THE BAD SEED
DVD - Image A Sound A Extras B-
BD - Image C+ Sound A Extras B-
starring Patty McCormack, Henry Jones, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden
screenplay by John Lee Martin, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson and the novel by William March
directed by Mervyn LeRoy
VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960)
***½/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B+
starring George Sanders, Barbara Shelley, Michael Gwynn
screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, Wolf Rilla, George Barclay, based on The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
directed by Wolf Rilla
CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1963)
*/**** Image A Sound A Extras C
starring Ian Hendry, Alan Badel, Barbara Ferris, Alfred Burke
screenplay by John Briley
directed by Anton M. Leader
by Walter Chaw It's pretty common nowadays to look at the horror films of the 1950s as Cold War/McCarthy-era relics: allegories for a world torn between the antiseptic image of television's Golden Age and the seething undertow of a society slipping into the madness of the JFK/Medgar Evers assassinations, the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Freedom Summer Killings, the transition from the Korean War to Vietnam, and on and on and on until any pretense of innocence, in art and society, became tainted by irony. It was thought that 9/11 was an event horrific enough to end our gilded age of snark, but ironically is almost the only way that we view tragedy and institutional corruption. Though paranoia might have been planted in the duck-and-cover drills of the Fifties, in the suspicion and fear of returning WWII vets confronting a different world and haunted by demons, it didn't find full flower until the Rorschach coolness of the 1960s and the mean cinema of the 1970s.
A curious sub-genre of all that fear--an element that finds its way into stuff like Night of the Living Dead (1968) that is not otherwise about it--is the fear of our children. It can be the idea of "Sins of our Fathers" (and in the Fifties, with the spectre of possible war atrocity and certain noir gender and race discomfort, it certainly was), and it can be a generational paranoia thing where the parents reared in the '50s couldn't quite reconcile the children coming to bloom in the late '60s. Satan was the answer in flicks like 1968's Rosemary's Baby and 1973's The Exorcist (in the new millennium--with films such as Soft for Digging, The Ring, and Identity--there's really no answer to the problem of evil kids: they're as blandly malevolent as a terrorist attack)--but before the cracks started appearing in our carefully constructed cultural mask, a certain stage sensation and four-time Oscar nominee was the talk of the water cooler.
The Bad Seed, released the same year, 1956, as Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was immensely popular for its time, but viewed from a modern perspective, it's airless and claustrophobic when it's not camp hilarious. The opening is wonderful, evoking the carefully constructed tableaux of Cape Fear (1962) and Night of the Hunter (1955) as the camera gazes across an artfully-erected lake at a small town nestled in a cradle of security and self-satisfaction. It's the myth of nuclear consumer contentment about to be punctured. Fins on cars and rockets for bras, the horizon was the limit--and legendary lightweight director Mervyn LeRoy expands the suffocating borders of the Maxwell Anderson play upon which The Bad Seed is based for one of two times in the film to stunning effect. As the movie contracts into its domestic melodrama (which is more of a gynaecological hysteria melodrama like Mildred Pierce (1945)), it fast becomes something like a long ridicule-session of psychoanalysis. It is extremely funny (LeRoy began his career as a gag writer), intentionally or not--that is, when it's not wrung to the point of unwatchable by meandering monologues and slow reveals.
Shrinks and head-shrinking were the new sacrificial lambs in genre fiction (see also: Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the hapless blowhard who knows just enough to not know a thing. The theme in The Bad Seed of nature vs. nurture finds its most elegant fruit in the idea that psychology-as-science was no match for good old-fashioned intuition. That struggle between knowledge of the head versus knowledge of the gut informs a lot of the doomsday films of the Fifties and early Sixties. When Hitchcock made a mockery of psychology in the tongue-in-cheek epilogue of Psycho (1960), he sanctioned the disdain of professional pretense in matters of the heart. So in The Bad Seed, what the amateur shrink (landlady Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden)) doesn't see in the picture-perfect little Rhoda (Patricia McCormack), Rhoda's mother (Nancy Kelly), teacher (Joan Croydon), and Faulknerian man-child Leroy (Henry Jones) do. Owing more than a small debt to Ray Bradbury's 1947 short story "The Small Assassin," The Bad Seed hasn't a moment that feels anything like reality. It's like Night of the Hunter in that way: a fable of decomposition set in a metaphor and peopled by marionettes. Where Night of the Hunter relied on images of nature in distress to set against the mad religion of man, The Bad Seed relies on landlady Breedlove deconstructing her own last name as the reason her marriage fell apart. "Breed" and "love" and never the twain could the erstwhile Mr. Breedlove reconcile.
Rhoda is a bad seed, a product of a faulty gene from mommy's secret past that's turned the wee dear into a hambone psychopath who kills a classmate for a penmanship medal and, it's suggested, a few other folks just to watch them die. Fine as is, LeRoy and company nevertheless proceed in endless anatomical detail in the minutiae of whether the criminal impulse is a matter of meat or mother: hardware or software. A ridiculously literal deus ex machina suggests that it's both and neither. It's God. And therein lies the problem with The Bad Seed. When all is said and done and despite itself and the corner that it paints itself into, society is restored and a brighter future awaits sans seed. Over it all hangs the uncomfortable understanding that it's not the atrocity that riles in The Bad Seed, it's the idea that the people with the brains don't know any better, leaving society's salvation to the retards and the housewives.
