Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a look at a classic old Hollywood horror film or hidden gem. We’ll explore its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror. For December, in honor of Cold-Blooded Killers month here on Nightmare on Film Street, we’ll be looking at one of the most notoriously shocking examinations of psychopathy, The Bad Seed (1956).
The Bad Seed is a fascinating work of psychological horror, infamous for both its subject matter and its effect on 1950s audiences and censors. It’s a flawed film, primarily because its original story was too disturbing for the Hollywood production code to allow to exist without an awkward new ending. But its power to both fascinate and shock endures, and its influence in many horror films to come is undeniable.
The Original Killer Kid
The Bad Seed is the first example of the “killer kid” horror sub-genre. Before the blonde alien kids of Village of the Damned (1960), before the reign of terror wielded by little Anthony Fremont in The Twilight Zone’s “It’s a Good Life” (1961), before Damien in The Omen (1976) or Esther in Orphan (2009) there was the eight-year-old killer in pinafores and pigtails, Rhoda Penmark, memorably embodied by Patty McCormack.
Unlike her many successors, Rhoda is not an alien, a psychic, or the actual Antichrist. She’s not possessed, infected, or an adult pretending to be a child. In fact, despite the current over-saturation of creepy kids in horror, most of them have something else going on to make them evil. Rhoda is just a bad seed, and that’s what makes her story so disturbing even today.
“[…] before Damien in The Omen (1976) or Esther in Orphan (2009) there was the eight-year-old killer in pinafores and pigtails, Rhoda Penmark[…]”
The Bad Seed is an adaptation of the hit 1954 Broadway play of the same name, itself based on the 1954 novel by William March. It tells the story of Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly), a happily married woman who loves her daughter Rhoda as any mother would. But Rhoda is a little odd. She’s perfectly behaved in a performative way, always polite, neat, and loving with her parents. Yet Christine has concerns about her child’s calculated maturity and lack of friends. While her military husband (William Hopper) is away for Cold War-related duties in Washington, her worries grow. Rhoda feels cheated by a boy in her school who won a penmanship medal that she believes she deserved. Later, that same child mysteriously drowns at a school picnic. When Christine finds the boy’s penmanship award hidden in Rhoda’s room, she opens a floodgate of devastating revelations about her own bloodline, and she is forced to come to terms with the monster she brought into the world.
In the 1940s, the developing study of “psychopathy” had begun to enter the public understanding of psychotherapy. With it came the debate of whether psychopathic personality disorders were genetic or based on upbringing. William March built his final novel, The Bad Seed, around the conversation. He fashioned a horror story out of the genetics theory, imagining a good woman — unaware that her birth mother was a serial killer — who has unwittingly passed on the evil tendencies of her family line to her daughter.
Shocks and Censorship
After the theater adaption of the novel became a Broadway hit, filmmaker Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Apartment) wanted to bring the production to the big screen. But the Motion Picture Production Code pushed back against his plans. They considered the subject matter in violation of their stance against juvenile crime depicted on film. More so, a story about an eight-year-old who was simply born with criminal tendencies complicated the preferred popular narrative of youth crime in the 1950s. Delinquent films like Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Wild One (1953) were popular, but the criminals depicted were always troubled teens with a rocky home life. 1950s social values put so much emphasis on the nuclear family as the moral backbone of society. Youth crime that wasn’t caused by a failure of the nuclear family was unthinkable. When presented with the shocking premise of The Bad Seed, the Production Code had no idea what to do with it.
Frustrated with the push-back, Wilder stepped away. That could have been the death of the project. But Warner Brothers stepped in with studio stalwart director Mervyn LeRoy to take on the film. Warner Brothers was a a studio built on challenging films and crime pictures, and they happened to have the box office clout to push boundaries. Even so, the picture could only move ahead if LeRoy and screenwriter John Lee Mahin agreed to change the ending. It was this crucial bow that gives us the flawed film we have today. The Bad Seed maintains its power to shock and disturb to this day, but its ending feels disjointed and insincere.
