Thursday, July 5, 2012

Give Me Back My Shoes: 

The Teratology of The Bad Seed

Do NOT reveal the ending.

Psychopaths thrive in our culture by exhibiting boldness, confidence and total self-interest. Success makes psychopaths sexy, and that means we want to see them in film and television shows, doing all the wonderful horrible things that common decency stops us from doing (see Patrick Bateman and Dexter Morgan for details). But even psychopaths were children once, and the question of what to do with evil children is a bit of anxiety-gristle upon which pop culture likes to chew, as shown by The Omen (1976), Children of the Corn (1984), The Children (2008) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). But the queen of these pint-sized monsters is Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack), child star of The Bad Seed (1956), a film about a pigtailed suburban girl with a secret.

Revelations 13.1: And I stood upon the sea, and saw a beast rise
up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns and pigtails

Rhoda is an adult in a child’s body: She curtsies, she prefers talking with her mother’s friends than to other school children, she is downright elegant. Most important, she’s cold. As a man burns to death on her home’s front lawn, his screams are intercut with Rhoda practicing piano. Christine, Rhoda’s mother, is played with great fervor by Nancy Kelly.  At one point Christine tearfully informs her daughter that a little boy in Rhoda’s school drowned on a class trip; the girl replies “Can I have a peanut butter sandwich?”

This mashup, this sweetness-covering-horror-badly is the essence of The Bad Seed. The film is set in the '50s, an era when the only way to defeat the Russians was to clench one’s butt checks tighter than a hipster’s jeans. There are cracks in Rhoda’s Leave It to Beaver lifestyle. Christine’s friends are writers and psychoanalysts that discuss criminal cases and Freud like the weather. Everyone drinks—the mother of the little drowned boy, Mrs. Daigle, confronts Rhoda by spilling whiskey and pawing at her. Mrs. Daigle (Eileen Heckart) is a character that smears the veneer off of polite society, which is interesting considering she’s a beautician by trade.  It’s her business to mask people’s ugliness.

No, here's to you, Mrs. Daigle.

The concept of masking is shown visually too: A reoccurring sequence in Seed is a long shot with one character in the foreground with their back to a character in the background. The background character speaks plainly, while the foreground character frets and fidgets in a way that only the audience can see.

No, look at her from this side, dum-dums. She's not at all well.

A reoccurring focal point in shots is a framed silhouette of a mother lifting up her daughter. 

I was forced to stop a drinking game made from spotting these after I passed  out.

But why is she holding her? She could be strangling her, or holding her away in disgust. At one point, after hearing about the boy’s death, Rhoda’s grandfather stares at Rhoda too long after embracing her. 

“Why do you look are me?” Rhoda asks. 

A tender moment.

“I--just want to see your face,” the elderly man stammers out and puts her down as if she were a pet cat that just ate a robin’s babies.  

Silhouettes dot almost every frame in the film, and when Rhoda throws a pair of incriminating shoes into the incinerator, she’s shot in low light that turns her into a shadow.

Incinerators were outlawed in 1959 when it was discovered
that they were principally used to destroy evidence.

To modern audiences, The Bad Seed is a B-movie that was built for parody.  It has a small cast, uses few locations and its actors feast on the scenery. However, The Bad Seed was always meant to be played straight. The use of set, the melodramatic acting and the blocking are all remnants from when The Bad Seed existed as a play; much of the cast were from the stage production, and there’s even a curtain call at the ending credits. Rhoda has fullness to her voice and precision that could only come from dozens of live shows--Christine gives a performance meant for the people in the nosebleeds.  The Bad Seed survives as a unique classic because it could never be recreated; the tools and environment that made it live are gone.  Today, film and live theatre exist in two separate worlds with the latter being a niche market (honestly, when was the last time you saw a play?).  As a marriage of the two, The Bad Seed is a bastard child from another era; they don’t make them like this anymore because they can’t.  

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