To adult eyes, Rhoda (Patty McCormack) is a perfect little girl, and as she sees off her father Kenneth (William Hopper) who is leaving to resume his job in the Army, she asks him what he would give for a basket full of kisses, and he replies he would give a basket full of hugs, a catchphrase they like to exchange in the family. Rhoda is somewhat spoilt by Kenneth, and her mother Christine (Nancy Kelly) is all too aware of that although she lets her daughter's whims be indulged if it keeps her happy. But if Rhoda doesn't get her own way... there will be hell to pay.
The Bad Seed was a hugely influential horror movie which had pretensions to grand social statements, taking the genetic side of evil in the nature versus nurture argument in that the little madam of the title had been born bad instead of her murderous tendencies being the fault of a poor upbringing and generally corrupting environment. You can see imitators of Rhoda in countless evil children fiction, all the way up to Stewie in Family Guy or the Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin, and the whole notion proved such fertile ground for supplying a villain where you didn't need to dream up any kind of complex motivation that it's little wonder there were so many copycats.
It was actually based on William March's novel, which had been such a big seller that it was turned into a stage play on Broadway which was just as popular, causing audiences to shiver with fascinated revulsion at the antics of wicked Rhoda, so when director Mervyn LeRoy saw it he was determined to transform it into a movie, and if anything in that incarnation it became even bigger than it had ever been. Nowadays, the reaction is not so much horror at the pint-sized serial killer, but to laugh as McCormack's sweetness and light barely masking the depths of her dark soul performance was the stuff of pure camp, and plenty of followers of that style of entertainment positively revel in such an unselfconsciously sincere variety as this.
Which is all very well, and there are moments where you can't help but chuckle as Rhoda gives a grimace only we can see, or is coaxed into admitting in most dramatic terms her crimes, yet there were parts which would make most people feel a tad too uncomfortable about going along with the child as an anti-heroine, a bad girl to end all bad girls. Sure, it was fun to see the buttoned-down and conservative fifties be presented with a very particular kind of monster which spoke to all sorts of social paranoia, and psychopathically petulant Rhoda exploded like a cultural bomb in the polite conversations of the day, but the fact that everyone involved genuinely believed in this sort of psychological quackery was not quite so much of a laughing matter.
Indeed, Rhoda was an example of a very conservative villain for a very conservative age, which naturally renders her all the more ripe for lampoonery in the modern era, though watching the gravity Nancy Kelly (most of the cast were taken from the Broadway production, including Patty) approaches her role with, starting out the doting wife and mother and ending up an overwrought, suicidal wreck was not quite as funny as the movie's cultists would have you believe. Admittedly there were sections which were downright ridiculous, most notably the outrageous manner in which the filmmakers were able to get around the censorship by having Rhoda's crime spree interrupted by The Lord God Almighty Himself, and the notorious curtain call which saw Rhoda spanked in revenge, but then again there was the matter of Eileen Heckart's raw performance as the mother of one of the victims which wasn't exactly a lighthearted moment. At least Rhoda's extreme selfishness was held up as depraved: running roughshod over decency and all for the sake of getting her own, petty way. Music by Alex North.