The Bad Seed (1956)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Bad Seed</strong> (1956)

(On Cable TV, February 2019) There have been many evil-child movies, but we tend to associate that subgenre more with schlocky post-1970s exploitation horror thrillers than slick 1950s Hollywood major productions, explaining why The Bad Seed still has the power to surprise even today. This classy-yet-trashy killer-kid thriller is a tad overlong and certainly melodramatic, but it remains disturbing by sheer value of having its perfect pigtailed child star perform a series of unbearably evil acts—and dwelling on the anguished reactions of grieving secondary characters to drive the point home. Unusually enough for this kind of film, no less than three of its actresses were nominated for an Oscar: Patty McCormak as the titular killer kid, Nancy Kelly as her mother, and Eileen Heckart best as the grieving mother without whom the film would be far less effective—much of the film’s overwrought plotting can be dismissed as nonsense, but her portrayal of grief remains disturbing. Some of the material is definitely clunky: There’s a lot of psychological nonsense about the nature of evil and its possible genetic origins that would be reworked or even cut from any contemporary version. Otherwise, much of The Bad Seed’s power remains in the clash between our idea of a glossy 1950s studio film and the subject matter that it explores: there’s a restraint in the way the film tackles sobering material that makes it even more fascinating—witness, for instance, the audio-only death by burning: over the top yet still uncomfortable. Parents of young girls will definitely have a stronger reaction to the result—Geez, attempted filicide?! Soundtrack-wise, there’s an interesting use of “Au clair de la lune” as a leitmotif, even remixed in the main orchestra theme. The film concludes with two very interesting bonuses: A plea by the filmmakers to the audiences not to reveal plot points to others, and a comic post-credit scene in which the adult actress laughingly mock spanks the child actress that does much to relieve the tension left by the very dark ending. The Bad Seed remains fascinating today because of its place in history—any contemporary remake (and there have been many similar films ending outright in horror) would be far less interesting because we’ve grown used to them and because they’re not a 1950s major Hollywood studio film. Sometimes, the time and place are the point of a movie.

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