The Bad Seed (1956)

John Waters, in his book Role Models, claimed that he wanted to be Rhoda Penmark, the titular antagonist of The Bad Seed. “I wanted to be Rhoda. I pretended I was her. Why? I wanted to strike fear in the hearts of my playmates.”

There’s really no other movie quite like this one. Sure, we’ve covered plenty of other kids in trouble and kids causing trouble movies over the last two weeks, but this is the ultimate.

Based upon the 1954 play of the same name by Maxwell Anderson — which is based upon William March’s 1954 novel — the entire movie revolves around one person: Rhoda (Patty McCormack). She’s doted on by her parents, but the truth is, she’s quite literally menace incarnate. Who else would be so upset about losing a penmanship contest that she’d be moved to murder?

How did she get that way? Is it because her mother (Nancy Kelly, who won a  Tony on Broadway for the play and was nominated for an Oscar) is the daughter of a serial killer who was adopted by a kindly cop? Is it because her father (William Hopper, who was later Paul Drake on Perry Mason and is the son of Hedda Hopper) isn’t around? Is society to blame? Or are some people just plain evil?

In the novel and play, the mother dies and the bad seed survives. The Motion Picture Production Code could never allow crime to pay, so Christine’s life is saved and Rhoda is struck down by the only thing that can really stop her: the hand of God, tossing a bolt of lightning her way. To further keep the censors away, Warner Brothers added an “adults only” warning to the film’s advertising.

This film is packed with great performances. There’s Henry Jones as Leroy Jessup, the caretaker who snarls every line at Rhoda, sure that she’s committed some crime as he sleeps in a bed of excelsior. Or Eileen Heckart as Hortense Daigle, a woman who grief has reduced to a spirit of sheer nothingness. Or Evelyn Varden as Monica Breedlove, an older women who wants to desperately see the good in Rhoda (she’s equally amazing in The NIght of the Hunter). Hey — there’s even Frank Cady here, who would go on to play Sam Drucker in several seventies hicksploitation sitcoms.

I also love the end of this movie, where the entire cast comes out as if they’re still on Broadway and doing their curtain call.  After her credit is shown, Nancy Kelly puts Patty McCormack over her knee and gives her a spanking as they both laugh, trying to break the tension because Rhoda is so violently real, more villainous than any cartoon villain you’ll see in every single movie thereafter.

The Bad Seed has led to plenty of remakes and reimaginings. It was remade in 1985 as a TV movie that starred Carrie Welles, Blair Brown, Lynn Redgrave, David Carradine, Richard Kiley and Chad Allen. This version uses the original ending, but isn’t fondly remembered. There was another remake in 2018 that aired on Lifetime. It was directed by Rob Lowe and Patty McCormack even shows up in a cameo.

In 1995, McCormack would star in the first of two Mommy films that are kind of, sort of unofficial sequels. The Lifetime film House of Deadly Secrets, also starring McCormack, is another film that’s a spiritual second to this one. There’s also an off-Broadway musical adaption called Ruthless! and just about every bad kid movie that’s come after 1956 owes this one a debt.

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