eleven. Film historian David Thomson hates the picture and provides a scathing review of it in his book, Have You Seen?, but The Bad Seed might well reveal its true horror only to a female audience, for this movie strikes at the very heart of maternal experience and fear.

Nancy Kelly stars as Christine Penmark, the mother of a seemingly perfect eight year old girl. Pig-tailed princess Rhoda (Patty McCormack) is not, however, as sweet as she appears. When one of Rhoda's classmates drowns at a school picnic, the evidence indicates that Rhoda knows more about what happened than she wants to say. Soon Christine realizes the horrible extent of Rhoda's homicidal tendencies, the hereditary product of a dark secret in Christine's own past.

Male characters exist mostly on the periphery of the story. Christine's husband (William Hopper), leaves town for an extended business trip, and the male criminologists utterly fail to spot the perfect little sociopath in their midst. Only Leroy (Henry Jones), the deranged handyman, sees through Rhoda and plays an active role in the characters' daily lives, and he intentionally taunts the infant serial killer and makes matters worse. All of the other significant characters are female, from bossy Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden) to grief-stricken Hortense Daigle (Eileen Heckart), whose little boy becomes one of Rhoda's victims. This women's world of domestic entrapment, uncertainty, and suppression inevitably unhinges many of the characters. Even the teacher, Miss Fern (Joan Croydon), has developed a nervous, strained manner, while Christine completely falls apart, clutching desperately at the useless men as she succumbs to her guilt and horror at Rhoda's amoral acts.

The horror of The Bad Seed derives from this stifled, segregated world in which women have few outlets for their hopes and fears. Maternity is the only accomplishment either Christine or Hortense can claim; each one loses her child in a different way, but the loss triggers similar collapse and self-destruction. Fear of a child's death is one kind of horror, but fear of giving birth to a monster is something even worse. New mothers look hard at their infants and count their fingers and toes, fearful lest anything wrong should have issued from their wombs. A pregnant woman obsesses over every action because blame for a damaged child invariably falls on her. Does the monstrous child repay us for our own failures, or is it some changeling trick, the work of the devil or an evil star? This fear of unnatural offspring drives stories as diverse as the Greek myths, King Lear, and Rosemary's Baby (1968).

The ending of the film pointedly asks viewers not to give away the final twist, so I'll refrain from commenting too much on the subtexts of those scenes. I will, however, say that I think the movie might have ended better about ten minutes earlier than its actual conclusion. You'll know the moment when you reach it. There would have been greater poetic justice, at least for Christine, had the credits simply rolled after that shocking - but absolutely necessary - act.

The Bad Seed earned four Oscar nominations, including nods for Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack, and Eileen Heckart, all of whom had also appeared in the stage production. Mervyn LeRoy also directed I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Random Harvest (1942), and Mister Roberts (1955). For more awful offspring, try Village of the Damned (1960), The Omen (1976), and The Good Son (1993).