By: Matthew Hays
If there’s one bit of conventional wisdom about horror-movie history that needs to be corrected, it would be this: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) forever changed the direction of the genre by placing the horror within the family, rather than emanating from a monster or alien.
I’m a big Psycho fan myself, but the film was not the first horror movie to take cues from Sigmund Freud and create a terrifying sense that family relations could go terribly wrong. That distinction is held by The Bad Seed (1956), in which a mother becomes gravely concerned that her seemingly-perfect eight-year-old daughter is, in fact, a cold-blooded serial killer.
And The Bad Seed wears its Freud influence with flamboyant pride, as early in the film one character boasts of having actually met the good psychoanalyst. And the script (based on the play, which was adapted from William March’s novel) posed the question: was the poised Rhoda (played by Patty McCormack) made a killer by nurture or was she born that way? Could someone inherit that trait? This leads to plenty of handwringing for mom (Nancy Kelly), whose worst suspicions become confirmed.
The Bad Seed is clearly a stage-to-screen adaptation, but that never hampers the fun or suspense. And the cast was all lifted from the Broadway production, which shows: all of the performances are exquisite, from the creepy McCormack to Henry Jones as the pedophilic groundskeeper. The film’s punchline (spoiler alert) is basically answered as nurture: the greedy, materialistic Rhoda hasn’t inherited her traits (if it is in her DNA, it must be a recessive gene, because her mother is sweet as pie), but rather, she’s a capitalist monster — a mini-Ayn Rand — the logical outcome of growing up in ’50s America. March’s book and the play freaked out censors so badly that they forced the studio to create a tack-on ending, punctuating the film with an Act of God. But the closure is so obviously contrived it only adds to the titillation, clearly reflecting how repressed that moment in time was. It’s as if the cultural war between the religious right and the secular Freudians is happening within the movie itself.
While John Waters has championed this film (he dedicated an entire chapter of his 2010 book Role Models to McCormack), The Bad Seed remains woefully underseen and too often overlooked. I’m amazed how few students have seen it when I screen it in a horror class I teach every year at Concordia University. It is truly a classic of the genre, and a forerunner to evil-kiddie movies like The Exorcist and The Omen. And when adorable Rhoda offers up one of her perfect curtsies, she’ll leave you chilled to the bone.