The Bad Seed (1956 film)

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 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
  • September 12, 1956 (1956-09-12)
Running time
129 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1 million
Box office$4.1 million (rentals)[1]

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. They say their farewells to Kenneth before he leaves on military duty. The Penmarks’ neighbor and landlady, Monica Breedlove, comes in with presents for Rhoda—a pair of sunglasses and a locket. Rhoda, pristine and proper in her pinafore dress and long, blonde pigtails, thanks Monica for the gifts. She dances in tap shoes and tells Monica about a penmanship 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 hear a radio report 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 identifies the victim as the same Claude who had won the penmanship medal. Relieved that Rhoda is alive, Christine worries that her daughter might be traumatized by seeing the boy’s corpse. When Rhoda returns home, however, she is unfazed by the incident and goes about her daily activities.

Rhoda's teacher, Miss Fern, visits Christine, revealing that Rhoda was apparently the last person to see Claude alive and that she was seen grabbing at Claude's medal. Miss Fern alludes to the fact that Rhoda might have had some connection to the boy's death, but stops short of actually accusing her of it, although the teacher adds that Rhoda would not be welcome at school the following year. As the two women continue to talk, Mr. and Mrs. Daigle barge into Christine’s living room. Claude's mother is both distraught and obviously drunk. She accuses Rhoda's teacher of knowing something that she is not telling. Mr. Daigle steps in, apologizing for the scene.

When Christine later finds the penmanship medal in Rhoda's room, she demands an explanation. Rhoda lies that Claude let her have the medal after she won a bet. Soon Christine's father arrives for a visit. Long haunted by distant and confusing memories about her own childhood, Christine talks with her father, who finally reveals that he is not her biological parent, that she was adopted by him and his wife. Already upset by this revelation, Christine is then horrified to learn that she is actually the daughter of a notorious serial killer. She now worries that her own origin is the cause of Rhoda's sociopathy, and that Rhoda's behavior is genetic, not subject to influence or reversal by good parenting or a wholesome environment.

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, which explains the shape of bruises found on the dead boy's forehead and hands. A tearful Rhoda admits that she killed the boy in order to obtain the medal, and also confirms Christine's suspicion that she had previously murdered an elderly neighbor when they lived in Wichita to obtain a trifle the elderly woman had promised Rhoda upon her death. Christine orders Rhoda to burn the shoes in the incinerator.[2]

The next day, as Rhoda is playing in the garden, the caretaker, Leroy, teasingly tells her that he believes she killed Claude by striking him with her shoes and that he would tell the police, sending her to the electric chair. After Rhoda angrily tells him she burned her shoes, Leroy, hoping to continue what he erroneously believes to be a mere joke, opens the incinerator and finds the remains of the shoes. A drunk Mrs. Daigle returns to see Christine and asks to speak with Rhoda, but Monica takes the girl away before she can answer any questions. Mrs. Daigle tells Christine that she believes Rhoda knows what happened to her son.

Monica gives Christine vitamins and sleeping pills to help her feel better. Meanwhile, realizing that Leroy knows she really did kill Claude, Rhoda sets his bedding ablaze in the basement. Leroy breaks free from the basement and runs into the yard, still aflame, ultimately burning to death. From the apartment window, Christine and Monica see him die (the audience never sees Leroy here, the story unfolds in the reactions of the watchers and his terrible screams), which makes Christine hysterical. That night, a strangely 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 new vitamins. She attempts to kill herself with a gunshot to the head. However, the gunshot alerts the neighbors. Rhoda and Christine are found and taken to a hospital. They both survive, though Christine is in a coma.

Rhoda's father brings her home from the hospital and puts her to bed, but during a thunderstorm in the middle of the night, Rhoda puts on her rain gear and sneaks out of the apartment. Her father is awakened by a call from the hospital, where Christine has regained consciousness. She begs her husband for forgiveness and tells him she loves him and that the doctor has said she will recover completely. Meanwhile, walking through the heavy rain, Rhoda finally arrives at the lake and walks out onto the pier, determined to retrieve the penmanship medal. She finds a long metal pole with a fishnet, and she uses it to probe the surrounding water, but while she is so engaged, a bolt of lightning strikes Rhoda, completely obliterating her, putting an end to her evil, and therefore ironically causing to come true Leroy's prediction that she would be electrocuted for killing Claude Daigle. This is exactly the opposite of the ending of March's 1954 novel, in which Christine dies of her self-inflicted gunshot to her head and Rhoda lives on, presumably free to kill again.

The movie then has a curtain call of all the main cast. After Nancy Kelly is called, she walks over to the couch where Patty McCormack is sitting. She puts McCormack over her lap and proceeds to spank her over her dress while McCormack repeatedly screams "No!" as both laugh.



At the end of the film, the cast is introduced in a theatrical-style curtain call. After her credit is read, Nancy Kelly puts Patty McCormack over her knee and gives her a spanking. Both are visibly laughing, perhaps to remind an unnerved audience that the story they have seen is fictional. The spanking continues as the film fades out; a screen card then requests that the audience not divulge the climax.

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


Golden Globes


Other honors

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

Influence and legacy

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".

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


  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. "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.
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