I messed up a little bit tonight! I hadn't heard from Kyle when I started watching, so I wrote my review solo, and only checked email afterward, to find his excellent review waiting for me. Instead of going back and editing it together with mine, I give it to you here! (What I think is great is that without even seeing each other's reviews, we both tied this movie back to our own experiences as fathers of daughters...)
Sometimes you watch a movie and it feels timeless, like no matter when it was made the theme, acting, writing, all hold up as though it could be released this Friday and contend. Then there are movies that feel like they are so much about the zeitgeist of the day that they don't really make sense unless you allow yourself to do a sort of mental time shift and try to watch the film as an audience member from the past. The Bad Seed is a good example of the latter.
It's not a bad film. It's quite engaging and it does draw you in. But it is so steeped in mid-twentieth century pop psychiatry (most of which is laughably outdated) that it's hard to take seriously from a modern perspective. There's a nature vs. nurture debate that runs throughout the film that lacks the enlightenment we have as a result of the Human Genome Project for instance. So while the characters concern themselves with nature or nurture as though they are two mutually exclusive camps, they are unaware that most every human characteristic has a genetic component as well as a cultural one. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Rhoda is a sweet, little girl. How could she not be? She's white, she has blond hair (in pig tails no less), blue eyes, she's polite, and keeps tidy. Unfortunately, she's also inherently evil. When she loses a penmanship award to a fellow classmate, she becomes so overwrought with anger and jealousy that she kills the little boy and takes his medal. Rhoda's mother starts to suspect that she may have been involved with the boy's death but the very thought of it starts to push her towards madness. How can she face the truth while protecting her daughter?
On some level this film is exceedingly shallow. The whole premise is built around the idea that what makes the thought of Rhoda being a killer so horrible is how cute and sweet she is on the outside. As though if she were boorish and ugly with a unibrow and warts it would be perfectly reasonable to think an eight year old might bludgeon their classmate to death. But because she is nice, and pretty, with a toothy smile we ought to be horrified that she is without conscience. Remember, psychopathy is a mental disease of the hideously unattractive.
You often hear that one of the first rules of directing is don't work with children. But Patty McCormack does a terrific job here and just goes to show that it is possible for a child to develop a complex character. I also liked Henry Jones as the slow witted janitor who suspects Rhoda early on. Their interplay specifically is very good.
The Bad Seed is not particularly scary or horrific, but it is a good watch. I would highly recommend it for anyone who has a hard time with the graphic nature of modern horror films. There's no blood or guts here. In fact, I'd have to say the scariest thing about this whole movie was how much watching Rhoda reminded me of my own little girl!
I give it 3.5 out of 5.