Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Bad, Seen: "The Bad Seed" (1956)

A classic in the suspense field, this 1950's film does not live up to its reputation.

Rhoda (Patty McCormack) is a perfect little pig-tailed eight year old. She is overloved by her military dad, stoic mom, and even the frumpy landlady from upstairs. Her hunky father (William Hopper) leaves on temporary duty, and Christine (Nancy Kelly) is alone with Rhoda. A child dies at a school picnic, and it comes out that Rhoda was the last to see him alive. Rhoda really really wanted little Claude's penmanship medal, something she felt she should have won.

Christine begins to suspect all is not perfect with little Rhoda. She shows no emotion at losing the classmate, and somehow ends up with the disputed medal. Christine begins consulting with amateur psychologist/landlady Monica (Evelyn Varden), and a criminologist. Much is made of environment playing the main role in a child's criminal behavior, not genetics.

As Christine begins suspecting Rhoda more, weird handyman Leroy (Henry Jones, who is great) begins teasing Rhoda, knowing she was involved. Christine's reporter dad (Paul Fix) drops by with the bombshell that Christine was in fact adopted and her birth mother was a murderer whose case the father was covering.

As Christine tries to battle these life changing issues, another major character dies. Christine then makes the decision to stop Rhoda's murderous habits for good, and take herself out of the picture as well.

While often placed in the horror section of video stores, this is more Hitchcockian suspense than anything. On the positive, it does contain some creepy scenes. When McCormack describes how she killed her classmate, I got chills down my spine. Also Kelly's recounting of her recurring dream about escaping from her real mother's house when she was a toddler is also good. Kelly and McCormack deserved their Oscar nominations for these brief scenes alone.

Director LeRoy makes no bones about this story's popularity on the stage first, and there are too many scenes set in Christine's living room. He does not try to open it up enough, and instead of claustrophobia, boredom sets in. It is one thing for a mother not wanting to believe the worst of her child, it is another when the mother seems too stupid not to believe the worst. LeRoy overplays everyone's love for the child, to the point of nausea.

While the audience knows the child is a killer, we must sit through quite a few static dialogue scenes before others figure it out. While Jones is good as Leroy, it seems his fate is put near the end of the film so we would not be mad at Christine, who could have stopped her daughter from harming him. He is made lecherous and weird, so we won't feel bad when anything happens to him.

The cast here is way over the top. Much of the gestures are very broad, and even the speech delivery is overly theatrical. The cast still seems to be playing for a live audience, and there is not the intimacy of film in the execution here. Eileen Heckart is the dead boy's drunk grieving mom, and plays her as that and nothing more.

A word about the ending. The cast is called back out for a curtain call, just like onstage. Then actress Kelly play-spanks actress McCormack, both laughing. I do not know if this was supposed to diffuse the downer ending, but instead it negates it, trying too hard to remind the audience that this is just a movie.

Despite the few tense scenes, this is a very dry and boring film. The cast tries to liven it, but they try too hard, resulting in overacting an underwritten story.

I hate to do this, and I may be the only one on this planet, but I do not recommend "The Bad Seed." (* *) out of five stars.