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Film / The Bad Seed (1956)

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William March's 1954 thriller novel The Bad Seed, previously adapted as a stage play, saw its first screen adaptation in 1956. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, the film version very much followed how the play had taken the story, even to the point bringing a good chunk of the Broadway cast along for the ride.

Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly), a housewife, moves into a new town with her husband Kenneth (William Hopper) and daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack). Christine has always thought her daughter was very peculiar; while always polite, courteous, and charming in public, Rhoda has a cold, apathetic, and calculating quality to her personality which her mother finds very disturbing in a child. As Christine notices the strange and horrible things that happen in the proximity of her daughter, she comes to realize that Rhoda is the very definition of an Enfante Terrible.

Two unofficial sequels, Mommy (1995) and Mommy 2: Mother's Day (1997), star Patty McCormack as the bad seed all grown up with a daughter of her own. She also made a cameo as a child psychologist in Rob Lowe's Lifetime Movie of the Week 2018 remake.

It contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Dyejob: In the novel, Rhoda's hair is brown, almost black. The film makes her a blonde to subvert the Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold trope.
  • Adaptational Karma: Applied in the 1956 movie due to The Hays Code: Rhoda, who survived in the original novel, was struck down by lightning in the very last scene (and an epilogue right afterward has the actresses of Rhoda and her mother break character and, in a pretty comedic moment, Rhoda's actress gets spanked). Understandably, the epilogue is sometimes cut.
  • Adaptational Name Change: In the book, Christine's name had always been Christine even after being adopted but in this version she remembers her name having been Ingold.
  • Adults Are Useless: Almost all of the adults buy Rhoda's act; the children in her school know there's something wrong there and usually avoid her.
    • Seemingly subverted with Leroy. Since he has a childlike mind, he not only seems to see though her charade, he's also the first to rightly declare she killed Claude Daigle. Double subverted after he claims he prevented Rhoda's tap shoes (the murder weapon) from burning. When she drops her mask, Leroy practically shits himself because, as he himself states, he DIDN'T know she killed Daigle, he was just harassing her about it to piss her off.
  • The Alcoholic: Hortense Daigle, mother of Claude Daigle (whom Rhoda killed because she wanted his penmanship medal), became addicted to alcohol to dull the pain of losing her only child.
  • Antagonistic Offspring: Rhoda
  • Arc Words: "What'll you give me for a basket of kisses?" "I'll give you a basket of hugs."
  • Asshole Victim: Leroy could be said to have had it coming. Even so...
    • Then there's Rhoda at the very end of the film.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Averted here because of the Hays Code. Rhoda kicks the bucket in the end.
  • Big Bad: Rhoda Penmark, an Enfant Terrible who murders people for petty reasons.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Rhoda, full stop.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Rhoda's a manipulative psychopath, Leroy, who is wise to her evil, is just a bully who acts dumb to get away with what he does, but then we also have Monica who willfully ignores Rhoda's behavior, and the most heroic character, Rhoda's mother Christine, is morally conflicted, juggling between her maternal instincts and coming to grips with the reality that her beloved daughter is evil.
  • Bolt of Divine Retribution: After surviving her mother's attempt to kill her, Rhoda is struck by lightning (and presumably killed) in the film's final moments.
  • Break the Cutie: Rhoda's poor mother!
  • The Cassandra: Mrs. Daigle suspects from the start that Rhoda was responsible for her son's death and repeatedly attempts to pry a confession out of her. Everyone else dismisses Mrs. Daigle's suspicions as a combination of alcoholism and grief.
  • Changeling Fantasy: Since childhood, Christine has had this thought in the back of her mind that she was adopted, though unlike most examples of this trope, the idea fills her with horror. Her parents (father in the movie) profusely deny this, and her friends assure her that this is a common childhood fantasy. Unfortunately for her, the truth is far worse than she could imagine.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Rhoda's tap shoes and the excelsior Leroy uses to sleep on.
    • The special vitamins and sleeping pills Monica gives to Christine
    • Also, Christine mentions her husband keeping an actual gun in the house. She later uses it to shoot herself.
