Lifetime movies are usually a lot of fun, and there’s no shame in liking them. From Mother, May I Sleep With Danger (both versions) to the recent adaptation of V.C. Andrews‘ Flowers in the Attic series to the 2015 surprise Will Ferrell / Kristen Wiig thriller Deadly Adoption, there is no guilt here about these made-for-TV pleasures. So I went into The Bad Seed with popcorn and a glass of wine, ready for all the camp and thrills Lifetime usually delivers.
Instead, The Bad Seed can’t seem to figure out exactly what it wants to be. It suffers from being neither dark enough nor campy enough — either choice would have been a lot more enjoyable. But it is stuck in a middle area that is devoid of over-the-top absurdity or any real darkness.
In this update of the 1954 William March novel (which was previously adapted into an award-winning play and award-nominated feature film in the 1950s, plus a made-for-TV movie in the 1980s that boasts an impressive cast), there are a couple changes made from the source material, several of which work really well and one which decidedly does not.
For Lifetime’s version, Rob Lowe stars as single father David, raising 9-year-old Emma (McKenna Grace) by himself after his wife died shortly after Emma was born. It’s clear from the get-go (and the title of the movie) that there’s something off about Emma. Without getting too spoilery, let’s just say that this little girl is quite a budding sociopath.
In the original text, the little girl has two parents but is primarily being raised by her mother, which is certainly a product of the time period. The single father angle works well here, making this adaptation feel modern and bringing in a touch of the “daddy’s little girl” trope, in that he’s initially quite blind to his daughter’s machinations. This version also eschews the thread that Emma is the way she is because she’s the granddaughter of an infamous serial killer. Yes, that’s the explanation from the source material and yes, it plays a little on the ridiculous side even in the excellent play and feature film. This version leaves Emma’s sociopathy unexplained, which works to make it all a little creepier.
However, the single dad angle introduces a babysitter character, Chloe (Sarah Dugdale), that really muddies the waters plot-wise. She’s meant to be a foil for her evil charge, but the film can’t decide if Chloe is for or against Emma’s darkness. She quickly figures out what Emma is up to, but seems to glide right over it in order to try to seduce Emma’s dad. It rings a little false and is another example of the film needing to figure out what it wants to be.
Chloe would have been far more effective as either a virtuous caregiver, which would have given the outcome of her storyline some emotional weight, or an incredibly dark accomplice for Emma. Like I’ve said before, either lean into the camp or take this movie full dark, no stars Lifetime.
Because of that, moments that were meant to be scary lacked the darkness to be truly scary, but they also weren’t fun in an over-the-top way. The climax of the film did finally give into the darkness somewhat — and it’s no coincidence that it’s easily the highlight of the movie. But by that point, it’s really too little, too late.
There are a few bright spots that are worth mentioning. This is Lowe’s first real foray into directing and he made a couple strong choices, so it’ll be nice to see if he dips his toes into the directing pond again. Likewise, Grace is a talented actress and does a nice job here as Emma. In fact, she’s good enough to have handled meatier material with aplomb, so again, it’s a shame the movie didn’t give her a darker character to sink her teeth into.
Finally, there’s a great nod to the source material in that they cast Patty McCormack as Emma’s psychiatrist. McCormack played Emma (then named Rhoda) in both the Broadway play and the feature film, earning an Oscar nomination for the latter. She’s a lot of fun here in her small role, telling Emma during their session, “I did the exact same things as you when I was your age.” That’s great wink-wink moment, and worthy of a laugh. And yet, McCormack’s cameo is another example of how this movie could have benefitted from not taking itself so seriously, if it wasn’t going to go full-tilt into darkness.
If Lifetime movies are your thing, then get some friends together, crack open the wine and enjoy this for what it is. But maybe also pour one out for what could have been.
The Bad Seed premieres Sunday, September 9th on Lifetime.