The Bad Seed (1956 film)

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The Bad Seed
Directed byMervyn LeRoy
Produced byMervyn LeRoy
Screenplay byJohn Lee Mahin
Based onThe Bad Seed by Maxwell Anderson
The Bad Seed by William March
StarringNancy Kelly
William Hopper
Patty McCormack
Henry Jones
Eileen Heckart
Evelyn Varden
Music byAlex North
CinematographyHarold Rosson
Edited byWarren Low
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
‹See TfM›
  • September 12, 1956 (1956-09-12)
Running time
129 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1 million
Box office$4.1 million (rentals)[1]

The Bad Seed is a 1956 American psychological horror-thriller film with elements of melodrama and 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.


Kenneth and Christine Penmark dote on their eight-year-old daughter Rhoda. Kenneth leaves on military duty. The Penmarks’ neighbor and landlady, Monica, visits and Rhoda, pristine and proper in her pinafore dress and blonde pigtails, tells her about a penmanship competition that she lost to her schoolmate, Claude Daigle. Rhoda then leaves for her school picnic at the lake.

Christine is having lunch with friends when they hear a radio report that a child has drowned in the lake. The victim is the same Claude who had won the penmanship medal. Christine worries that her daughter might be traumatized but Rhoda is unfazed by the incident and goes about her life. Rhoda's teacher, Miss Fern, visits Christine, revealing that Rhoda was the last person to see Claude alive and that she was seen grabbing at Claude's medal. She hints that Rhoda might have some connection to the boy's death and adds that she is not welcome at the school next year. Mr. and Mrs. Daigle barge in; Mrs. Daigle is distraught and drunk, and accuses Rhoda's teacher of knowing something she is not telling.

When Christine finds the medal in Rhoda's room, she demands an explanation. Rhoda lies that Claude let her have it. Christine's father visits. Haunted by confusing memories about her own childhood, Christine talks with him and he reveals that he is not her biological parent; she was adopted. Upset by this revelation, Christine is then horrified to learn that she is actually the daughter of a notorious serial killer. She worries that her origin is the cause of Rhoda's sociopathy, and that her behavior is genetic.

Christine catches Rhoda trying to dispose of her tap shoes in the household incinerator and realizes that Rhoda must have hit Claude with the shoes. A tearful Rhoda admits that she killed the boy in order to obtain the medal, and confirms Christine's suspicion that she had previously murdered an elderly neighbor when they lived in Wichita. Christine orders Rhoda to burn the shoes in the incinerator.[2]

The next day, the caretaker, Leroy, teasingly tells Rhoda that he believes she killed Claude. After Rhoda angrily tells him she burned her shoes, Leroy opens the incinerator and finds the remains. A drunk Mrs. Daigle returns and tells Christine that she believes Rhoda knows what happened to her son. Mr. Daigle calls and comes to pick up his wife. Realizing that Leroy knows she really did kill Claude, Rhoda sets his excelsior bedding ablaze. After some men break open the basement hatch, Leroy runs into the yard aflame, ultimately burning to death. From the window, Christine and Monica see him die, which makes Christine hysterical. That night, a strangely calm Christine tells Rhoda that she dropped the medal into the lake, then gives her daughter a lethal dose of sleeping pills. She attempts to kill herself with a gunshot to the head. However, the gunshot alerts the neighbors and Rhoda and Christine are taken to the hospital. They both survive, though Christine is in a coma.

Rhoda's father brings her home but during a thunderstorm in the middle of the night, Rhoda sneaks out. Christine regains consciousness and begs her husband for forgiveness. The doctor has said she will recover. Rhoda arrives at the lake, determined to retrieve the medal. She uses a metal pole to probe the water but a bolt of lightning strikes her, sending her body into the water and putting an end to her evil, ironically proving true Leroy's prediction that she would be electrocuted for killing Claude. This is the opposite of the ending of March's 1954 novel, in which Christine dies of the gunshot and Rhoda lives on, free to kill again.

The movie then has a curtain call of the main cast. Upon her turn, Nancy Kelly looks through the doorway, shakes her head, walks through toward Patty McCormack at the couch, sits down, pulls McCormack over her lap and spanks her over her dress while McCormack repeatedly screams "No!" and both laugh.



Although the novel and play conclude with the mother dying and the evil child surviving, the Motion Picture Production Code did not allow for "crime to pay."[3] The ending of the film thus reverses the deaths of the mother and daughter, with Christine's life being saved and Rhoda's ultimately being struck down by lightning. In another move to appease the censors, Warner Bros. added an "adults only" tag to the film's advertising.[4]


The Bad Seed was one of the biggest hits of 1956 for Warner Bros., earning the company $4.1 million in theatrical rentals domestically against a $1 million budget. The film was also one of the year's top 20 at the box office in the United States and among the ten most popular box-office draws in Britain in 1956.[4][5]

The film received favorable reviews from critics and film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported an approval rating of 63%, based on 27 reviews, with a rating average of 7.03/10.[6]

Academy Awards[edit]


Golden Globes[edit]


Other honors[edit]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Influence and legacy[edit]

In 1995, McCormack starred in the low budget indie film Mommy in which she played a psychopathic mother. Critics hailed her performance and deemed the film as an "unofficial sequel".[citation needed]

Act One of the 1992 Off-Broadway musical Ruthless! is inspired by The Bad Seed.

The 1993 film The Good Son is partly inspired by The Bad Seed.[10]

The lifetime film House of Deadly Secrets has also been considered an unofficial sequel because of Patty’s performance.


The Bad Seed was remade for television in 1985, adapted by George Eckstein and directed by Paul Wendkos. It starred Carrie Welles, Blair Brown, Lynn Redgrave, David Carradine, Richard Kiley, and Chad Allen. This version uses the original ending of the March novel and its subsequent stage production. This remake was panned by critics and poorly received by its television audience.[11]

In June 2015, it was announced that Lifetime would remake The Bad Seed. In December 2017, reported that Rob Lowe was to direct and star in the remake with Mckenna Grace, Sarah Dugdale, Marci T. House, Lorne Cardinal, Chris Shields, Cara Buono, and a special appearance by Patty McCormack as Dr. March. The film aired in September 2018.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1956', Variety, January 2, 1957.
  2. ^ Cruel Children in Popular Texts and Cultures ISBN 978-3-030-10179-4 p. 294
  3. ^ Writing the Horror Movie ISBN 978-1-441-19618-7 p. 28
  4. ^ a b "The Bad Seed", Turner Classic Movies; retrieved February 11, 2014.
    The Manchester Guardian (1901-1956), 28 Dec 1956: pg. 3
  6. ^ "The Bad Seed (1956) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved July 8, 2019.
  7. ^ "The Bad Seed". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on 2014-02-11. Retrieved 2014-02-11.
  8. ^ "The Bad Seed". Golden Globes. Retrieved 2018-03-20.
  9. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-20.
  10. ^ "Nick Cave Online". Retrieved 2009-06-25.
  11. ^ "Lifetime's Next TV Movie: A Remake of 'The Bad Seed' (Exclusive)". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved Sep 18, 2019.
  12. ^ "'The Bad Seed': TV Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved Sep 18, 2019.

External links[edit]