Not all children are born innocent. Even today the name Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormick) conjures to mind rather disturbing, sickening and vial chills. It’s no wonder; there is something genuinely unsettling about The Bad Seed (1956). On the surface Rhoda is a precocious eight year old blonde moppet; considerate, charming and alarmingly mature for her age in all her lady-like grace. She is the apple of her parents' Christine (Nancy Kelly) and Col. Kenneth Penmark's (William Hopper) eye and an adoringly sweet child to landlady Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden). But under this thin veneer lurks pure poison – a sadist capable of inflicting pain, suffering and even death on anything or anyone who gets in her way without so much as an ounce of remorse. How far will this gargoyle in pigtails go? Well, she murders Claude Daigle, the boy who beat her in her school's spelling bee, just to steal his medal. Then she sets fire to Leroy Jessup (Henry Jones), the caretaker who's figured out her wicked ways.
Rhoda's pantomime of innocence hasn’t fooled her school’s head mistress Claudia Fern (Joan Croyden) who attempts to warn Christine of her suspicions before expelling the child. Nor does it entirely convince the late Claude Daigle's distraught and alcoholic mother, Hortense (Eileen Heckart) that the girl in not responsible for his death. But by the time Christine has figured this out for herself it's almost too late. She has become the next intended victim of Rhoda's diabolical quest to be the center of attention. The Bad Seed is a paralyzing and very creepy tale that continues to rattle the nerves primarily because of McCormick’s deliciously wicked performance – one that regrettably typecast the child star and basically brought about a premature end to her promising career. The 1970s would take this fascinating preoccupation with bad kids to more perfunctory extremes in movies like The Exorcist and The Omen. But The Bad Seed isn’t about the obviousness of evil – demonically influenced or otherwise - but rather its obfuscation, especially when encapsulated by a fresh-faced façade incongruously masking its more deliciously rancid deviances.
And Patti McCormick’s performance is both bizarre and hypnotically compelling. She is able to generate and maintain our mixed feelings of guilt, compassion and reviled disgust for Rhoda Penmark. At once we’d like to coddle and/or slap her, although neither action would likely draw clarity from the very murky wellspring that is Rhoda’s twisted mind. She is a psychopath – perhaps the first to be so eloquently represented in adolescent form on the big screen. Long before the capricious mind-numbing/knife-wielding slaughter depicted in Halloween by a blank-eyed Michael Myers, The Bad Seed’s Rhoda Penmark arguably became the template for childhood sadism. The trick to McCormick’s performance goes well beyond the way she is able to convincingly alter between manipulative moments of gooey saccharine treacle and despicably venomous acts of violence unbecoming a tot of her limited scope and years. Perhaps it is a little difficult to quantify exactly what makes McCormick so bone-chillingly fun to watch – although, the same could arguably be said for the public’s perverse fascination with serial killers.
Nancy Kelly is almost as good as Rhoda’s conflicted mother – unable to choose between disciplining her offspring, turning a blind eye or coming to terms and the realization that Rhoda is evil incarnate. Eileen Heckart's grieving mother is quite simply superb. One can feel her self-destructive agony oozing from every pore. Under Mervin LeRoy’s direction, the story nimbly unleashes its reign of terror, ultimately leaving the audience with many nightmares yet to come. Loosely based on William March's novel and more directly on Maxwell Anderson's brilliant stage adaptation, The Bad Seed revels in its almost suffocating claustrophobia. Rarely do we move outside the Penmark’s apartment, and even when we do, the repercussions from Rhoda’s actions are more implied than revealed. As example: partly due to the stringency of the production code – which forbade explicitness - we never see Rhoda drown Claude or burn Leroy. But LeRoy’s direction is suggestive enough of these crimes, allowing the audience’s imagination to run rampant. John Lee Mahin's screenplay ably adapts this source material, ever so carefully opening up the stage bound contents without losing any of its shock value. In the last analysis, The Bad Seed is a good show; compelling, thought-provoking and decidedly hair-raising.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is a mixed bag. The DVD was full frame with a very smooth gray scale, a respectable smattering of grain and very clean looking with deep blacks and excellent contrast levels. The Blu-ray has been re-framed to 1:85:1, presumably as the film was presented theatrically. But the Blu-ray image looks oddly cramped, more disturbingly grainy and much darker in this new aspect ratio, particularly when directly compared with the DVD presentation.
For example, in the 'reframed' Blu-ray we don't see the table Miss Fern is setting her party favors on at the park shortly before Claude Daigle's death. This may seem a moot point, but on the Blu-ray we're not quite sure what Miss Fern is doing while Christine questions her about Rhoda’s pending expulsion, while on the DVD her actions - and pregnant pauses - are quite obvious. I also have to say that at least on my HD display I was unable to properly frame the opening credits without a distinct cropping of the Warner shield at the top, while the word 'with' in the subsequent credits listing supporting cast names was entirely cut off.
In 1:85.1 the Blu-ray image seems somewhat 'blown up' with an exaggerated amount of film grain that borders on digitalized grit in some scenes not visible on the full frame DVD presentation. Contrast levels also appear brighter than they ought. The DVD's tonality was very natural in appearance but the Blu-ray's mid-register looks artificially boosted with a notable loss of fine detail. Not having ever seen this film in a theater on film stock I cannot in good faith say which presentation on home video is most like its theatrical engagement. But I can offer a personal opinion. I still prefer the image quality of my full frame DVD to the Blu-ray without question.
On both DVD and Blu-ray the audio is mono and adequately represented. Extras are imports from the DVD and include a featurette (billed as a documentary) in which Patty McCormick – all grown up - rambles about the making of the film. Truthfully, McCormick’s reminiscences boil down to a “look at me, wasn’t I wonderful?” diatribe with inserts from the film as filler. There’s also an audio commentary with McCormick and Charles Busch that’s somewhat entertaining but equally self-congratulatory. Not recommended if you already own the DVD.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)