The Bad Seed
I never really like the idea of having to change your expectations for a film based on the time it was made. I tend to avoid condescending lines like “For a silent film it’s a good movie” or “Considering it’s black and white it’s pretty scary”, because really, if a film is good it should be able to transcend these superficial barriers. Robert Wise’s The Haunting, for example, is still an infinitely scarier film than the modern Jan de Bont remake. Nosferatu’s horrific imagery still endures, and films like Vampyr, Cat People and Carnival of Souls are still frightening. Where such an asterix need be applied though, are on films made during the Hays code era (1934-1968) where the MPAA made it impossible to distribute any film that could not play to a large audience. The rise of independent cinema in the late sixties and the success of films like Night of the Living Dead, I am Curious and Bonnie and Clyde effectively ended that, but for over thirty years it was near impossible to tackle scandalous subject matter without wrapping it up in a bow. Rape, sex, bloody murder or even the idea of a killer child were just simply not possible under this regime. You can see these topics hinted at, introduced and danced around in Hollywood pictures before 1968, but nobody could ever really explore and permeate the very fears that affect us most until the modern rating system we know today was implemented.
It’s with this in mind that we explore The Bad Seed, the first in what has become one of the most enduring horror sub-genres – the killer kid. Predating Village of the Damned by 4 years, it was the first film to flat out focus on the notion of a child being inherently evil. Every horror movement needs its predecessors, and like Black Christmas before Halloween, The Bad Seed is the gate crasher before the flood of movies like The Omen, Devil Times Five and Who Can Kill a Child? Like the big brother before his siblings before him, The Bad Seed couldn’t get away with a lot of the things they could in the seventies and they still do today with movies like Orphan or Ils. How does that affect the film, and how has the lil’ girl aged today?
Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack, Bug and later Mommy, an unofficial sequel to Seed, which itself spawned a sequel) is the kind of daughter any mother would kill to have. With tight, symmetrical blonde pig tails, perfect posture and an assortment of laced dresses and matching garments she presents very well. She’s incredibly polite, a top student, respectful to adults and even curtseys for every person she meets. She’s the kind of person who’d grow into a Stepford Wife if appearances meant anything. But behind that prim exterior is a mind that’s far from proper. Rhoda gets what she wants, even if she has to kill for it.
It’s evident early that Rhoda is impulsive and greedy, asking her kind old aunt, Monica (Evelyn Varden, Night of the Hunter), for extra sweets or jewelry when it is initially offered. What kid isn’t like that, though? Monica laughs it off, and Rhoda’s mother, Christine (Nancy Kelly) does too until one of Rhoda’s classmates ends up drowning during a school trip. Reportedly, little Claude Daigle fell off the pier moments after having a little “incident” with Rhoda. See, he won the class’s penmanship medal, an award Rhoda felt should have been hers. Without coincidence, Claude’s medal remains unfound at the crime scene. Claude’s mother (played harrowingly by Eileen Heckart in an Oscar-nominated performance), drunk with anguish, shows up uninvited one day at the Penmark house to interrogate Rhoda about the medal and the motive, but everyone passes her accusations off as grief-stricken ramblings. Except Christine. She begins to question whether or not her perfect little girl could actually do something so horrid. Could her daughter be a bad seed?
Slowly, Christine’s sanity starts to unravel as she spends more time with Rhoda and the facts of guilt gradually start to point in Rhoda’s direction. How could this girl, raised in affluence and with nothing but love from her and her husband, who’s currently gone on military duty, do these things that only the darkest and most tormented souls could do? Christine asks friends and family psychological questions regarding nature versus nurture, and that has her exploring her own childhood and some dark secrets within. When more bodies start turning up around the Penmark estate, though, Christine must answer some hard questions about her and her daughter’s future, for if the seed is this bad already, what could it possibly grow into?
