Demonic children have been a ghoulish Hollywood staple for a number of years, and it's easy to see why. There's something innately terrifying about a vicious youngster who wreaks havoc on the adult world, but before little Damien of 'The Omen' smiled devilishly at the camera and Regan of 'The Exorcist' spun her head around, before 'Orphan,' 'Children of the Corn,' and even 'Village of the Damned,' there was Rhoda Penmark of 'The Bad Seed.' Well-mannered, cheerful, with blonde, perfectly braided pigtails and often draped in a white pinafore dress, the diminutive Rhoda could be a lovely, innocent dream child...but if you happen to possess something she covets, look out. Rarely are appearances more deceiving, and beneath that goody-two-shoes demeanor lies a master of deception and manipulation who constructs diabolical plots without conscience or mercy.
When 'The Bad Seed,' adapted by esteemed playwright Maxwell Anderson from William March's novel, hit the Broadway stage in 1954 and two years later came to the screen, it sent shock waves through audiences unaccustomed to seeing such unadulterated evil in someone so young. Today, Mervyn LeRoy's tight thriller may have lost some of its bite and novelty factor, and might be better known for its camp qualities than its disturbing subject matter, but it's still an involving, tense, and intriguing study of the nature of malevolence, and our inability to understand and stop it.
Are criminals and murderers products of their environments, systematically groomed for a life of deviance by abusive parents, squalid living conditions, and other external influences? Or is evil inbred, merely the predetermined result of genetics and heredity, and there's nothing anyone can do to curb such tendencies? In its more introspective moments, these are the questions 'The Bad Seed' tries to tackle, as a mother who has raised her child in a stable household filled with love, support, and fine things struggles to come to terms with and stem her daughter's reckless disregard of authority and ruthless pursuit of her heart's desire.
After she loses the penmanship award, which she ardently believes she should have won ("Everyone knows I write the best hand!"), to - in her skewed eyes - a far less deserving classmate, eight-year-old Rhoda (Patty McCormack) tries to contain her rage and is consoled by both her emotionally fragile mother, Christine (Nancy Kelly), who worries about her daughter's antisocial behavior, and an older family friend, whom Rhoda calls Aunt Monica (Evelyn Varden). Later, Rhoda attends a school picnic, and when the boy who won the prize ends up drowned in the lake - and witnesses claim Rhoda was the last person to interact with him - a cloud of suspicion hangs over her. Rhoda vehemently denies any involvement in the tragedy and has a logical answer for every pointed question, but her mother and others harbor serious doubts about the veracity of her statements. Caught between her unconditional love for her daughter and horror over the unspeakable act she may have committed, Christine looks inward and begins to blame herself for bringing such a monstrous child into the world.
Almost the entire cast of the Broadway original was brought to Hollywood to reprise their roles, and while all the acting is first rate (Kelly was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, and both McCormack and Eileen Heckart nabbed Best Supporting Actress nods), there's a theatrical broadness to the portrayals that ultimately dilutes the film's creepy quotient. Scenery chewing is the order of the day, and it adds a campy quality to many fraught circumstances and crackling confrontations. There's still a lot of riveting drama, but less playing to the rafters would have made all the action seem more real, especially in this day and age.
Mervyn LeRoy was an accomplished director, helming such classics as 'Little Caesar,' 'I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,' 'Random Harvest,' 'Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,' 'Quo Vadis,' and 'Mister Roberts,' but he and screenwriter John Lee Mahin clutch the material's theatrical roots too tightly. Their static treatment of 'The Bad Seed' often makes it feel like a filmed stage play - there's even a misguided "curtain call" that follows closely on the movie's explosive climax and significantly dulls its impact. Maybe such a coda was needed back in the 1950s, when audiences had less tolerance for such unpleasantness and needed a transition back to the real world, but such a stilted and artificial convention dates what could have been a timeless tale.
Censorship also forced the play's shattering ending to be changed...for the worse. The new denouement is more traditional, predictable, and, sadly, difficult to swallow. Anderson's play brazenly allowed evil to triumph over good, yet Hollywood's stringent production code couldn't let that happen. The new ending, while entertaining and cathartic, turns 'The Bad Seed' into an overblown cautionary tale instead of a searing examination of twisted, violent, and remorseless behavior. Unlike Rhoda, the makers of 'The Bad Seed' had to play by the rules, and the result somewhat weakens the material.
Nevertheless, this macabre story has much to recommend it. Substance, fine acting, and an absorbing plot has kept 'The Bad Seed' from falling out of favor over the past half century since its premiere. Just like little Rhoda, it's far from perfect, and just like little Rhoda, whether you view 'The Bad Seed' as stylized or scary, there's much more to it than meets the eye.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Bad Seed' comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case, but features different - and more sinister - cover art than the 2004 DVD, which used the film's original poster. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and the only audio available is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track. Upon instertion of the disc, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no promos or previews precede it.
'The Bad Seed' arrives on Blu-ray sporting a handsome - but not dazzling - 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 black-and-white transfer that's pratically devoid of any nicks, spots, or scratches. The image remains clear throughout, but a modicum of grain adds a solid film-like feel that helps soften the harshness of Hal Rosson's photography. Blacks start out rather anemic, but achieve greater depth as the movie progresses. The silhouette shot of Rhoda dumping her shoes in the incinerator is striking, and the nocturnal climax possesses an appropriate eerie quality that caps off the film well.
Interiors and certain exteriors, however, exhibit a heavy brightness that washes out fine details. There's a lot of white on the screen, from Rhoda's blonde hair to her wardrobe, and though it never blooms, it often overpowers the picture. Uneven contrast levels also distract from time to time, and gray scale variance isn't as pronounced as one would like. 'The Bad Seed' is filmed in a naturalistic style, almost as if a conscious decision was made not to make the movie appear at all cinematic, and as a result, the print lacks the sheen and pizzazz that distinguish the best black-and-white transfers.
Background details can be a bit fuzzy, but a reflection on a stainless steel coffee pot is dazzlingly crisp, and close-ups, though used sparingly, look lovely. There is also no evidence of any digital enhancements or anomolies. All in all, this is a fine effort from Warner that honors the source material well and breathes new life into this 55-year-old classic.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track doesn't get much chance to flex any muscle - save for the thunderstorm climax - but provides clear sound that's free of distortion and any age-related pops, crackles, and hiss. Details and nuances are distinct, and the all-important dialogue - whether whispered or shrieked - remains easy to comprehend throughout the two-hour-plus running time.
Dynamic range is fine, and Alex North's music score enjoys nice presence and tonal depth despite the lack of multiple channels. If you're looking for knock-your-socks-off audio, you won't find it here, but the track takes care of business and does its best with what it has to work with.
Only a couple of extras are included, and they have all been ported over from the 2004 DVD.
'The Bad Seed' caused quite a stir back in 1956, and though Mervyn LeRoy's adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's acclaimed play has lost some of its edge in the intervening years due to its overly theatrical presentation and stylized acting, this taut, entertaining thriller still stands as a probing examination of evil. Warner's Blu-ray treatment of this classic tale features upgraded video and audio, and a couple of interesting supplements, and is definitely worth a look for fans of chillers, classics, and camp.