The Bad Seed reflects Slant Magazine’s blind, abject terror of precocious, well-behaved little blond girls who mimic with total precision the gesticulations and motions of the most obsequious members of your circle of friends. Namely we’re talking about Dakota Fanning. The film also plays right into our need to see this phenomenon exposed for what it is. Namely it’s a front for hiding homicidal blitheness, ignoring social exclusion, and, in the way Patty McCormack hordes a secret stash of jewelry and memorabilia collected off of her victims, celebrating with a little too much gusto her arrival into the world of consumerism. It’s also a steadily mounting panoply of hysterical camp mannerisms executed by the nearly intact original Broadway cast, seemingly let loose by director Mervyn LeRoy to recreate their heightened performances without once considering how it might look on film. Nancy Kelly plays Christine Penmark, a rusty-voiced housewife who comes to the gradual discovery that her worries about her daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack) go far beyond her notion that she’s more automatronic than personable, or that her overly polished demeanor probably leads to derision from her school peers. In actuality, Rhoda is a shrill, unflinching, murderous succubus of a little girl. Considering that the film ends with a curtain call in which Kelly takes McCormack across her knee and winkingly spanks her (um, three murders deserves a little more than a spanking), there’s a falseness about the entire enterprise that seems to go beyond mere staginess into some sort of human kabuki. (Has there ever been a character in such a character drama that comes off more expositionary-slash-circumstantial and less human than Christine’s as-it-turns-out adopted father?) Fanning, err, Rhoda is rendered disturbing not so much because she’s a murderess, but because she’s the most self-aware of her duplicity (i.e. the genesis of everything camp). Christine is nearly drawn into the vortex (check out the scene where she slams her hand repeatedly against the kitchen table), but it nearly kills her. The Bad Seed might not have the lurid veneer of Oedipal conflict that turned The Good Son into a supreme guilty pleasure, but it’s got more false-façade performances than you could ever hope for: McCormack as a soulless human shell in pigtails, Kelly putting the stricken in grief-stricken, Eileen Heckart drinking herself into a flamboyant, depressed stupor, and Evelyn Varden as a Freudian enthusiast who, when Kelly witnesses a man burning alive, suggests without a hitch that she simply lie down until she feels better.
Warner Bros. is turning into the class act of catalogue DVDs. Not only are they one of the only companies churning out releases with intensely attractive cover art from their original one-sheets, but the transfers ain't bad either. The Bad Seed looks as clean and guiltless as the blood washed off of McCormack's shoes. It's a nearly flawless video transfer of an unfortunately spotty print. There's a fair amount of dirt and debris, and it's all clear as crystal. The mono soundtrack is surprisingly good for a '50s film, and considering the overacting on display, it could've ended up a lot more shrill.
It's rare that a company will outright acknowledge its product's appeal as deliberate trash, especially if it can milk Academy Award nominations for the prestige effect, but how else to explain the commentary by Patty McCormack and drag legend Charles Busch (recently of Die Mommie Die fame). McCormack is über-colloquial and disturbingly suggests that creepy blond child stars can grow up to be normal-sounding adults. (I don't want to live in a world where Fanning will end up being "part of the crowd.") Meanwhile, Busch vacillates between fawning over and giggling at the expense of the film. A nicely dual-edged track. Also included is the more serious-toned Burch-less interview featurette with reminisces from McCormack. Wrapping it up is the theatrical trailer, which is boring.
Here's a movie that suggests cute, precocious pre-pubescent blond girls should get psychological counseling. Are you listening, Dakota Fanning's mother?