Horror in Black and White: ‘The Bad Seed’ (1956)

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On December 8, 1954, a brand new play, written by Maxwell Anderson based on the novel by William March, opened on Broadway. It was called The Bad Seed, and it shook theater audiences to their core.

It seemed they weren’t prepared for the story of an eight year old girl who was a cold-blooded killer. In fact, the play’s ending nearly caused rioting in the audience in the days before that was just a publicity stunt!

Despite the shock, the show ran for 334 performances and earned the show’s lead actress, Nancy Kelly, a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.

Naturally, Hollywood came calling, and John Lee Mahin (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [1941]), was tasked with adapting the play for the big screen.

After some shuffling to find a director–Alfred Hitchcock turned down the job–Mervyn LeRoy (Quo Vadis) took on the film, and insisted on bringing several of the play’s actors to Hollywood to reprise their roles.

The Bad Seed hit the big screen in 1956, and an even wider audience was enthralled and terrified by what they saw.

In the film, Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly) has what seems to be the picture-perfect family. She loves her husband, Col. Kenneth Penmark (William Hopper), and their daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack) is the most well-mannered, sweet, and loving child they could imagine…or so they thought.

Christine (Nancy Kelly) struggles to understand her daughter (Patty McCormack) in The Bad Seed

Shortly after her husband receives new orders and has to leave the family for a while, one of Rhoda’s classmates drowns at a school picnic. It’s a horrific accident, but Christine’s panic grows as she begins to suspect that Rhoda may have caused the drowning.

In fact, as other facts about her daughter begin to come to light, she begins to question everything she ever knew about herself and her family.

The film digs deep into the psychology of nature vs. nurture, and whether madness or the desire to commit heinous acts can actually be passed “in the blood” from one generation to the next.

It was a lofty topic for the time, and one that left audiences flabbergasted. In fact, when the film went before the Hays Commission, they were forced to change the original ending from the play in order to be able to get the board’s seal for distribution.

You see, according to the Hays Code a person, no matter their age, could not commit atrocities and escape punishment so the play’s original ending was altered and a more “just” ending was written. That’s as close to a spoiler as you’ll get in this article. Take it for what you will.

The studio kept the ending of the film very tight-lipped. The last five pages of the script was withheld until it was time to shoot, and at the end of the film, a title screen asks viewers not to spoil the ending of the film for those who had not seen it yet.

It was a genius tactic and one that Hitchcock would put to good use himself just four years later with Psycho.

For her part, Patty McCormack was genuinely terrifying turning from light to dark in the blink of an eye. There is never a doubt for the audience that she is as dangerous as she is charming, even as she manages to convince everyone but her mother that she is a perfect little angel.

Nancy Kelly, meanwhile, gives a brilliant if sometimes over-large performance as Christine. It seems that LeRoy never encouraged her to bring her theater performance down a notch, and the result gives the viewer more than a few reasons to doubt the woman’s sanity.

In fact, the entire cast seems to perform at an 11 throughout the film, magnifying the emotional turmoil and ratcheting up the film’s tension.

Eileen Heckart is heartbreaking as a woman in the throes of loss as the mother of Rhoda’s deceased classmate. She drowns her sorrows in whatever liquor she can get her hands on and repeatedly pushes her way into the Penmark home to attempt to find answers about what happened to her son.

Heckart won a Golden Globe for her performance in the film which is remarkable considering she was only on screen for a total of 10 minutes!

Eileen Heckart gave a remarkable performance in The Bad Seed

Henry Jones, also from the Broadway cast, plays the angry, distrustful handyman, Leroy, to the hilt. He’s the only one outside of Christine who seems to see through Rhoda’s facade, and takes every opportunity to square off with the child to prove that he knows what she’s done and he is not afraid of her.

The Bad Seed is one of those films that just never gets old for me, and if you’ve never seen it, the time is now! It’s available for rent on multiple streaming services including Amazon and Vudu.

Also, interestingly enough, as I was prepping to write this film up, I discovered that a new version of this story has been made starring Rob Lowe that includes an appearance by Patty McCormack so keep your eyes peeled for that coming soon!

Join us next week for an all new Horror in Black and White and don’t forget to check out last week’s featured film: The Night of the Hunter!

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