Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Produced by Mervyn LeRoy
Based on The Bad Seed by Maxwell Anderson
The Bad Seed by William March
Starring Nancy Kelly
Music by Alex North
Cinematography Harold Rosson
Edited by Warren Low
Distributed by Warner Bros.
September 12, 1956
Country United States
Budget $1 million
Box office $4.1 million (rentals)
The Bad Seed is a 1956 American horror-thriller film with elements of film noir directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack, Henry Jones, and Eileen Heckart.
The film is based upon the 1954 play of the same name by Maxwell Anderson, which in turn is based upon William March’s 1954 novel The Bad Seed. The play was adapted by John Lee Mahin for the screenplay of the film.
On her piano, eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack)plays the French song “Au clair de la lune”, while her father (William Hopper) says his goodbyes to her and his wife, Christine (Nancy Kelly), as he goes away on military duty. Their neighbor and landlord, Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden), comes in with a present for Rhoda – a locket. Rhoda, looking pristine and proper in her perfect pinafore dress and long blonde pigtails, thanks Monica for the gift. She then tap dances on the hard floor. Monica notices Rhoda’s tap shoes, and Rhoda says that adding the taps to the shoes was her own idea. They then discuss a penmanship medal competition that Rhoda lost to her schoolmate, Claude Daigle; Monica speaks of it as a childish disappointment, but Rhoda’s face darkens with fury. Christine and Rhoda leave for the school picnic at a nearby lake.
Later, Christine is having lunch with Monica and friends when they learn on the radio that a child has drowned in the lake where Rhoda’s school was having their picnic. Christine worries that the drowned child could be her daughter, but a follow-up report indicates that it was Rhoda’s schoolmate, Claude, the penmanship winner. Relieved that Rhoda is alive, Christine worries that her daughter might be traumatized by seeing the boy’s corpse. When Rhoda returns, however, she is unfazed by the incident and goes about her daily activities.
Rhoda’s teacher later visits Christine, revealing that Rhoda was the last person seen with Claude that day on the wharf and that she was seen grabbing at Claude’s penmanship medal. As the two women sit talking, Claude’s mother, Mrs. Daigle (Eileen Heckart), enters, visibly drunk, and accuses Rhoda of knowing something that she is not telling.
Later that night, Christine finds the penmanship medal in Rhoda’s room and demands an explanation. Rhoda lies that Claude let her have the medal after she won a bet. Later, however, Christine catches Rhoda trying to sneak out to the incinerator to dispose of her tap shoes, and Christine realizes that Rhoda must have hit Claude with the shoes, which explains the half-moon shaped bruises on his forehead and hands. A tearful Rhoda admits that she killed the boy and also confirms Christine’s suspicion that she murdered a neighbor lady when they lived in Wichita, the sooner to obtain a trifle the elderly woman had promised her. Christine orders Rhoda to burn the shoes in the incinerator.
In the midst of the revelations about Rhoda, Christine’s vague suspicions about having been adopted are confirmed: she is the biological daughter of a notorious and infamous serial killer, Bessie Denker, and was adopted at two years of age by her foster father and his late wife. Christine now worries that Bessie (and therefore Christine herself) is the cause of Rhoda’s sociopathy, and that her homicidal behavior is genetic, not subject to influence, let alone reversal, by parenting or a wholesome environment.
The next day, when Rhoda is playing in the garden, the caretaker, LeRoy (Henry Jones), heckles her that she killed Claude with her shoes and that he, LeRoy, took the burnt shoes as evidence. When Rhoda reacts in anger, LeRoy realizes his accusation, made in jest, is actually true. He opens the incinerator and finds what remains of the shoes. Christine and Rhoda go to dinner at Monica’s and Mrs. Daigle returns, drunk, demanding to speak with Rhoda. Outside, off camera, Rhoda sets sleeping LeRoy’s bedding ablaze to keep her secret safe. From the apartment window, Christine and Monica watch him burn. Christine babbles incoherently after witnessing the death; Monica realizes that Christine believes Rhoda is guilty of something awful, but still has no inkling that Christine believes Rhoda to have committed murder. That night, a visibly calm Christine tells Rhoda that she dropped the medal into the lake, and then gives her daughter a lethal dose of sleeping pills, telling her they are her new vitamins. Then she attempts to kill herself with a gunshot to the head. Instead of being killed, however, Rhoda and Christine are found and taken to a hospital and both survive.
Later, in the middle of the night during a rainstorm, Rhoda sneaks out in a rain slicker and goes to the lake and out on the wharf in an attempt to retrieve the penmanship medal. A bright dash of lightning violently strikes Rhoda, killing her instantly and putting an end to her evil.