Sunday, April 22, 2012

Nature VS Nurture ha ha ha: The Bad Seed (1956)

(Note: I will be discussing the ending in detail, if that is the sort of thing you try to avoid.)

I always expect old black and white movies to be sort of tame and bland in some ways, even though I've seen plenty of black and white movies which have blown my mind. (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? kills me every time.) I suspect I have this prejudice because most of my experience with old movies when I was growing up came from boring middle-of-the-road "classics" on network TV. But The Bad Seed is nowhere near the middle of the road. This is one of the strangest, and most subversive movies I've seen in a long time.

This is the story of a mother and a daughter in the 50s. There are other characters, including a mostly absent father, but the mother and daughter are the heart of this film. The mother is a very traditional and unassuming seeming 50s mom, and the daughter seems angelic and sweet. The premise of the movie is that the daughter is not what she seems. She is a cold blooded killer. But neither, it turns out, is the mother. She starts off very stereotypical and timid, but as her suspicions mount about her daughter, she begins to ask difficult questions about what is going on but also about what it means. What it means about her as a mother, to have raised this murderer. There is a surprising amount of nature-vs-nurture debate in this movie, with men (and it is always men, which is interesting) very authoritatively informing her that criminals are only ever a product of their environment. The idea of people being born bad is just ludicrous, they tell her.

There is very little traditional horror-suspense in this movie. We know, almost immediately, that the daughter is a killer. And we never see any actual murders, we only learn about them from other characters, or hear the details from the television. The tension comes almost entirely from watching the mother fight against something that is simultaneously obvious and impossible to believe - that her perfect daughter is empty inside.

And what does she do, once she learns the truth? The movie doesn't try to get away with any easy answers, here. Even as she accepts the facts of the murders, she still tries to understand why her daughter did it, as though there might be some rational explanation. As though there might be some way her daughter could reassure her. And one of the creepiest exchanges in the movie happens when the daughter tries to do just that. She smiles and laughs, and bats her eyelashes and scuffs her shoes in the same adorable way she did when we first met her. Her mother is pushing for details about a boy she murdered, and the only way the daughter can think to change the subject is to wrap her arms around her mother and repeat one of their cute mother-daughter jokes, "What would you give me for a basket of kisses?"

This movie has one of the harshest scenes I've ever seen in a movie. There's not a drop of blood, but there is a scene late in the movie where we essentially watch a murder take place over the course of a few minutes, and I couldn't believe they'd gone there. The mother has decided that she can't let her daughter keep killing, but she can't let the authorities punish her, or lock her up for observation like some kind of lab rat. So she fills a vitamin bottle with sleeping pills, and then that night she offers a handful to her daughter.

"Why so many?" Her daughter asks.

"It's a new kind of vitamin," the mother says. "Don't worry, I'm having some too." And then we sit and watch as the daughter does what a perfect daughter does. She takes the pills a couple at a time, gulping them down with juice and smiling before reaching out for more. She takes pill after pill while the mother sits with her hand out offering them, staring off into the distance. Then she reads a bedtime story to her daughter, who drifts off a little too abruptly for it to be natural.

I couldn't believe what I was watching. It was so heartbreaking and so harsh, which I would never expect under that slightly phoney veneer that movies from the 50s all share. This was a ten minute scene where we watch a desperate and broken mother murder her own daughter. And then carry her limp body off to the bedroom. Oh, I wish the movie had ended there. What a perfectly devastating note to end on.

But the film doesn't end there. The mother goes and shoots herself (despite that haunting promise that she was taking the vitamins too). Then we see her in the hospital, where the doctors are working on her. And of course, the gunshot attracted the neighbours, and the daughter was saved.

And in the original play this is how things ended I think. The daughter lives on and the mother dies. But the Hays Code wouldn't allow movies at that time to show crime paying, which I guess is the same as the bad guy winning. So, the mother begins to recover, and the daughter... well, the daughter dresses up in a rain slicker and heads out into the night. At first we think she is going to finish the mother off, but it turns out she is headed to the pier where she killed the boy. She wants his spelling bee medal.

So she walks down the pier in the pouring rain, while the clouds thunder overhead, and then she is struck by lightning. The end.

I laughed out loud. It was so ridiculous. I couldn't believe how ridiculous that ending was. But I loved it. It has a bizzarre sort of brilliance, really. After two hours of fisticuffs between nature and nurture, it was nature who got the last word.


  1. I love 'the Bad Seed'. I really recommend seeing it performed on stage, if you can. The movie stays pretty close to the play, but having it stay in the one room the whole time gives it a really claustrophobic feel that's great.

    My personal sequel for 'the Bad Seed' is Rhoda Penmark, now grown, going on a killing spree across the nation, like a '70s exploitation version of Dexter.

  2. I remember this movie from my childhood! I found it deeply disturing, with that 'I know this implies something horrible but I don't know what' feeling I used to get. I'll have to watch it again.
    Have you seen/read 'We need to talk about Kevin'? It shares the same no-easy-answers tone.

  3. I haven't actually seen Bad Seed yet (though it is on my to-do list, and has been for awhile) but I just want to say how incredibly happy I was when I went back to this site today after 6 exams in three days and two weeks of no sleep, hoping for an update and found not one, but two that I missed. I love this blog, Joey Comeau, as much as I love your books, except better, because it's horror movies I've (usually) seen and opinions I (often) agree with. And it's free. Please update more frequently.

  4. Just had to make a mention... the Fibonnaccis, a quirky 80s band, did a song called 'Leroy', featuring soundbites from 'The Bad Seed'. It's worth a listen to :)

  5. "There is a surprising amount of nature-vs-nurture debate in this movie, with men (and it is always men, which is interesting) very authoritatively informing her that criminals are only ever a product of their environment" - you've noticed a truly curious moment, that it's men who participate in all nature-vs-nurture debates. Is something implied by this fact, how do you think?