Adapted from the Maxwell Anderson play, from which all the principal actors recreated their roles, The Bad Seed certainly plays to the trappings of theater. Almost the entire picture takes place in the Penmark living room, with almost all the other scenes an earshot away in their back yard. It’s talky, with Nancy Kelly spending a lot of time in soliloquys of a sort trying to explore themes that are often left in shadows in horror films. As a result it runs over two hours, the performances are exaggerated and projected out to the “back row” and the camera setups are simple in a head-on, proscenium arch kind of way (which makes the Oscar nomination for cinematography all the more puzzling). Just because it’s theatrical that does not mean it makes for a bad film, for like 12 Angry Men, it makes good use of its sparse surroundings to instead really key in on the mental arcs of its characters.
Patty McCormack’s performance as Rhoda is certainly well beyond her years, exhibiting an incredible range of emotion. She’s one way to strangers, another way to her parents and still a different way to her self, and she’s able to really reveal these different characteristics and emotional states convincingly throughout the movie. So often we associate the “killer kid” as this one-dimensional force of evil like Damien or Macaully Culkin in The Good Son, but here McCormack shows just how rich a role can be when the character is humanized. She’s great, and Nancy Kelly more than treads water in a performance that occupies the vast majority of the picture. The Bad Seed puts the Christine character through the ringer, and Kelly is certainly up to task. For how theatrical many of her emotions are throughout the movie, she really shows her range in the final act, especially in that show stopping reading to little Rhoda as she lies on the couch. What a dark scene.
While I was watching that ending scene, don’t worry, no spoilers, I couldn’t believe how dark the filmmakers were going with the material. I’ve never seen or read the play, nor the William March book it stems from, so I don’t know how dark it was originally, but it certainly resonates in that kind of unforgiving, matter-of-fact black and white pallet that’s on screen in The Bad Seed. I kept asking myself how they were able to get away with that in the Hays code era…and then I saw the ending. And then the “wait, there’s more!” curtain call with all actors in happy, smiling faces. And then the pandering text card to further remove any sort of weight to the subject matter. What happens during the last ten or so minutes of The Bad Seed is a tragedy. The original story ends with a true tragedy, but what transpires in the movie is a tragedy of censorship. At best it nullifies all sense of tragedy that existed in the original text, and at worst it reduces the complex psychology the film worked so hard to explore into a deus ex machina. A good Christian lightning bolt of vindication. It’s terrible.
Of all the films I’ve ever seen, never have I wanted to chop off the ending more. The Bad Seed is the kind of movie that cries for a remake today. Not to update it to modern audiences – the subject matter more than holds up today. Instead, a remake could actually do justice to the darkness, to not have to concede with a smile. There’s even some black comedy that could be explored during the ending should the filmmakers chose that route. Any route would be preferred to where the film goes. With the original The Bad Seed, you could see the filmmakers planted a dark kernel for societal reflection (something Village of the Damned and Invasion of the Body Snatchers would grow from as the Cold War reached its height) but instead of letting the seed grow, the Hays code for moral decency or artistic stifling, however you want to call it, cast this monolithic shadow upon any sort of creative fruition. It’s a film that’s well made and engaging, but right as it’s about to bloom the production code takes out the sheers. If ever our remake era can do a film right, it’s The Bad Seed.
Up until this Blu-ray release, The Bad Seed had always been presented on home video in a full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Without having the 2004 DVD for reference, I’m assuming previous iterations of the film simply lopped off the edges of frame, given how the credits are centered and how much head room already exists. The film came during an era when film houses were converting over to widescreen as a way to compete with television, and as a result a lot of films at the time were captured so all the information could safely be presented in the center of the frame. So in addition to being based on a mostly one set play, the frame is also safely framed in a most uninspired manner. So whether it’s 1.33 or 1.78:1, the visual information isn’t of the most pressing importance.
