Friday, April 29, 2011

Movie vs. Book: The Bad Seed


Sometimes I don’t know what’s worse—a bad movie made by somebody who doesn’t know any better (like a high school student film), or a mediocre movie by someone who absolutely knows how to do a good one. The latter is the case with The Bad Seed, and right after watching, I’m left feeling cold.

Before you get all cranky with me, I’m not talking about the 1956 classic, but the 1985 made-for-TV remake. It was directed by Paul Wendkos, the man behind The Legend of Lizzie Borden, another TV horror flick with Elizabeth Montgomery. That one was genuinely scary, a prime example of the golden age of television horror alongside other greats like Bad Ronald and Night Stalker. Knowing the guy made the Lizzie Borden flick, I know he can not only make a scary movie, but do so for this specific medium. That’s what makes The Bad Seed’s fail even more offensive.

I understand there will be problems doing a remake like this. Thirty years after the original, between the movie, the book and the play, everyone is familiar with the story and what the term “The Bad Seed” means. Can you still make the story surprising? We don’t know because they didn’t even try here.

From the very first scene, before they ran the opening credits, you see a little old lady pushed down a flight of stairs. Sure, you don’t see who did it, but even if you were totally unfamiliar with the story, within ten minutes you’d know. Poor Rachel Penmark, years ago she saw a dear friend of the family, a little old lady, fall down the stairs, and she has a beautiful Christmas ornament to remember her by. Yep, no mystery there because the first scene gave that away. And when little Rachel chases poor Mark Daigler to the end of the pier during the school picnic, wanting his penmanship medal she felt she deserved, we are not surprised to hear the boy’s body was found soon after. They weren’t even trying to build any sort of mystery. By the time Rachel’s mother realizes what her daughter is up to, you want to smack her upside the head and ask how she didn’t know.

Especially if you compare this to the original, it’s a sad second. Patty McCormack’s Rhoda was a cold, calculating, emotionless murderess. The Rachel played by Carrie Wells gets too frustrated too quickly, taking out her rage on the piano she obsessively practices. Instead of sociopathic, she comes across as the ultimate spoiled child.

The performances were uneven. Blair Brown does a halfway decent job with her role as Rachel’s mother, but Lynn Redgrave as the landlady and David Carradine as Leroy the handyman are so cartoonish, calling their roles two-dimensional would be too generous. Whether it’s the fault of the actors or the mediocre script is hard to tell. Both of them are fine actors, and there’s only so much even the best actor can do with a poorly written role. Perhaps their biggest faults come in accepting the role in the first place.

It turns out there’s a Turkish remake of The Bad Seed from the 60s. If you’re familiar with Turkish remakes, you know they’re low-budget cheap rip-offs, often made for little more than the cost of a can of film and an eyeliner pencil, many times stealing entire sequences straight of the original movie, adding their own shots for things like close-ups. I have a feeling I would have had a lot more fun watching that than I did with this sad excuse for a remake.

Heavily NOT recommended.

- Jenny

BOOK : THE BAD SEED by William March
If any subgenre of horror has been more played out than the vampire and the zombie, it is the creepy kid story. Starting with the Exorcist, blossoming with the popularity of the movie The Omen, and an easy default villain for any wanna-be horror author in the 1980s who didn't want to learn about mythology or legend, evil child stories are plentiful.
I don't know why most of them bothered.
The Bad Seed was written in 1954, and it's brilliant. March tells the story of Mrs. Christine Penmark, whose daughter is a sociopath. Mrs. Penmark is remarkable through her normalcy; she is neither unusually bright nor stupid, neither self-centered nor fully altruistic. She is an everywoman of the 1950s, and in many ways an everywoman of today. Although the reader is provided insight into her daughter Rhoda's personality early in the book, Christine starts the novel without any suspicions and with only mild and possibly unreasoned unease. As the book progresses we see the development of Christine's viewpoint, until she at last confronts her daughter about the truth.
That, thankfully, isn't the end of the book. Instead, March continues by examining the moral issues Christine is facing. Does she have a duty to turn her daughter in, thereby possibly saving a life? But would her daughter be convicted, without evidence, at that young age? Is the child redeemable? Is there a cause for her condition?
As Christine investigates, she discovers that there may in fact be a reason, and that the reason is her. After skipping a generation from her homicidal mother, she has passed along the emotional void to her daughter. Christine realizes that she is, in fact, a bad seed, that any of her children could be corrupted. Blame figures heavily into the last portion of this novel.
The book is fantastic, and while it may not be the definitive evil child book, it's better than 99% of the others on the market.
Five stars out of five

-- Bill