There’s really only one scene in The Bad Seed—Lifetime’s remake of the evil-kid classic directed by and starring the network’s most enthusiastic celebrity associate, Rob Lowe—that even begins to live up to the campy potential of its premise. Lowe’s David, who has just begun to suspect that his daughter Emma (Mckenna Grace) might be a psychopath, takes her to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist’s name is Dr. March, and she’s played by Patty McCormack, who was nominated for an Oscar at the age of 12 for her performance in the original film version of The Bad Seed. Won over by Dr. March’s no-bullshit approach, the normally reserved Emma loosens up. She even smiles a little. Dr. March leans in. “I did the exact same things as you when I was your age,” she says. The two giggle. Finally, for the first time in the film, Emma is wearing pigtails.
Key to the character of Rhoda Penmark, the Bad Seed from William March’s 1954 novel and Mervyn LeRoy’s 1956 film, is that, at first, the audience doesn’t suspect this beaming angel in blonde pigtails could ever be a cold-blooded killer. Here, it’s obvious from the moment Emma is introduced. Brunette, pale, completely deadpan, and prone to intense eye contact, she’s more akin to the title character from 2009's Orphan than McCormack’s Rhoda, down to the overly adult shift dress and pearls Emma wears to the fateful school picnic that drives the film’s plot. And with her true nature so clearly telegraphed from the beginning, basing the narrative around David’s slow, horrifying discovery of his daughter’s true nature just makes him seem—well, kind of oblivious.
He seems pretty oblivious when he’s shocked by Emma’s teacher Mrs. Ellis’ (Marci T. House) assertion that Emma has problems fitting in at school, right after a shot of Emma creepily staring straight into the camera. It’s downright goofy when he looks up Emma’s symptoms on something called DiagnosticDoc.com. He seems a little more with it when he doesn’t believe Emma’s explanation of how she got her classmate’s citizenship medal—changed from the original’s penmanship medal, because those aren’t really a thing anymore—moments before the boy fell off of a slippery wet cliff to his death. But as Emma’s body count keeps getting higher, David’s actions, and thus the film, keep getting sillier and less plausible. What’s worse, it all takes itself far too seriously for anything but the most forced campy laughs.
This is Lowe’s first feature, and his first directorial effort since the 1997 short film Desert’s Edge, so I suppose you have to allow him a little bit of self-indulgence. (He certainly blows off some film-school steam in the opening montage.) At first, it seems that Lowe’s decision to change the concerned-parent role from single mother to single father so he can star in the movie is one of these indulgences. It’s not clear what David does for a living (vague gestures are made towards some sort of furniture business) or where this all takes place (it was clearly shot in Vancouver, but the location’s never addressed in the film itself), but we do hear about how having a spooky kid is really hampering his dating life. Similarly, in accordance with the bylaws of middle-aged male director/stars, he writes in a pert young nanny who totally has the hots for him. But none of this ever really goes anywhere, save for a scene where Lowe steps out of the shower shirtless. So in the end, ego stroking aside, the parental gender-swap doesn’t really affect the plot all that much. The same can’t be said for some of the other changes The Bad Seed makes from the story’s previous incarnations—namely an absolutely ridiculous plot point involving murder by wasp’s nest.
Lack of definition in the supporting characters is also an issue. (There’s one woman who just appears occasionally wearing a pantsuit and holding a paper coffee cup and chats with David for a while; it’s not defined until the end of the film that she’s Emma’s aunt.) They all have the object permanence issue that’s common in quickly shot or otherwise poorly thought-out productions, where it seems as if characters don’t exist when the camera isn’t on them. That’s particularly true of the character of Chloe (Sarah Dugdale), Emma’s aforementioned nanny, who takes the place of handyman Leroy Jessup in the plot. (She even recites some of his dialogue from the 1956 film verbatim.) As well as telling Emma that her father is a “DILF,” Chloe recites dialogue that continually repeats the film’s themes for those who just tuned in at home. Beyond that, she has no background, no motivations, and no real personality, save for seeming to be a bit inexplicably sadistic herself.
This cardboard-cutout quality extends to the dialogue scenes between the adult actors, where Lowe’s inexperience as a director really shows. It also shows in the haphazard way he applies Christopher Nolan-style camera rolls and disorienting drone shots into the suspense scenes, and in the sub-Starbucks folk rock that ruins what’s supposed to be a wrenchingly emotional scene. The only really convincing acting in the film is in the scenes between Lowe and Grace, a couple of which are compelling enough to almost redeem the film as a whole. Grace, who played a young Tonya Harding in last year’s I, Tonya, nails the role, conveying the calculatedness of Emma’s demeanor while giving a giggly edge to lines like a bratty, “now go get me some ice cream!” It’s pretty impressive for a young actor—even if she isn’t really Rhoda Penmark, just some generic creepy kid.