In the original book and play, Christine decides to kill her daughter and herself. She understands that her child is a murderer with no capability of discerning right from wrong. She knows she will kill again, and she blames herself for passing on her own mother’s psychopathy to her daughter. In order to spare her child from the consequences of her nature, she gives Rhoda an overdose of sleeping pills and then shoots herself. In the original story, the gunshot alerts the neighbors, who get Rhoda medical attention and save her life. Knowledge of Rhoda’s true nature dies with her mother, and the child is free to grow up and kill again.
It’s a powerful and grim conclusion. But the Production Code couldn’t abide by a murderer getting away with their crimes, even if the killer was a child. Instead, the approved ending had Christine survive her gunshot wound and hints at a future reconciliation with her grief-stricken husband. Meanwhile, Rhoda is obliterated by a bolt of lightning while venturing out into a thunderstorm. It’s thematically unsatisfying and frankly unbelievable, though its dramatic flare does lend an aura of cult classic cheese to the film.
“Despite its clunky censorship, The Bad Seed maintains its power to disturb.”
Finally, instead of traditional end credits, The Bad Seed features a theatrical style “curtain call.” After the cast has been announced, Nancy Kelly pretends to spank Patty McCormack while both laugh. This playful add-on was meant to reassure 50s moviegoers that what they had seen was just pretend, and that McCormack was a perfectly normal little girl. Despite this winking ending, the studio knew that the real selling point of the film was its shock factor. Therefore, it was finally concluded with an anti-spoiler warning imploring audiences not to reveal to their friends what transpires. To appease the production code, all promotion for the film labeled it as “adults only.” In fact, this added to the film’s considerable buzz, making it one of the biggest films of 1956.
A Premise Ahead of It’s Time
Despite its clunky censorship, The Bad Seed maintains its power to disturb. The concept of a murderous child is still chilling, so I can only imagine what the impact would have been like in 1956. The Penmarks are depicted as ideal parents, with Mr. Penmark’s military travels the only source of discontent in the household. Presented with the threat of evil infiltrating the sacred home space through the unpredictable path of genetics, 50s audiences must have been terrified.
For a modern audience, Rhoda still stands out from a deluge of creepy kids through her unnerving believability. While cold and mature, she is still very much a child, concerned with childish goals. She simply doesn’t understand how killing someone is worse than other “naughty” behavior. When faced with the distraught mother of her dead classmate (Eileen Heckart, stealing scenes), Rhoda wonders why the woman can’t simply “adopt another little boy.”
Even more chilling is when she coolly retreats to a room to play piano so she doesn’t hear the dying screams of one of her victims. None of Rhoda’s kills happen on screen. In fact, the film rarely leaves the confines of the Penmark house and front yard. But instead of giving the film a stale feeling, the limited setting and Harold Rosson’s moody cinematography makes the viewer feel as trapped and torn as Christine. The suspense of The Bad Seed lies less in our fear of Rhoda, but our empathy for her mother. Nancy Kelly’s excellent performance as Christine has us on the edge of our seats, wondering what we do if we found out our child was a killer.
The Bad Seed was an immediate critical and audience success upon its release in 1956. At the year’s Oscars, Nancy Kelly was nominated for best actress and both Eileen Heckart and Patty McCormack were nominated for best supporting actress, while Harold Rosson’s work received a nod for best cinematography. And while the film’s only win was a best supporting actress Golden Globe for Heckart, the awards show presence of such a dark and shocking film was itself a win for horror.
“Presented with the threat of evil infiltrating the sacred home space through the unpredictable path of genetics, 50s audiences must have been terrified.”
The current popular legacy of The Bad Seed lives on in Rhoda, who’s pristine, pig-tailed appearance and McCormack’s unforgettable performance has earned her campy, cult icon status. The film’s reputation as campy and over the top is understandable, especially in light of the films promotion and clunky ending. It’s therefore surprising how restrained and performance heavy the actual film is. It’s emotionally harrowing and disturbing. And while its theories about nature vs. nurture are dated, Kelly and McCormack’s performance and the subdued style of the filmmaking balance it out. When faced with the prospect of a young child who simply doesn’t know any better, the kiddie killer trope is made disturbing and believable once again. Sometimes you have to go back to the source to gain fresh insight into the stories we think we know, and what made them so frightening to begin with.
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