Four years later, director Wolf Rilla brings doom-loving sci-fi legend John Wyndham's exceptional The Midwich Cuckoos to the screen with the slightly watered-down--but still fantastic--Village of the Damned. The film begins in complete silence as the denizens of quiet hamlet Midwich all fall asleep; when the village awakes, it finds all its women of carrying age mysteriously with child. In another wordless sequence later, Rilla will locate the men of the village gathering at a watering hole with long faces and hollow eyes as they commiserate over the reality that their wives have either been impregnated by an otherworldly "ray" or, just as bad, by their friends and neighbours. The idea of male sexual jealousy is first explored in Village of the Damned in reports from around the globe of husbands murdering their spouses and children, then in the relationship between key protagonist and resident egghead Zellaby (the incomparable George Sanders) and his much younger wife, Anthea (Barbara Shelley)--a gulf that does not go uncommented-upon. Early scenes of their domestic bliss are undercut by the idea that Anthea may be broodmare for some sort of in utero alien invasion, marking Village of the Damned as the spiritual grandmother of both Rosemary's Baby and Ridley Scott's later Alien.
Sanders gives Zellaby an air of resigned nobility that fits this idea of an elder husband most comfortably--he's resigned that he may not be the provider of the seed, and he's dedicated to preserving the offspring regardless, despite the offense to his potential cuckolding. The dozen children born to the Midwich wives are all towheaded, golden-eyed geniuses beyond measure, able to read thoughts and control actions. The only adult that they trust is Zellaby, and that trust, in the end, is what dooms them as Zellaby is finally convinced by his colleagues and the military that the litter must be destroyed. Despite the extraordinary potential for good that the children represent, an idea of alien benefactors played with in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the fact that they are still at heart children and cruel in their justice dooms them. It's an element of humanity that makes them unpredictable and, ultimately, unworthy of survival.
Village of the Damned is a magnificent Cold War parable in that it doesn't say much about not trusting your neighbours or of fiendish government plots, but instead concerns the responsibility of power. More intriguingly, it suggests that what we have wrought through our ingenuity and technologies we can't possibly control. Armageddon is inevitable because we're only human and as such given to flights of fancy, paroxysms of anger, and moments of dementia. It's high-minded to be sure; my favourite moments are visceral ones as Althea tries to be a mother to one of the clockworks to no avail and Zellaby forces himself to think of a brick wall to stall the probing minds of his tiny charges--and the literalized wall starts to fly apart under their unearthly attention. Village of the Damned is a more hopeful film than The Bad Seed: it says that the smart people will discover in time that they can't control the weapons they create for our defense and do the only sane thing: disarm. It's a humanist piece--no lightning bolt restores this society, just the cool light of right reason.
Which makes the fact and methodology of the failure of Children of the Damned all the more appalling. A British production from start to finish (unlike the American/British original), working with a screenplay by John Briley from which Wyndham did his level best to distance himself, the sequel jettisons the events of its predecessor and starts anew: no alien suggestion, no sleepy village--just a lot of self-conscious, simple-minded political pontification and disturbing misogyny. As Cold War metaphors go, it's among the silliest and most heavy-handed. Six children, super-geniuses, able to read and control minds, are discovered through some kind of UN study on pre-adolescent I.Q., inspiring two British nerds to wisecrack and emote through the standard conservation vs. destruction dialogue of this kind of knock-off sci-fi.
The British robo-kid, Paul (Clive Powell), is the son of a down-on-her-luck kind of gal named Diana (Sheila Allen), who, when the authorities come-a-callin', is introduced in the film in almost exactly the same way as Mira Sorvino is in Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite. (Even the rationale for the visit is the same: a nerd finds a kid to be super smart and becomes interested in his mother.) It's not long before she's smeared by a truck in a tunnel and banished to a full body cast and a speech that recalls the drunken screed of the dead kid's mom (Eileen Heckart) in The Bad Seed; apparently every one of these superkids is the child of a single "unstable" mother, indicting the idea of single-motherhood with the worst kind of patriarchal bitchslap. Sure, they produced über menschen from their wombs, but they're crazy, unfit, and probably hookers--Madonna/whore complex meters are going off the red.
