You ever see a movie that just blows your mind?
Some people think that a movie needs lots of special effects or lots of bare boobs to be good. This is just not so. Sometimes the most amazing things you’ll see are in black and white, and need no more than a psychotic little girl with steel-toed shoes and a fierce determination to win a penmanship medal.
Ladies and gentlemen, The Bad Seed.
I’m not talking about the updated (I think 70s) version. I’m talking about the original 1956 film adaptation based on the Maxwell Anderson stageplay (based on the novel by William March) starring Patty Mc Cormack as Rhoda Penmark, 8 years of tow-headed evil, and Nancy Kelly as her more than frazzled mother. The Bad Seed may be responsible for launching the sub-genre of “devil child” films, which includes The Omen, The Exorcist, Problem Child, Clifford, and this summer’s enfant terrible tale Orphan. It’s one of those monster movies (and Rhoda is indeed a monster) that you don’t think will stay with you, but it will.
And it does.
The scary thing is, is that Rhoda is the devil you know. She comes off like a pigtailed sweetie who’ll exchange a basket of kisses for a basket of hugs, but inside that child a murderous beast is lurking. When Claude Daigle wins the penmanship medal, that Rhoda thought she had rightfully earned, she clobbers him over the head with her shoes and takes the medal as the boy drowns by the pier. When she returns home, she asks her mother for a peanut sandwhich and tells her mother that watching the boy die was “exciting”. The thing that is all the more disturbing is that we’ve all met potential Rhoda’s during our lifetimes (they turn out to be those people that we went to high school with who think that Faces of Death is a cool movie and continue to do so long after graduating from high school). She doesn’t look like a monster at all. She looks normal.
That’s the thing with alot of serial killers, they look normal.
And make no mistake, Rhoda Penmark is a serial killer.
When the handyman LeRoy runs afoul and crosses Rhoda’s path (by accusing her of having to do with Claude Daigle’s death), she promptly sets him ablaze. When Rhoda decides that her elderly neighbor Monica needs to hand over her lovebirds now, she plots to kill the old woman (we know this when Rhoda asks her mother how long lovebirds live). We also know that Rhoda may have killed another elderly neighbor when the family lived in Wichita.
At the heart of the drama is psychology. The Penmark’s neighbor Monica is a psych junkie. Her rambles on about inherited evil and the exploits of some of history’s most notorious killers, including the evil murderess, Bessie Danker. When Rhoda’s mother, in a flashback sequence that would make Dr. Phil envious, discovers that she is the daughter of Bessie Danker, she wigs out, fearing that Rhoda might have inherited the evil (she eventually atempts to kill both Rhoda and herself).
Not ha, ha funny, but funny.
Of course, when we talk about things like inheriting a certain disposition, or the idea that one’s future is determined by outside forces, we slip into the realm of the philosopher. The idea that a person’s outcomes are determined by outside forces (genetics, environment, etc) is determinism. The Penmark’s neighbor Monica seems to subscribe to the psychological theory that certain psychological tendencies are passed down from parent to child. As a fidgety parent will have fidgety children, likewise a serial murderer will breed killers. Monica seems to favor what we would call a reductionist view of human nature. Our behavior can be predicted by looking at the various mental and physiological processes that take place within our bodies. If a parent passes what Kurt Vonnegut called “bad chemicals” to their offspring, it is highly likely that that child will also exhibit the same tendencies as the parent. Freud said that “anatomy is destiny”. This is what Monica seems to believe as well. We know that mental illnesses tend to run in families (this is also bolstered by twin studies that find that twins raised apart tend to share physical and personality traits in common). We find clusters of manic depression, depression or schizophrenia in families, as do certain organic disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease. So, if we believe as Monica believes, the child of Besssie Danker would be a natural born killer. So, ir would not be beyond the possibility that the granddaughter of Bessie Danker would have inherited some strange personality disorder that causes her to kill.
This may be ok for the hard-core determnist, but some people may say no way, they don’t believe that our destinies lie in our genes. We are not merely the products of our anatomy, but we are influenced by other things outside of ourselves. Ultimately, the choice to kill or do anything else is made by the individual — not an impulse that we are incapable of resisting. In philosophy, this is the classic debate of free will and determinism.
When we think of Rhoda, we ask if the little girl perhaps suffered from a broken moral compass – that she may have been unable to legislate morally. But when we watch the film, we see that Rhoda has a moral code — a strict one at that. Her code is strictly egoist. She wants what is best for her. If others stand in her way, that’s their problem.
When I watched The Bad Seed, I thought that the biggest philosophical question that stood out was whether our decisions are a product of free will or if our decisions are determined. But when I looked closer, I discovered that I was thinking about ideas of divine retribution (it ultimately takes and act of God to stop Rhoda Penmark), ideas of karma and justice, and how we should treat mentally ill children? I asked, when God struck down Rhoda, did she get what she deserved? When her mother Christine tried to kill her, was her action morally correct? Would I have felt differently about it if Rhoda wasn’t a child? Was Christine morally obligated to kill her daughter? If there is a real child like Rhoda who has killed or we think may be capable of killing, how are we to deal with that child? In the interest of the greater society, are we obligated to detain them? alter them chemically (like how criminals are “rehabilitated” in Demolition Man?)?should we euthanize them for their own good? Just a few of these questions popped up when I was watching The Bad Seed. I’m sure than there are more to ask. There are a couple of different versions of the story (including the original novel) so I’m sure that each interpretation will stir up a new set of questions.
So my advice is Netflix the movie, nuke a bag of popcorn, and indulge in wishing that God would strike an 8 year old child dead and gleefully cheering when he does for a couple of hours.
But you might want to be careful next time you promise a couple of birds to the neighbor kid.
Especially if you live anywhere near staircases.