“It’s just that they are bad seeds. Plain bad from the beginning. And
nothing can change them.”

Rhoda Penmark is the perfect eight year old. She is polite, she always
curtseys, she plays the piano and tap-dances, she is an avid reader and takes
her vitamins every night before bed. She is also a homicidal maniac. Before the
children of the damned, before Damien, before Mikey, there was Rhoda. She was
the original and ultimate 4-foot sociopath – manipulative, cunning and deadly.
With pigtails.

Released at a time when fears of juvenile delinquency were rife, when
middle-class people thought criminals were only confined to slums and crime was
a product of environment, The Bad Seed shocked audiences with its idea of
nature trumping nurture, that some people are just born bad. When the film is
viewed today, it’s a somewhat over-the-top melodrama and at times laughable,
but the film is a well-made if unintentional cult classic that sparked a wave
of killer-kid movies.

Losing a competition to a boy in her class, Rhoda attends a school
picnic where the boy conveniently drowns. This prompts Rhoda’s mother, Christine
to start paying extra attention to her daughter; why is Rhoda always so perfect?
Why does she have this strange adult-like quality? As Christine asks these
questions, she begins to realise that her sweet daughter isn’t what she seems.
The only person to see through Rhoda is Leroy, the mentally retarded janitor in
their apartment building. Her act doesn’t work on him, and he teases her about
little blue electric chairs for boys and little pink ones for girls.

There’s something off with Rhoda from the beginning. The rhinestone
sunglasses given to her by mother’s landlady make her look less like a sweet
child playing dress-up and more like a transvestite addict living in Andy
Warhol’s factory. She’s precocious, manipulative and very resourceful for an
eight year old; tap-shoes aren’t just a fun pastime for Rhoda, but a useful murder
weapon. At times her rage breaks through her sweet demeanour, especially when
it comes to the medal she feels she deserves from school. She is perhaps at her
most demonic when Leroy informs her he has the tap-shoes she thought she
destroyed. “Give me the shoes,” she hisses at him, her fists clenched and her
face contorted with anger.

The film is no way subtle, which at times makes it difficult not to be
funny, even when trying to be serious. “Mother, is it true that when blood has
been washed off anything, a police man can still find if it’s there?” Rhoda
asks innocently. For Rhoda, getting away with killing is easy and a peanut
butter sandwich and glass of milk provides the perfect snack post-murder. Patty
McCormack does a fantastic job as the pint-sized murderess, bringing an uncomfortable
sophistication to what could have been a cartoonish portrayal.

The film takes a dark turn as Christine realises the truth about her
daughter, and the truth about her own childhood. Feeling a mix of guilt and
responsibility, Christine tries to kill her daughter with a lethal mix of
sleeping pills. But that’s not enough to keep young Rhoda down. The film’s
climatic ending (one I won’t spoil) is ludicrous and brilliant, and proves just
how shocking a film it was upon release in the mid fifties. A fantastic mix of
horror and melodrama, the film’s overacting and often unintentionally hilarious
dialogue creates a campy two hours of killer fun for anyone watching.

Review by James Alexander

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