The six children, four male and two female (the two girls are from our chief Cold War rivals, both hailing from "motherlands": Russia and China), decide to hole away in an old abandoned church, but not before they hypnotize Paul's aunt, Susan (Barbara Ferris), to act as their wholly unnecessary spokesperson. Her function, and the progress of the entire third act of the film, is as some kind of relic of the traditional vampire flick, complete with bride, moldering church, and animal familiar (a poor border collie that is almost as scary as an evil dachshund). When the munchkins make a super-weapon from a decrepit church organ and some mirrors, Children of the Damned collapses in on itself in a jumble of confused horror elements and smug British humour. No longer blonde, no longer ethereal (they're some sort of coincidental genetic freakism), the children are just do-gooder Klaatus in a land of thugs. A shot of Ian Hendry running through the inexplicably deserted streets of London bounces off Wyndham's apocalyptic mien--if only the rest of the film weren't as lost and empty. Where The Bad Seed looked to God in silly women and dangerous Boo Radleys and Village of the Damned to men of reason and science, Children of the Damned places the hopes of mankind in the hands of a screwdriver that rolls at an inopportune time and gets centre stage as the final shot of the film underneath "The End." The picture hates women and thinks men are smug idiots, and so it ends things on a bit of slapstick, Rube Goldberg stupidity. It's God again, of course, but this time He's winking, the supercilious bastard. And the joke's on you.
THE DVD - THE BAD SEED
Warner Home Video presents The Bad Seed in a gorgeous fullscreen (technically Academy ratio, 1.37:1) transfer that honours what has become one of the all-time queer camp classics, filling out triple bills with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Mommie Dearest. Contrasts are solid, black-levels are consistent... Let's face it, it's damned handsome--and matched by a 1.0 mono audio track that replicates the shrill dialogue with stultifying fidelity. A feature-length yakker juxtaposing Die, Mommie, Die! creator Charles Busch and Patty McCormack is depressingly low on self-awareness given Busch's background and obvious (and obviously restrained) glee with the kitsch elements of the flick. He's eternally on the verge of saying something snarky (translate all his "interesting"s to "hilariously" and we've got something here), but his adoration of McCormack seems to neuter his better intentions. The 15-minute "Enfant Terrible: A Conversation with Patty McCormack" is just McCormack telling the same stories she tells on the commentary and probably has told continuously for the last fifty years. She's in awe of her performance and the performances of her cohorts. It's tedious, to say the least. A theatrical trailer rounds out the special features.
THE DVD - VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED/CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED
Though Village of the Damned deserves special treatment all its own, Warner presents both Village and Children of the Damned on one side of a dual-layered disc in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentations that knock eyes out on their stalks. Village, in particular, rings with depth and vibrancy, a testament to the agility of black-and-white cinematography in its heyday. Children is less impressive, in part because more of its action takes place in shadow; elements appear a touch mismatched in the key tunnel-truck-mother scene and the source doesn't, on the whole, seem as sharp as Village--but that may have more to do with respective budgets and studio facilities. Truth is, though, that the image quality of Children only really pales in comparison to that of Village. Strong centre-channel mono mixes adorn each flick.
Nice trailers accompany both films as well. Village additionally sports a good technical commentary from Chronicles of Terror: Silent Screams author Steve Haberman that touches on the outrage within the Catholic church (oh, them again) about the idea of Immaculate Conception and the general outrage with which contemporary audiences treated the film. I wish that even fleeting mention had been made of "The Simpsons" episode wherein the kids sneak in to see what is essentially a more faithful recreation of a scene from The Midwich Cuckoos in which a torch-and-pitchfork mob is forced to turn on one another. All in all, there's not much analysis, but plenty of history. Take that in contrast to Children's commentary by screenwriter Briley, who peppers his yakker with extended periods of silence during which we can almost feel him searching for something to say. He eventually latches onto the topic of the blacklist, yet without a better background (something he doesn't provide), it's pretty hard to know what the hell that has to do with anything. Some comment about the way that women are treated in his picture would have been nice--totally unexpected, but nice. To switch between films, by the way, on the main menu for either feature press "up" over the "play movie" option and click on the "back" arrow to return to the movie selection page--a definite improvement over other double-features that require a complete re-booting of the machine. Originally published: September 7, 2004.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - THE BAD SEED
by Bill Chambers Warner brings The Bad Seed to Blu-ray in a mediocre 1.78:1, 1080p transfer. Verging on out-of-focus at times, the image nonetheless sports a fairly crisp grain structure, suggesting that the soft definition is a peculiarity of the cinematography. Some contrast boosting may have helped, though dynamic range is acceptable. Unfortunately, I don't have the DVD on hand to properly gauge the shift in aspect ratios from 1.33:1 to the more HD-friendly 1.78:1; I will say that while the film, being post-CinemaScope, was probably shot with 1.85:1 matting in mind, the opening titles ride a little high on the screen, and the actors' heads very occasionally butt up against the top of the frameline in a way that doesn't look intentional. Still, it's not a cramped presentation like the repurposed-for-widescreen "Seinfeld" that now crops up in syndication; the bigger problem is the lack of sharpness, which maybe wasn't as much of an issue in NTSC and with additional vertical picture info compacting detail. The accompanying 1.0 DTS-HD MA track meets every meagre demand made of it--I suspect Rhoda's callow renditions of "Clair de lune" never sounded so good. Supplementary material is recycled intact from the 2004 disc. Originally published: October 21, 2011.