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Warner Home Video presents
The Bad Seed (1956)

"Some murderers, particularly the distinguished ones, who are going to make great names for themselves, start amazingly early, like mathematicians and musicians. Pascal was a master mathematician at 12; Mozart showed his melodic genius at six. And some of our great criminals were topflight operators before they got out of short pants and pinafores."
- Reginald Tasker (Gage Clarke)

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: August 15, 2004

Stars: Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack
Other Stars: Henry Jones, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden, Gage Clarke, William Hopper, Paul Fix, Frank Cady, Joan Croydon
Director: Mervin LeRoy

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (offscreen murders, high tension)
Run Time: 02h:08m:09s
Release Date: August 10, 2004
UPC: 085393352424
Genre: suspense thriller

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B+A-A- B-

DVD Review

From Damien to Problem Child, few genres have had the longevity in Hollywood as the creepy kid picture. Be they Children of the Damned or Children of the Corn, we just can't help but love those sadistic little sociopaths. Alas, for every Omen, there's an Omen II, for every Macaulay Culkin's The Good Son a Macaulay Culkin's Getting Even with Dad, and too many stories of these enfant terribles don't hold up.

The Bad Seed, one of the first, and best, Hollywood versions of a familiar story, has, thankfully, fared far better. The story of little Rhoda (Patty McCormack), a blonde, pig-tailed murderess with a capital Type A, and her guilt-stricken mother Christine (Nancy Kelly) works just as well today as it did 50 years ago, albeit for different reasons, I'm sure.

I wouldn't go so far to say that the movie can only be appreciated as camp in these cynical times, but the "thriller" elements have lost most of their impact over the years, and we're left with a meaty screenplay that delves into what was quite sophisticated psychological theory for the time, great characters, and sharp dialogue made more memorable by a great cast.

Christine would like to believe her little angel is the perfect daughter, but that becomes difficult when the people Rhoda is left alone with start having "accidents." Arousing particular suspicion is the drowning death of one of the girl's schoolmates, a boy whom Rhoda believes cheated her out of a penmanship award (and you know Rhoda, whose dress and hair are always "just so," darn well makes certain her handwriting is "just so" too). Witnesses say Rhoda was the last one who saw the boy alive, but she has a perfectly plausible alibi, even after her mother finds the boy's medal tucked away in a jewelry chest.

Based on a popular Broadway play, The Bad Seed still feels rather stage-y onscreen, as nearly all of the action takes place in Christine's apartment, and director Mervin LeRoy favors long, talky, static takes and deep focus photography (which earned cinematographer Harold Rosson an Oscar nod). But the studio was wise to chose someone who would respect the play's roots, because the elements that make it memorable are those that are, oddly enough, the least cinematic. The acting is over-the-top and stylized, particularly from the leads, as Rhoda goes from being sickly sweet to unhinged and menacing, and her mother moans, wails, and beats against her evil ovaries for producing such a monster. McCormack and Kelly would seem utterly ridiculous placed within a standard thriller, but the whole movie has a sort of heightened reality in which their overplayed emotions feel entirely appropriate. Both were holdovers from the stage version, and their performances have the polish of hundreds of appearances onstage. In fact, most of the cast reprised their Broadway roles, including Evelyn Varden, Christine's nosy upstairs neighbor with a nascent interest is psychology and Eileen Heckart as the shattered, drunken mother of the downed boy. McCormack, Kelly, and Heckart all earned Oscar nods for their work, and Heckart probably deserved to win—her two brief scenes are showstoppers.

The script is full of wonderful moments (including Rhoda's standoff with handyman Leroy, who sees right through her sickly sweet veneer), but it offers few surprises to the modern viewer—a "shocking" twist in Christine's past is telegraphed from the get-go. The climax would have made more of an impression on me were it not undercut moments later by a bit of Hay's Code silliness (if the law can't punish bad little girls, I guess God still can).

The Bad Seed has become something of a camp classic thanks to its theatrical acting, but it also stands as one of those films that anyone can enjoy, even those who normally don't take to black-and-white pictures. Just don't watch it with your kids and give them any ideas.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Presented in its original black-and-white full-frame format, The Bad Seed looks remarkably clean for a 50-year-old film. The image is crisp, with excellent detail and nice contrast between whites, blacks, and grays. Grain is unobtrusive and the source material appears immaculate, with only a few noticeable splices or jump cuts to mar the picture.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is just as good as the video, though considering 95% of the film is simple dialogue, that's not saying much. Speech is always clear and natural, and when the score pops up, it sounds fairly well supported, if a bit lacking in dynamic range. Overall, though, this is a fine example of a mono track from the era.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 36 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by actress Patty McCormack and Charles Busch
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extras Review: While not loaded with features, The Bad Seed includes a few nice supplements, and many more than most mid-level "classics." The bad seed herself, Patty McCormack, reminisces about the filming in both a brief featurette and a feature-length commentary. The former, the 15-minute Enfant Terrible: A Conversation with Patty McCormack, is only decent; we do get to see what the actress looks like now (great, by the way), as she remembers small details about the production and her co-stars.

Most of the same information is included in the commentary, however, and in a more engaging, entertaining style. She's joined on the track by Charles Busch, an actor/writer/director with a love for over-the-top thrillers of the 1950s (he recently made Die, Mommie, Die!, an homage to films like The Bad Seed and Dead Ringer). Busch basically interviews her about the entire production, from its roots as a Broadway play, to working with the adult actors, to bleaching her hair blonde. It's a bit confusing at times, though, because at the beginning of the track, Busch says The Bad Seed is one of his favorite films, then later he seems surprised by various turns of the plot.

There is also a lengthy trailer that begs audiences not to give away the "shocking climax" (a similar plea is made via a title card at the film's conclusion).

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

The Bad Seed is a little dated these days—the much hyped "twist" ending is apparent from a mile away, the thriller elements more campy than scary—but it's still marvelously entertaining, and Warner offers it up in a DVD edition so clean it hardly looks its age.


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