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Bad Seed, The

Warner Bros. // Unrated // October 11, 2011 // Region 0
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 5, 2011 | E-mail the Author
With that beaming smile, lovingly braided pigtails, and precious, frilly dress, Rhoda (Patty McCormack) looks as if she could've been snipped right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. There's
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something a little disconcerting about how mature and unusually well-spoken she is for her age, I guess, but otherwise, she seems like a picture-perfect kid. Of course, The Bad Seed being so infamous as the first of the evil children movies -- predating the likes of Village of the Damned, The Omen, The Exorcist, The Good Son, and Orphan -- you probably don't need me to tell you that there's something darker and more twisted lurking beneath the surface. It all starts with a penmanship medal. Rhoda takes a lot of pride in her writing, and she's miffed when her teacher forks the medal -- the only prize that Miss Whatever-her-name-is hands out! -- to someone else in her class. ...and then, on a school picnic, that little boy's lifeless body is discovered bobbing around in the water, and his penmanship medal somehow winds up underneath the lining in Rhoda's treasure box. Oh, of course that darling little child has a very elaborate and somewhat believable explanation as to how all that happened, but Rhoda conveniently leaves out the part about how she tormented her classmate and kept clawing at her his medal. As suspicions continue to arise, so too does the body count. Torn between unconditional, maternal love and fear of her own child, what's a mother (Nancy Kelly) to do?

The story goes that director Mervyn LeRoy was so enthralled with the Broadway production of "The Bad Seed" that he was content to basically just shoot the play as it was, flying a sizeable chunk of the cast to Hollywood and keeping virtually the entire movie set in the Penmarks' living room. Admittedly, that doesn't make for all that dazzlingly cinematic an experience. The camerawork is static, and there's hardly ever a change of scenery. At the same time, that's an essential part of what makes The Bad Seed as effective as it is. The driving force of the movie isn't the terrible things that Rhoda does but her mother Christine's reaction to it all: coming to terms with the idea that there's something demonic about her daughter...struggling with her drive to do the right thing as well as her maternal instinct to protect her daughter at all costs. Some jaded viewers may roll their eyes that you never see Rhoda commit any
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of these horrible acts -- all of that entirely takes place off-screen, and at most you'll catch a glimpse of Rhoda preparing for murder -- and yet the eeriness of The Bad Seed draws its strength from that detachment. Christine's growing emotional torment would be lessened if the audience were seeing more than she ever could. Even though we know what a monster Rhoda is, having the murders take place off-screen allows us to better relate to more effectively put ourselves in her shoes...whereas seeing it in vivid detail would more likely make the audience wait for her to hurry up and do something about it. Rhoda also isn't a fixture in every scene, and using her sparingly greatly heightens the moments in which she does appear.

The Bad Seed is propelled by a terrific performance by Patty McCormack, who at the time was the youngest actor or actress to have ever been nominated for an Academy Award. Part of what makes Rhoda such a fascinating character is that she sincerely doesn't believe anything she does is wrong. Want. Take. Have. If she wants something, any means to that end are wholly justified in her eyes. Rhoda is a skillfully manipulative liar, though her tricks only go so far against a woman who can read her as well as her mother. That bright, calculatedly cherubic exterior makes way for fiery stares and an explosive temper at times, and McCormack bounds across that emotional gamut without missing a beat. It's a very accomplished turn, especially from an actress of her age. Quite a bit of the cast is carried over from the Broadway show, and I can't really shake the feeling that some of them are still trying to play to the cheap seats in some oversized theatre. Many, many of the performances have a deliriously over-the-top theatricality to them, lending the film a level of campiness that actually works in its favor. The Bad Seed wouldn't be nearly as much fun if it were somber and subdued, and somehow that campy edge never stomps all over the eeriness of its most intense moments.

What does get in the way is The Bad Seed's bloated runtime of 129 minutes. Two hours-plus is an awfully long time to spend in a talky film that's set almost entirely in a family's living room. With some judicious tightening, The Bad Seed might be better appreciated as more than the camp classic it's seen as in so many eyes. This is a movie with an impressively bleak ending, the sort of thing I normally wouldn't think a film from the mid-'50s could possibly get away with, and...well, it doesn't, with The Bad Seed neutering itself at least somewhat in its final minutes. I don't know why it took me so long to get around to watching The Bad Seed, but I'm glad I did, even if this isn't a film I can picture myself giving another spin anytime soon. Recommended, if not with all that much enthusiasm, and I'll explain why in just a moment...

In a word...? Erratic. My kneejerk reaction to the earliest scenes of The Bad Seed is that the image, as richly detailed as it is, seemed excessively bright and thin. Contrast soon settled into something at least a little more comfortable, but then shadow detail started to look unusually murky, and the texture no longer felt all that natural or filmic:
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Some degradation in clarity is to be expected in the moments bookending optical fades and the like, but even in the middle of scenes, The Bad Seed will get excessively soft. Although the image didn't seem as thin as it did earlier, contrast sometimes remains far too hot as well:

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Then again, many other shots are strikingly crisp and detailed:
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I'm left with the sense that this presentation of The Bad Seed has been culled from a number of different sources of greatly varying quality, and I'm sure that was out of necessity. At its best, the film really does look terrific, but the shifts in quality are distractingly stark -- not simply the sort of thing a nitpicky Blu-ray reviewer would harp about but to a degree I'd think most anyone couldn't help but notice.