  • Childish Bangs: Rhoda combines these with Girlish Pigtails for an innocent and youthful appearance.
  • Children Are Innocent: Mercilessly averted.
  • Creepy Child/Enfant Terrible: Rhoda could have been the Trope Namer for these.
    • From the words of Robert Englund himself: "When I was 9, I went to a birthday party. We were supposed to see a cowboy movie, but the programming got screwed up and we saw The Bad Seed instead. Horrifying. For years I was frightened of girls with pigtails."
  • Creepy Souvenir: The penmanship medal and the crystal ball that Rhoda took from her first victim.
  • Crusty Caretaker: Leroy is surly, lazy, and no one truly likes or trusts him, but Monica lets him keep his job due to pity for the large family he supports.
  • Curtain Call: The movie ends with this with Rhoda being spanked over her mother's knee. This may have been borrowed from the play.
  • Cute Is Evil: On her surface, Rhoda is the most adorable little girl you'd ever want to meet. Adults dote on her beauty and remark on her sweet, old-fashioned charm. She's also eight years old and has a body count of three.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Rhoda, definitely!
  • Dissonant Serenity: Rhoda. She never shows much excitement, no matter what she's been up to.
  • Despair Event Horizon: For Christine this is Rhoda's murder of Leroy. She is forced to give up any lingering denial she may have had about Rhoda's evil nature or her, Christine's, inability to control her.
  • Do Not Spoil This Ending: The film ends with one of these.
  • Driven to Suicide: Christine though she survives her self-inflicted gunshot wound in the 1956 film version.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Mrs Daigle responds to the death of her only child by getting very, very drunk...and who could blame her?
  • Enfant Terrible: No Freudian Excuse needed. Rhoda was born evil. Hence the name of the story.
  • Every Proper Lady Should Curtsy: Patty McCormack, who played Rhoda, curtsies to the audience at the end curtain call.
  • Evil Is Petty: Part of the horror of Rhoda is that she is a child, with all a child's petty desires. Rhoda murders when there's something she wants, and because she's a child, the things she wants tend to be cheap, pretty, meaningless gewgaws, such as murdering an old woman for an ornamental snowglobe.
  • Evil Versus Evil: Rhoda and Leroy's confrontations.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Monica mentions this is why she keeps Leroy around knowing he does have a family to provide for, this was more shown in the book.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: In spite of readily admitting he is a mean and uncaring man who likes to get under a little girl's skin just for kicks, Leroy is genuinely disturbed when he realizes that kind of person Rhoda really is. He's a sociopath too, but even he recoils at murder.
  • Expy: Evelyn Varden (Monica) played the very similar Icey Spoon in The Night of the Hunter a year earlier—they're both blustery, gullible busybodies who unwittingly become enablers for a Serial Killer. But since Varden had originated the role in the 1954 Broadway version, she likely patterned her performance as Icey Spoon after Monica Breedlove.
  • Face of an Angel, Mind of a Demon: Rhoda, a sweet looking eight year old girl, with the dangerous mind of a psychopathic killer.
  • Fatal Flaw: Rhoda's acquistiveness drives her to murder. She dies while looking for the penmanship medal she murdered Claude Daigle to possess.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Rhoda may act sweet, but she's still a manipulative sociopath with no empathy.
  • Foil: Leroy, the gardener, is the only adult who can see through Rhoda's perfect child act, and enjoys teasing her to get under her skin.
  • Foreshadowing: Leroy teases Rhoda about kids being sent to the electric chair: a little blue one for boys and a little pink one for girls, and compares the electrical jolt to getting hit by lightning. At the end, Rhoda dies by a lightning strike, the Hays Code-friendly version of an electric chair.
  • For the Evulz: Leroy's motivation for tormenting Rhoda. Not that she doesn't deserve it of course.
  • Girlish Pigtails: Rhoda always wears her hair in these.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Rhoda murders her classmate Claude Daigle due to him winning the Penmanship medal she desired.
  • Happily Married: Christine and Kenneth, despite Kenneth's job-related absences.
