SPOILER ALERT: This review contains spoilers.
The Bad Seed gets a lot of things right, the first and foremost thing being a little acknowledged age-old truism: Kids are freaking creepy. Developmental psychology tells us that before a certain age, children are essentially sociopaths: self-serving, low on empathy, driven by desire. They form packs, they have friends adults sometimes can’t see, they resolve issues with kicking, scratching, and hitting. It’s no surprise that when The Bad Seed was released in 1956 it spoke to audiences in a profound way. The film earned three times its budget at the box office and was one of the highest grossing movies of that year. It is the Grandmother of a legion of wicked child films, and it remains just as unsettling in today’s world of teenage shooters, YouTubed beat-downs, and sadistic cyber bullies as it was to a horde of unhappy housewives sixty-one years ago.
The film chronicles the story of the Penmark family, a seemingly perfect 1950s nuclear unit. Dashing Colonel Penmark is about to depart to serve his country, his lovely wife Christine will keep the home fires burning and happily tend to their precocious little angel, Rhoda. At only eight years old, Rhoda is clever, cordial, and always neatly dressed. Sure, she can be demanding, but that’s just because she’s independent, right? And yes, those tantrums do certainly sometimes get out hand, but, well... who can blame her? She’s just a little girl learning to deal with all those fussy emotions. Okay, okay, a lot of people who cross her end up disappearing or dying in painful ways, but, c’mon, she’s a kid. Just look at that face. All of these observations haunt Christine as she’s left alone to care for her child. But when Rhoda’s classmate and intellectual rival dies on a class picnic, and Christine finds the boy’s coveted penmanship medal in Rhoda’s dresser, all those justifications become much harder to believe. To find out the truth, Christine will have to face her own dark past, and she may have to make a terrible decision to bring Rhoda’s reign of terror to an end.
The thing that always shocks me about The Bad Seed was its relative earliness. The book it’s based was written in 1954, and when the film followed two years later, America was at its height of post-war prosperity and pro-family propaganda. That time in history isn’t called the Baby Boom for no reason, and many of the moviegoers and avid readers who made The Bad Seed a cultural phenomenon were themselves young parents like the Penmarks. Along with this explosion in birth rates, America also saw the rise of “the Housewife” as an archetype.
Before the prosperity of the 1950s, America had survived the Great Depression, which saw even children leaving home to find work; endured WWII, when many women took on skilled labor positions to keep the country running and help in the war effort while the men were away fighting; to say nothing of the many women who contributed in more direct ways, such as servicewomen. With the end of WWII, America saw a family type that, despite claims of its inherent naturalness, had not been seen since the rise of the middle class in Victorian England. With all the prosperity that winning the second World War brought, it led to a sharp division of genders--men earned the living outside the home, women became wardens of the domestic space. One of the things that makes The Bad Seed feel so frightening is its claustrophobic set design. Aside from a brief handful of scenes, the entire movie takes place in the rooms and backyard of the cheerfully middle class building the Penmarks call home. Christine spiritually, emotionally, and sometimes, physically seeks escape from the truth of her daughter’s wickedness, but she’s literally trapped, confined to a home laden with the ghosts of Rhoda’s crimes. After witnessing the brutal death of Leroy the janitor, her motherly neighbor Mrs. Breedlove suggests Christine take Rhoda and spend the night somewhere else. Christine refuses. A woman stays home, for better or for worse.
As the situation grows more and more dangerous for anyone within reach of Rhoda, Christine realizes she has to take action. When she gives Rhoda an overdose of sleeping pills (a medication given out by the bucket-fulls to depressed women) and attempts to shoot herself in the head, her desperate acts could be read as eerily cathartic. I’m not saying that every sad housewife was a potential filicide--but her situation, stranded day after day with a child whose behavior she can’t understand, seeing no hope in sight, feeling like no one believed her when she complained, was probably a fairly accurate portrayal of a middle class woman’s life in the 1950s. Sometimes horror movies show us our worst fears to make us stronger. Sometimes they show us our worst selves to give catharsis and help us move on. With many, many films of the 50s focusing on terrors that were coded specifically “masculine” (invasions, nuclear threats, and the like) I’m sure seeing a cold-blooded, unflinching look at the loneliness, isolation, and the fear of parenting was more than a sigh of relief to many secretly sad, covertly angry women.
And this brings us to Rhoda, the scariest non-demonic child committed to film for decades. If Christine’s attempted filicide/suicide undermined the idea of the oh-so-perfect family, Rhoda takes the film’s deconstruction of the nuclear family to a much meaner level. Rhoda is pitiless, merciless, and self-absorbed. She’s materialistic and feels entitled to every pleasure, accolade, and acquisition. She is, in other words, a wicked little totem of the 1950s itself. Post-war brides and grooms were pressured to produce children... and keep producing. Many of the children of these unions grew up in a welter of wealth, as advertising became a force in the American economy for the first time, and the success of a family became measured by yearly income and status-enhancing gadgets. Rhoda’s endless lust for more is a frightening picture of this mentality taken to an extreme. While the 1950s was a time of incredible prosperity, there’s always been an under-class in America, and Rhoda, like the system she typifies, exploits this as well. The boy she kills is poor, attending Rhoda’s fancy school on scholarship, and the man she burns alive is a poor janitor, with a fecund family but little money to support them. It’s fitting that in the book and play version, Rhoda’s rescued from her mother’s machinations, and lives on. Her predatory hunger isn’t so easily defeated, as the last decades of American history has shown.
There is so much to say about this movie. I didn’t even get to touch the weird Eugenics/matrilineal line of wicked women thing this movie plays with, or the embarrassingly tone-deaf credit sequence designed to comfort distraught audiences. Just see The Bad Seed. It’s a great snapshot of the fears of another decade, and it gives us an unlikely heroine and an even more unlikely monster. Both those characters are worth the price of admission alone. Plus, if you watch it, I promise, the next time you hear a spoiled kid pitching a fit somewhere, you’ll feel that special half-moment of fear only a really smart horror movie can give.