Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed is extremely challenging cinema. It is built on a psychological theory that is now known to have absolutely no credibility. At the time the play that film is based on was written, there was hardly any following for the idea then. Even most of the characters in the story itself don’t buy it. So, this means the audience is expected to find some reality to latch on to in order to experience what is supposed to be a terrifying experience without believing the plausibility of its premise.
Rhoda Penmark is a “bad seed,” a child born with no conscience, no sense of morality, and brain chemistry that will never change, that will never allow her make a choice or carry any sense of responsibility for her actions. Even the modern acceptance of antisocial personality disorder (the closest psychological reality to what Rhoda exhibits) is at least in part the product of nurture, not entirely nature as The Bad Seed expects us to believe. People with antisocial personality disorder are unquestionably terribly disturbed and confused, yet when their behavior is criminal, as it often is, they can still be held legally responsible. They still possess at least a small degree of personal choice and responsibility.
So, how can an audience enjoy something with such an implausible premise? Because all it takes is one person who believes the idea to give it power. The movie is not nearly as much about its title’s character (an 8-year-old psychopathic murderer) as it is about her mother, the one who believes that Rhoda is a “bad seed.” Nancy Kelly gives one of the most heartbreaking and moving performances ever filmed as Rhoda’s mother Christine. Christine navigates the reality she lives in as a mother who by nature loves, cares for, and desires to nurture her daughter but at the same time sees her child as so doomed because of this “diagnosis” that there is only one way to solve the problem. The logic certainly follows that if this psychological theory were a reality, then death for such “bad seeds” is the only way to protect people around them and could even be justified as merciful to those “bad seeds” themselves, which is exactly the conundrum Christine faces.
The audience doesn’t need to believe the theory that the movie presents. We only need to know that Christine believes it. Because Christine believes something so void of reality, she is driven toward a decision that is ultimately inhumane (despite the logic within her sense of reality that naturally makes it seem humane). I am not giving anything way with what I have said so far, as this is the nature of Christine’s journey throughout the film. All of the film’s suspense is built on whether or not she goes through with this act that she perceives as being necessary and merciful and the eventual results of her decision. But I will certainly not divulge how that all plays out.
The Bad Seed is usually considered a horror movie. But it’s terrifying because of the inner turmoil and torture that we see Rhoda’s mother go through. Yes, we know that Rhoda has committed unspeakable acts of violence, especially for an 8-year-old. Yes, Rhoda gives the appearance of being a perfect, old-fashioned little girl that helps the audience develop feelings of anger and fear as we see her self-centered, entitled attitude produce violence even though she is supposedly a “bad seed.” Yes, it uses many conventions of the classic horror genre, especially by its use of such an evil villain. But, the truest terror does not come from any of these techniques. The terror comes from within the character of Rhoda’s mother. We could empathize with any mother who comes to terms with the fact that her child is a serial killer, but we are given much more than that with Christine. We are shown that the turmoil she endures is not only because of what her daughter has done but also because of what she believes about her daughter. If Rhoda’s condition is entirely genetic as the theory suggests, then Christine if forced to believe that Rhoda’s murders are not Rhoda’s fault but are instead her own fault. Christine takes on the guilt that Rhoda doesn’t express because she believes that Rhoda can’t feel guilty.
The Bad Seed works masterfully because it shows the power of belief. It shows that what we believe shapes how we live. When we believe something destructive, we ourselves become the victims and in some way or another are destroyed by the effects of that belief. Of course the opposite is also true, but you won’t see any of that in The Bad Seed.