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Pure Evil Wears Pigtails: ‘The Bad Seed’ at 60

If you’re going to create a character that personifies evil, what better deceptive vessel than an eight-year-old girl in a plaid cotton dress. Give her braids (described as “hangman’s nooses”) adorned with two small bows of ribbon. Make her dimples shallow. Have her speak in an old-fashioned way that veils her threats. Offer her mother a basket of kisses. A knack for cleanliness that borders on psychotic.

Have her want nothing more in the world than to win her school’s penmanship medal. And for the safety of the community and the lives of our children, I am begging you, give her that goddamn penmanship medal.

The “evil child” motif has been done to death in horror. From a whole Village of the Damned and McCauley Culkin throwing dummies off a bridge to “There’s Something Wrong With Esther,” it’s been drilled in our eyeballs not to trust ankle-biters. But in 1954, William March’s bestselling novel The Bad Seed jarred the nation with its depiction of pure, pig-tailed adolescent evil: little miss Rhoda Penmark.

A crucial pressure point that made March’s book so disturbing at the time was the fact that this was the mid-1950s. Post-war. Economic boom. The kick-off of suburban flight. Everything was SWELL. Dad worked hard to hold a pipe delicately between his teeth. Mom cooked and watched the laundry revolve (you do know that’s why they invented the window on washing machines, right? So Mom had something entertaining to watch). And the kids skipped home to nestle at their parents’ feet.

Then along came Rhoda. A brown-eyed girl with “no emotion in her voice.” Whose pleasant demeanor is betrayed by her perpetual “acquisitive look.” A sociopath. A prepubescent pipsqueak and perpetual perjurer. The type of killer you devote slow, savory syllables to: murd-der-er.

In the book, March wrote about America as it was, and more importantly, how it was eroding. And Rhoda was the first rust spot.

Rhoda took murder out of the ghettos and the gutter and put it in the living room (with a doily under it, of course). Juvenile delinquency was a major concern at this time, but was mainly confined to inner cities and teenagers (see: Blackboard Jungle, High School Hellcats, Teenage Crime Wave, about a thousand others). But Rhoda, man, she was something special.

March’s book was also spawned out of a hot reexamining of the nature vs. nurture debate, as well as criminology as a whole and a look at the ol’ nature of evil. Whether anyone was born evil, inherited evil through their genes, or becomes evil thanks to a shitty upbringing was regular parlor discussion. This is depicted heavily (boringly so at times) in March’s book, via the male characters. In March’s book, males love to sit around and talk evil and crime. The women, on the other hand, are busybodies – devouring and delivering gossip like it’s their daily bread.

Trembling in between these corners of armchair detectives and meddlers, like a moth trying not to get fried by the light of knowledge, is Christine Penmark, Rhoda’s mother and the beating heart of the story – a woman who suffers very different fates in the book and film.

And holy shit, the film. That’s what we’re supposed to be talking about here. March’s book was adapted for the stage almost immediately after being published and two years later came the Mervyn LeRoy film adaptation. Struggling artist LeRoy previously directed some underdog indie called The Wizard of Oz.

The silver screen Bad Seed follows the book nearly precisely – a child is murdered over the penmanship medal, Rhoda fucks with everybody – but with two major differences: the ending and the almighty Patty McCormack. The “happy” ending of the film was forced down LeRoy’s throat by the censors. Back then, crime “could not pay” – that’s why so many dark films from the golden age of noir have happy endings, and why indie middle fingers like United Artists were born. But The Bad Seed was a studio production, so Rhoda needed to be stopped. What a dumb ending.

But from her blonde hair to her buckle-shoes, McCormack’s Rhoda was an almost living-doll of evil that has since been replicated countless times. In the book Rhoda is a brunette. In the film, she’s a toe-headed, glassy-eyed nightmare. “Talky Tina” from the Twilight Zone episode “The Living Doll” and Annabelle owe their whole get up to McCormack.

How effective was her performance? McCormack was nominated for an Academy Award at age 11. It’s a funny nomination to think about. A lot of kid actors don’t deserve the damn thing. They’re hard to take seriously or they’re nominated for cutie pie, “old soul” performances I don’t think they fully understand (I want to throttle most kid actors, I’m biased). McCormack was so insidious as Rhoda, she earned that shit for being effectively evil, malicious, psychotic. How about that. Homegirl is a pioneer for horror performances.

The Bad Seed’s impact still pollutes the ground 60 years on. Watch McCormack’s performance once and from then on, every “evil kid” flick you see will pale. Eli Roth expressed interest in remaking it back in 2004, with more gore (hey, you and Rob Zombie should hang out!). Well, that sucks and would never work.

It’s in the eyes, man. It’s in the neatness, the cleanliness. The eloquent speech. The dress. The pigtails. And the penmanship. My god, the penmanship.



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COMMENTS

4 Comments
  • diapers

    YES! This is a true gem. Truly ahead of its time.

  • James Allard

    Oh my. Yes. This one is great fun to watch.

  • Lirabelle

    I absolutely loved this movie growing up. And honestly I never had any problem with the ending to the film. I do want to check out the book, though.

  • Evan3

    This was the first horror film my then-girlfriend/now-wife showed me (as the horror maestro in the relationship, i had been inundating her with my choices). I was really impressed, and am now moreso thanks to the great historical context you gave in this article. It really is a well-acted film and certainly for the philosophy-minded crowd!

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