  • He Knows Too Much: Rhoda kills Leroy by setting him on fire after Leroy deduces over her outburst over the tap shoes that she really DID kill Claude Daigle.
  • High-Voltage Death: Due to the Hays Code being in effect at the time, and Executive Meddling it was forbidden to allow a criminal to get away with their crimes. As such, in this movie, Rhoda is killed by a Bolt of Divine Retribution, unlike the novel.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: "Au Clair de la Lune" will never sound quite the same again...
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Leroy is correct about a number of the characters: Monica is an arrogant know-it-all, Christine's kindness is a bit condescending, and he is is quite right about Rhoda's selfish, coldblooded personality.
  • Karmic Death: Rhoda gets struck down by a High-Voltage Death in this version.
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: Rhonda's gets revoked in the very last scene, implied to be by orders of God Himself.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Monica is described as an "amateur psychologist" but clearly doesn't have any actual expertise in the field. Her advice only serves to distress and upset Christine more and more, but she's totally blind to the fact that Rhoda is a serial killer. The end of the story even makes it clear Rhoda's planning on killing her next. Nicely contrasts her employee Leroy who's a case of Obfuscating Stupidity.
  • Lack of Empathy: When Christine asks Rhoda if she understands the pain Mrs. Daigle must be going through after discovering his medal that she stole from Claude's body, she responds, "I guess." Later, she says, "If Mrs. Daigle wants a son so bad, why doesn't she get one from the orphanage?"
  • Large Ham: Christine expresses her horror at giving birth to Rhoda via a rather overblown gesture of repeatedly punching herself in the uterus. It gets a bit silly.
  • Light Is Not Good: Rhoda, with her blonde hair and spotless white dresses, is a classic example.
  • Love Martyr: A familial example: Christine sacrifices her sanity, integrity, and possibly her life out of the love she has for her daughter, who when asked if she truly loves her, only replies "You're silly!".
  • Motormouth: Monica Breedlove, Christine's landlady and a prominent figure in the community. A fan of Freudian psychology, she is constantly psycho-analyzing others, diagnosing Leroy as a paranoid schizophrenic, her brother Emory as a closeted homosexual, and herself as having incestuous feelings towards him. Worse, in the movie, she manages to analyze the reason her marriage failed... based solely on her ex-husband's name.
    • In what is meant to be irony, despite her intelligence and insight, she spends so much time talking that she never actually observes what's going on around her, and thus can never apply her knowledge to a real situation. Rhoda has her wrapped around her little finger and she doesn't even realize it.
  • Mood Whiplash: After the nature of Rhoda's death the cheerful "curtain call" during the end credits seemed strange, especially the playfulness/comedic nature in which Rhoda is spanked.
  • Murder Is the Best Solution: Rhoda's answer to all her problems.
  • Not the First Victim: It borders on being an Open Secret that Rhoda killed Claude because she was jealous that he won the penmanship medal. Then Christine reveals that, when Rhoda was younger and the family lived in Wichita, Kansas, an upstairs neighbor called Mrs. Post fell down the stairs after promising to give Rhoda a toy snow globe once she died.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Leroy pretends to be a humble simpleton in front of Monica and other adults, while revealing his true mean nature to children. He believes himself to be Brilliant, but Lazy, but based on his wife's comments and his own actions in the story, this is debatable.
  • Offing the Offspring: Rhoda's mother tries to do this in the movie. She also finds out that her own biological mother, a famous serial killer, murdered her entire family, including her other children and almost killed Christine herself.
  • Offscreen Villainy: We don't actually see any of the murders.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Leroy comes off like this during some of his interactions with Rhoda.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The book went into a lot more depth than the play or movie could do, especially concerning the Incomparable Bessie Danker.
    • Leroy's dialogue was more vulgar and both he and Monica made a lot of references to sex that would have been unacceptable to use in a film at that time.
    • Rhoda's school is run by the three Fern sisters: Burgess, Claudia, and Octavia. This is still the case in the adaptations, but only Claudia physically appears in the movie to make things simpler and most of the plot points involving her sisters are transferred to her.