With that out of the way, The Bad Seed looks pretty underwhelming on Blu-ray. The flags go off when you notice the entire disc (which includes a fairly lengthy video interview with Patty McCormack among a few other extras) only clocks in at 14 GB on a 25 GB disc. Then, you actually see the transfer. Compression artifacts are immediately visible, the film grain clustering up into distracting blocky chunks that dance all across the frame throughout. What’s worse, detail is muffled and indistinct. The entire picture is incredibly soft, alarmingly so. It looks more like an upconversion than a genuine 1080 mastering. The blacks and whites do project accurately, but the lack of detail and the artifcating make it very hard to appreciate. Warner usually has a great track record, but the soil for this seed is arid.
Audio is presented mono in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Dialogue is clean and discernible, and the flighty flute and piano music project fine. The storm effects that bookened the film are really muted and certainly feel clipped at both ends of the spectrum. For a film that’s 90% talking, though, this mono mix is acceptable.
The extras from the 2004 DVD are all ported over to this release. First is a commentary with Patty McCormack and playwright Charles Busch. Busch is a large fan of the picture and asks a lot of the questions the viewer would want to know, like about how the film diverges from the source material, or what films were shot on a stage (the answer, pretty much all of it!). McCormack really remembers a lot for being so little for the picture, and she also recalls plenty from her initial performance on stage, too. It’s a warm, nostalgic little commentary, one that happily basks in anecdotes and trivia rather than asking any more probing questions about the themes of the story or the execution of the style of the picture.
There’s also a 15-minute video interview with Patty McCormack, who I must say, looks damn good for 59 (she’s 66 now and still holding!). It’s kind of an abridged version of the information she peppers through the commentary, but it’s nice to see her on screen and to see her face as she talks about the role that gave her the life she enjoys today. She talks about growing into the part through her role in the play, how director Mervyn LeRoy directed the picture and how the film affected her through various stages in her life.
Lastly, there’s a campy theatrical trailer to close off this release.
The Bad Seed may be talky, bulky and overly theatrical, but it explores the subject matter of the root of evil and how it can lurk behind the quaintest of appearances in a refreshingly psychological and probing fashion. The climax of the film goes to a very dark place, and when there it’s some of the most arresting moments in horror. But then the film really gives out on its morals in favor of holding a fake smile for censorship, which makes the film oh so frustrating to watch today. It’s a frustrating watch visually, too, for Warner has delivered one of their worst transfers yet, with softness, blocky artifacting and a genuine lack of detail. Sound is fine and extras are solid, but considering all the supplements are ported from the DVD, it’s hardly worth the upgrade for fans unless the idea of seeing the film widescreen for the first time is that important. Considering how safely everything is framed in the center of the frame, trust me, it’s not. The Bad Seed could bud and bloom in today’s progressive film climate. Remake Gods, strike lightning on Suspiria, Hellraiser and The Monster Squad. Do justice, instead, to the harrowing ending of The Bad Seed’s source material. This is a story that doesn’t deserve to conseed.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Great review, Rhett! Haven't seen this movie in quite a while but must admit that I love the ending. I've always found the original ending in the book to be too Hollywood, or at least what we've come to expect from most of the Bad Seed knock-offs of today. The first time I saw the movie, it totally caught me off-guard giving me one of those WHAT?! Did I just see that? moments. The only problem I've ever had with this movie is the fact that Mervyn LeRoy didn't tone down Nancy Kelly and Patty McCormack's over-the-top performances in some of the scenes. Eileen Heckart is brilliant! Definitely time for me to revisit the Penmark house.
This is a definite revisit for me, it has been many years since I have enjoyed this one. Thanks for a great review.
Fantastic review of one of my favorite films! I really wish I could go back and see it on stage (and I normally despise theater...and child actors). Sure, it hits a lot of "campy" notes but the performances are so wonderful across the board that I am always prepared to forgive it.
Great review! One of my favorite movies :)
I was actually in this play my Freshman year, I was Richard Bravo. I agree, the ending in the play/book is so much better than the ending in the movie.
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