The bitrate of the AVC encode is extremely low for a film of this length and such gritty texture -- the 129 minute movie is compressed into the space of all of fifteen and a half gigs -- and though I'll admit that the grain structure looked fine to my eyes at a normal viewing distance, the strain does start to show upon closer inspection. Viewers with front projection rigs or those who sit very close to their displays may notice artifacting in the background. If my guess is correct and The Bad Seed does draw from several different sources, at least they all appear to be in reasonably good shape; no wear, speckling, or damage creeps in at any point.

It should be unmistakeably clear by now that I'm not exactly bowled over by this high definition presentation of The Bad Seed, and perhaps the original elements are in poor enough shape that these sorts of inconsistencies are unavoidable. I'm not in a position to say, although no matter how forgiving I try to be, I can't imagine what the justification for the off-kilter contrast would be. It's often worlds removed from anything DVD could hope to match, and its most crisply defined moments leave me feeling thrilled that The Bad Seed has found its way to Blu-ray. Still, the presentation is so wildly uneven that it's difficult for me to recommend paying full price for it, even when the sticker price is all of $14.99 online. It's a disc that's worth owning or upgrading, though I'd suggest that all but the most rabid fans of the film wait for the inevitable price drop.

Unlike the standard definition DVD which was presented full-frame, this Blu-ray disc is matted to an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. I'm not familiar enough with the film's history to be able to definitively say which aspect ratio is right, although the change in framing looks natural enough to my eyes, for whatever that's worth. The Bad Seed and its extras fit on a single layer Blu-ray disc with a somewhat absurd amount of room to spare.

I promise not to drone on for quite so long about The Bad Seed's monaural DTS-HD Master Audio track. The audio is consistently clean and clear throughout, not marred by any pops, clicks, hiss, background noise, or dropouts. It's an intensely dialogue-driven film, so there isn't all that much to say about its score or sound effects other than that none of the line readings ever once struggle in the mix. The quality of this lossless presentation is exactly what I'd hoped to hear.

There are no dubs or remixes on this Blu-ray disc. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.

  • Audio Commentary: Patty McCormack, the young star of The Bad Seed, fields the disc's audio commentary. She paints a wonderfully engaging picture of what it was like to be a child star in the 1950s on both the stage
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    and screen. Despite being so young when cameras were rolling all those decades ago, McCormack's memory is impressively sharp, and I particularly enjoyed hearing about how her performance gradually evolved in the Broadway production as well as the differences between that show and this adaptation. Charles Busch, a man who knows his way around the stage as well, serves as moderator, and the two of them keep a very warm and endlessly likeable discussion going for about half the film, after which point things peter out somewhat. It seems as if they fall into the trap of watching the film rather than talk about it, and the pauses between comments grow longer and longer. It's a worthy listen, but the uneven second half means it's probably better left playing in the background.

  • Enfant Terrible: A Conversation with Patty McCormack (15 min.; SD): If you don't have two hours to invest in an audio commentary, this fifteen minute interview with Patty McCormack tackles at least some of the highlights. McCormack chats about her months in the Broadway show, including a stretch when she was pulling double-duty on "The Bad Seed" and "I Remember Mama". Her close relationships with the cast, many of whom went with her from Broadway to this film adaptation, are also discussed, as is the way McCormack has come to look at The Bad Seed in a different light over the years. It's a charming interview, if inessential for anyone who's already given the feature-length commentary a listen.

  • Trailer (3 min.; SD): The film's theatrical trailer is presented in standard definition.

I'll admit to being somewhat disappointed that the great poster art from the DVD has been replaced with something more modern on Blu-ray. It's a very eye-catching cover, I'll admit, but I wonder how many people would look at that and assume it's an edgy remake...?

The Final Word
I'm not exactly sure how I managed to get this far in my life without ever having seen The Bad Seed, but I'm glad to have finally had a chance to catch up with it. I can't help but love Patty McCormack's turn as a unrepentent murderess with the moral certainty that everyone she's killed had it coming, and she tries to cover for her crimes like a kid who took an extra pudding cup out of the fridge. I wouldn't say it's a "so-bad-it's-good" movie, but the over-the-top theatricality to some of the performances give it a certain campy charm that makes it that much more fun to watch, and yet that doesn't deflate the intensity of its most chilling moments. On the other hand, setting so much of the film in the living room does get stale after a while, and with a runtime breaking the two hour mark, The Bad Seed drags on far longer than it has any reason to. It's a film I'm glad to see arrive on Blu-ray just in time for Halloween, although the quality of the presentation is so uneven that unless you desperately need this disc right now, I'd recommend waiting for the price to ease back some more first. Still Recommended, but with serious reservations.
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