Mervyn LeRoy’s 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 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.
- 129 min
- Mervyn LeRoy
- John Lee Mahin
- Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack, Henry Jones, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden, William Hopper, Paul Fix, Jesse White
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