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The Bad Seed (1956)
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Bad Seed is a 1956 black-and-white film based on a successful play that took its plot from a novel about a bright but evil 8-year-old girl. Younger kids will probably be bored by the over-long, melodramatic storytelling style. Three murders, by staircase, arson, and drowning, occur offscreen. Young children may find the suspicious janitor's talk about murderous children going to the electric chair creepy and frightening. Also offscreen, a burning man runs screaming from a fire and dies. Out of love, a parent tries to put a merciful stop to a child's violence. A gun suicide attempt is described but not shown. Murder by poison is discussed. A prescription drug overdose is administered. The mother of a murdered child starts drinking steadily.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
THE BAD SEED is planted in Rhoda (Patty McCormack), a well-mannered 8-year-old girl who manipulates grown-ups with extra hugs and proclamations of love, and who does her homework and studies the Bible diligently. Nevertheless, her parents are vaguely aware that something about her is off. Strangely, animals disappear around her. People she doesn't like or need disappear around her. Her explanations are plausible and delivered innocently and sweetly, which is why her actions fly under the radar for years. It isn't until a boy in her class meets his untimely demise at a school picnic that her snooty school headmistress and even her own mother, Christine (Nancy Kelly), begin to suspect. At the same time, Christine's father visits and confirms that Christine was adopted under terrible circumstances: Her mother was a beautiful, charming, and brutal murderer. Christine worries she's a carrier of a genetic deficiency she's passed on to Rhoda, a seeming psychopathic killer in a sweet pink dress. The recent horrors of World War II provide the anxious backdrop. Rhoda's Army colonel father fought overseas. A neighbor expresses anxiety about the prospect of more war and of being turned in to "dust," a reference to what happened to two Japanese cities the United States bombed with atomic weapons in 1945. "Modern" ideas about psychoanalysis are discussed casually, and so is the debate about nature vs. nurture regarding mental defectiveness. An "expert" doctor debunks the idea that criminal tendencies can be inherited. He thinks good, healthy parenting can overcome inherited traits. But the movie's action seems to indicate otherwise. In a coda, the producers request that audiences remain mum about the ending.
Is it any good?
In some ways, this movie is a dated and creaky time capsule of its era, reverberating with post-World War II anxiety and fear, informed by the certainty that pure evil (think Hitler) exists. But recognizing that fact still doesn't explain it, and explanation is what The Bad Seed is after. The overarching postwar anxiety is communicated in the film's opening moments. A thunderstorm brews over a dark, deserted pier and screechy strings dominate an agitated orchestral score. As if in a desperation to explain the inexplicable, people show an interest in and growing acceptance of the psychiatric theories of Sigmund Freud -- they are all the rage in the 1950s. One character boasts about her analysis and drops such terms as "schizophrenic," "psychopathic," and "paranoid" into casual conversation. It's all there -- anxiety about unnamed impending doom and a group of characters who believe they're well prepared to identify and name the root causes of whatever might befall them. Little do they know what's in store, but the far-from-subtle setup makes certain that the audience does. Evil, we are assured, does lurk, whether we can explain it or not. Just as Hitler's Aryan perfectionism cloaked inhuman baseness, Rhoda's good manners and precociousness cover an inner corruption.
Despite the Freudian references, there is no character development here, just melodrama and thriller pacing. The source material is a 1954 William March novel, adapted that same year into a long-running Maxwell Anderson play whose success spawned the movie.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what they would do if they knew someone who seemed above suspicion was actually doing terrible things. Would you tell a parent, or a teacher, or the police?
What do you think happens after The Bad Seed ends?
Would you find it odd if a student at your school was killed but another student didn't seem to care about it? Why do you think people are empathetic? Do you think it helps humans function together in society?