  • Recurring Riff: Rhoda is frequently seen playing Au Clair de la Lune in the 1956 film, which she manages to make sound fact, as creepy as her pigtails, her clothes, her tapdancing, and by the end of the film virtually everything about her.
  • Schrödinger's Cast: Chistine's father Richard Bravo is alive and well in the play and movie, but had died before Rhoda was born in the book.
  • Secondary Adaptation: It's The Film of the Play, which was an adaptation of the novel. Nancy Kelly (a Tony Award winner as Christine), Patty McCormack (Rhoda), Henry Jones (Leroy), Evelyn Varden (Monica), Eileen Heckart (Mrs. Daigle) and Joan Croydon (Miss Fern) all reprise their roles from the 1954 Broadway production.
  • Serial Killer: By the end of the story, Rhoda has a body count of three: a neighbor who promised her a snowglobe after her death, Claude Daigle, and Leroy, plus the implication that she was going to kill Monica Breedlove for her bird. Almost all of them were for short-sighted and selfish reasons.
  • Setting Update: In the book, the murder of Mrs. Post was said to have taken place in Baltimore, here it was in Wichita.
  • The Shrink: Monica — she probably perceives herself as a Type 3 (Awesome Shrink) , but is pure Type 2 (Well-Meaning But Ineffective) all the way. As what goes along with Type 2s, she does not mean to hurt Christine with her psychobabble and only wants the best for her.
  • Smug Snake / Small Name, Big Ego: Leroy, who as mentioned before overestimates his intelligence.
  • The Sociopath: Rhoda has neither conscience nor empathy and has no issues with killing to get what she wants. Rhoda's personality is encapsulated in this exchange between her and Leroy:
    Leroy: You ask me and I say you don't even feel sorry about what happen to that poor little boy.
    Rhoda: Why should I feel sorry? It was Claude Daigle who got drowned, not me.
  • Sound-Only Death: We hear Leroy screaming, pounding on the door, being set loose, and screaming some more, after being set on fire by Rhoda, before he dies, but all we see is Christine's reaction. It's still horrible.
  • Spoiler: In an early invocation of this idea, there's a note in the final frames of the film urging the audience to not reveal the ending to anyone who hasn't seen it yet.
  • Stepford Smiler: Rhoda, and as she finally catches on, her mother.
  • Tempting Fate: Upon hearing of the death of a student at Rhoda's school, Christine is frightened at the possibly of it being Rhoda. No, it wasn't Rhoda, but the truth isn't any better for her.
  • This Is a Work of Fiction: At the end of the movie, the credits is a Curtain Call of all of the cast members being introduced to the audience, with Rhoda being comically spanked in the end by Christine in order to lighten the mood after such an... experience.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Really, Rhoda, what were you thinking when you grabbed a fishing net on a metal rod in the middle of a thunderstorm? In her defense, she's only eight years old, and eight-year-olds don't often come up with the best plans—even when they're clever enough to be killers.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Rhoda!
  • Villainous Lineage: Christine discovers that her biological mother was a serial killer and believes that she passed her murderous nature to Rhoda.
  • Villain Protagonist: Take a wild guess on who it is.
  • Wham Line: Leroy spends much of the film seemingly the only one who immediately recognized Rhoda had killed Claude Daigle, and in their final conversation, he claims he prevented Rhoda's shoes (the murder weapon) from burning in the incinerator where she'd disposed of them. Rhoda starts yelling at him, and he tells her it's a joke and he doesn't have them. As Rhoda keeps screaming for their return, Leroy drops the bombshell that he DIDN'T know she killed Daigle until right then and there.
    Leroy: I believe you did it. I was foolin' before, but now I believe you kill him. You killed that little boy with your SHOES.
  • World of Ham: Since most of the cast of the play reprised their roles here, they retained their highly theatrical acting styles, with Rhoda, Leroy and Mrs. Daigle being the standout hams.
  • Worthy Opponent: A few lines of dialogue suggest this between, of all people, Leroy and Rhoda once they both discover that the other is also a sociopath.