The Bad Seed (1985)

Rating: C+

Dir: Paul Wendkos
Star: Blair Brown, Carrie Wells, David Carradine, Lynn Redgrave

It feels like an adaptation of this story comes out about every thirty years. They are all based on William March’s 1954 novel of the same name, quickly adapted into a stage play, and soon after into a film starring Nancy Kelly and Patty McCormack,. Then there was a 2018 version, starring and directed by Rob Lowe. In between those two, 1985 brought us this TV movie, with some recognizable names and one particularly enjoyable performance. It’s the story of single mother Christine Penmark (Brown),  who begins to suspect her nine-year-old daughter Rachel (Wells) is a psycho, beginning with the death of a fellow pupil on a school trip. He’s not the first person to have died in unusual circumstances around Rachel, and won’t be the last, either.

The title seems from Christine’s concern that her daughter’s malevolence is an inherited trait. If so, what does this say about her? In particular the persistent nightmares she has, in which she’s a young girl, being pursued through a cornfield by a woman. Meanwhile, Leroy Jessup (Carradine), the apartment building’s retarded maintenance man – hey, it was the eighties – is growing increasingly suspicious of Rachel, having seen her psychopathic tendencies in action. He taunts her about the police finding proof of involvement in her classmate’s murder, and that she’ll end up in the electric chair [Silly Leroy: America doesn’t electrocute children! Well, not white ones…]. You probably don’t need to have seen any of the other adaptations, to figure out how this ends up working out for him.

The further we get into this, the more Christine is less “concerned mother”, and more “indictable accessory to murder.” It’s a little irritating, seeing her unquestioningly accept whatever tale Rachel decides to spin. Her daughter changes her story more often than Richard Nixon, and has about as much credibility to an outside observer. However, even after Rachel admits to having whacked her victim across the head with her steel-enhanced boots – gives a whole new meaning to “double tap,” hohoho – her mother treats the whole thing as if it was little more than tugging on someone’s pig-tails. This feels like the biggest flaw in the movie. While I get that eighties’ parenting style was different, I’m fairly sure my parents would have scratched up a bit more than blasé indifference if I’d confessed to homicide.

I really enjoyed the scenes between Leroy and Rachel, Carradine throwing everything he can into a character who, in some ways, is the closest thing this can offer to a moral centre. Watching the two of them spit more or less well-founded accusations at each other (top) is a lot of fun to watch, and definitely several notches above the usual TV movie fare. The premise did remind me somewhat of The Good Son from a few years later: that was able to take advantage of its non-broadcast TV location to push the envelope further e.g. Leroy’s “dirty pictures” here, wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in the Sears catalogue. However, as TVMs go, this was solid with the presence of Redgrave and David Ogden Stiers in supporting roles, adding extra dramatic weight.