There are few villains in horror that pack the punch of little 8 year old Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed. Rhoda instantly solidified my love for what remains one of my favorite subgenres – children that kill. And, she has never been dethroned as the quintessential model for all those that have followed. Played by Patty McCormack, who was more recently seen as Pat Nixon in Frost/Nixon, Rhoda is a disturbing mix of perfect etiquette, grooming and intelligence with a vicious determination to get whatever pleases her with no regard for even the most basic human compassion.
Rhoda, herself is at times perplexed by what makes her different from those around her. A victim of genetics, hopelessly detached from the human condition, she struggles to understand what keeps her mother perpetually on the verge of hysterics. The audience learns with her mother just how deep her affliction goes when she discovers her latest victim’s medal in her trinket box and announces she will return it to the fallen child’s parents to comfort them. Rhoda insists it would be useless, saying “Claude is dead. He wouldn’t know if he had the medal pinned on him or not.”. Her mother tries to explain the devastation they have both just witnessed by the boy’s distraught mother and Rhoda responds by suggesting “If Claude’s parents want a little boy so much, why don’t they just get a new one at the orphanage?”
The memorable characters in The Bad Seed are actualized brilliantly by the original Broadway cast. The use of theater folk adds to the over the top feel of the entire production. Fans of melodramas like The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Night of the Hunter will enjoy the humor and wonder what is intentional and what is a product of an overly dramatic style of acting.
A distraught Hortense Daigle attempts to bond with Rhoda.
Case in point, Hortense Daigle, little Claude’s distraught mother played by Eileen Heckart. She was an acclaimed theater actress who also starred in movies like Burnt Offerings and many television shows including as Mary Tyler Moore’s hardnosed reporter aunt which captured Lou Grant’s heart. The scene mentioned above is one of the most memorable. Hortense visits the Penmarks, three sheets to the wind in order to find some new memory of her lost son to hold on to. What ensues is a drunken rant acknowledging her lower station in life and what her son meant to her. Heckart earned a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as a result of the riveting performance.
Evelyn Varden is likewise a jewel in this film, playing basically the same self indulgent, incessant talker she does in Night of the Hunter. As Monica Breedlove, the Penmark’s landlady who adores little Rhoda, she breezes in and out chattering away and offering her armchair psychoanalysis, blind to the impending doom that surrounds her. Her commentary and discussions with Reginald Tasker a writer friend, provide the context of the movie – the debate between nature and nurture. While perhaps a bit over discussed for the modern viewer, the debate still rages on today and at the time these were brand new questions. 1950’s audiences were shocked by the idea that a child could ever become a criminal, much less a cold blooded murderer, especially if they grew up in a good home.
Leroy taunts an unaffected Rhoda.
Much of what we learn about Rhoda comes from her interactions with Leroy (Henry Jones), the handyman. Leroy is one character which no doubt will be taken up a few notches if Eli Roth (Hostel) ever does his planned remake of the movie. Several scenes hint at a much darker character than is shown on screen. He fantasizes about Monica Breedlove’s death as well as his sexual attraction for Mrs. Penmark and he finds pleasure in taunting and scaring children. Rhoda, who doesn’t scare easily, becomes his primary target and the two share several scenes where he repeatedly tries to rattle her.
In one, he directly accuses her of purposely harming her school mate, who was found drown at the school picnic and he tells her that the police have “stick bloodhounds” who can sniff out blood, and no matter how much someone has tried to wash it away the police have a powder that will make it glow blue. When the confident murderess retorts that they don’t execute children, he assures her they have a little blue electric chair for little boys and a little pink one for little girls. Our first view of Rhoda’s coldness comes whilst Leroy is taunting her for not being more effected by her classmate’s death. As she skates off Rhoda proclaims, “Why should I feel sorry, it was Claude Daigle that got drowned, not me.”
Christine Penmark talks with Monica Breedlove
Finally, there’s the star of the show, Christine Penmark, played by Nancy Kelly. At the movie’s opening Christine has already begun to question her idyllic life, wondering about her own origins and the “disturbing maturity” of her daughter. While presented as the perfect daughter, wife and mother, Christine annoyingly whines her way through the movie, gesturing overdramatically with her hands. Early on she appears to be reaching out to console, particularly Mrs. Daigle or to beg for help from her landlady and husband. Midway through the picture she spends most of her time hugging herself as if to protect her womb. By the end, her hands are spasming all over the place, pounding on furniture and clawing at her stomach as if to claw out the source of evil. But, luckily for Christine, her oblivious husband will stand by her without question, no matter how extreme her actions become.
Unfortunately, The Bad Seed suffered at the hands of the Hays code which stipulated crime could not pay, particularly murder. The ending of the book and the play before it remains intact, but a new Hollywood version is tagged on so that nature can protect itself and true love prevail. The result is a completely implausible disappointment.
The murderess Besse Danker who is mentioned repeatedly by Reginald Tasker is said to have been inspired by real life murderesses Belle Gunness and Jane Toppan. Both women killed dozens, the former for money and the latter in part, for sexual gratification. Both also inspired other characters. The Bad Seed likewise inspired future pop culture references, such as a spoof of Hortense Daigle’s breakdown by Kenny’s mother in South Park after one of his many deaths. The movie is also quoted in 1993’s Without Conscience, a book by a psychologist arguing for genetic links to behavior. According to Wikipedia, “Robert D. Hare argues that March’s novel is a ‘remarkably true to life’ portrayal of the development of psychopathy in childhood, illustrating both Rhoda’s callous use of others to serve her own ends as well as Christine’s growing helplessness and desperation as she realizes the extent of her daughter’s behavior.”
The Bad Seed was actually remade for TV in 1985 with Blair Brown as Christine Penmark, Lynn Redgrave as Monica, David Carradine as Leroy and Carrie Wells in the title role – though that time as Rachel. The result was disappointing.
Reports in 2004 proclaimed an upcoming remake by Cabin Fever director Eli Roth. Unfortunately Hostel became a megahit before this came to pass and he shelved it to do a sequel to Hostel. At the time Variety quoted Roth concerning the upcoming project, “Roth promises a new take with a modern horror sensibility. ‘The original was a great psychological thriller, and we are going to bastardize and exploit it, ramping up the body counts and killings,” said Roth. “This is going to be scary, bloody fun, and we’re going to create the next horror icon, a la Freddy, Jason and Chucky. She’s this cunning, adorable kid who loves to kill, but also loves ‘N Sync.’ Also involved was Luke Janklow as producer. He was the grandson of the 1956 director Mervin Le Roy and great grandson of Warner Brothers studio co-founder Harry Warner.
Remakes are a shaky thing, more often than not totally missing the mark and disappointing. But, there are exceptions and Roth’s take on this classic is one that would interest me. A good remake can have the effect of not only bringing an old story to modern audiences, but introducing them to the original as well.
Rhoda in the 21st Century.