Patty McCormack as Rhoda
Nancy Kelly as Christine
Henry Jones as Leroy
Little Rhoda, the golden-haired daughter of a loving married couple, is immaculate in appearance, exceedingly polite and obsessed with obtaining whatever her heart desires. Although a typical description of a spoiled child, she seems willing to go to extraordinary ends to satisfy her desires. All well and good, but when a fellow student perishes in an accident of which she is the sole witness, her lack of concern engenders suspicion.
Although part mystery, The Bad Seed is also the first film to explore the dark nature of psychopathy. Rhoda’s mother even engages several psychiatrists in a friendly conversation about the nature of innate bloodlust, with some concluding that exposure to certain behaviors early in life is responsible, while others leaning towards genetic explanations. That writer, Maxwell Anderson, believed the concept had to be explained to audiences, underlines its foreignness to 1950s America. No doubt cinema-goers at the time were so horrified by the mere thought of a person without a conscious that a conversation about it would have been enough to scare most. Fortunately, the explanation does not take away from the suspense of the plot and only deepens the disturbing theme for individuals not familiar with the disorder.
The Bad Seed is one of a couple films that helped transition from spectacular and grotesque monsters, towards the more subtle monster within each of us. Yet, the film is revolutionary for other reasons. Not only did director, Mervyn Leroy, successfully bring black and white life to a textbook psychopath – unflinching in clinical accuracy – but he chose the persona of a sweet little girl to mask his malevolent creation. Norman Bates would not terrify audiences for another four years, but he is, ironically, much easier to stomach than the monster within little Rhoda. In one fell swoop, Leroy exposed audiences to not only the most disturbing type of human monster, but placed it in the guise of what we take for granted as the most innocent of humans. It’s no wonder the film didn’t make a bigger splash, as it was likely too much of a jump for most to swallow in entirety.
Little Rhoda and her actions are the horror of The Bad Seed. There are no scares. No gore. There are not even any onscreen killings (though we can hear some of them). The creepy theme of psychopathy carries the action and our attention. As viewers become increasingly aware of Rhoda’s capabilities the theme becomes increasingly effective and what began as a somewhat formulaic mystery becomes an increasingly unsettling plotline where the outcome, or even the next five minutes is unexpected.
My only gripe about The Bad Seed is not much of one: The action slows at points, but this technique is typical for films of the era, as it allows the audience to catch their breath and prepare them for the climax. Little Rhoda’s acting can seem rather stilted to those who have not had a Psych 101 course, but it is spot on for the type of person she portrays – one who feels around human emotions as though they were strange and unfamiliar objects.
If you don’t know much about psychopathy, although we know a little more today than in the 1950s, this film is not a bad primer since all the basic assumptions that create the character of Rhoda remain unchallenged. Of note, the ending of The Bad Seed is a little unusual. I’m not sure how I feel about it, but I can see why some might see it as an easy way out (from a story point of view). Remembering that the film is imbued in ‘50s culture, in which idyllic conclusions are as standard as opening credits, has tempered my criticism on the matter.
Bottom line: If you are all gored out and want to take a trip back in time where horror meant leaving you with an unsettled feeling and newborn suspicion of those around you, give The Bad Seed a shot.