**Spoiler warning–this post contains major plot reveals for this film**
It’s a widely-accepted conclusion that horror movies with creepy kids are some of the scariest, and this film is one of the best. Released in 1956, it’s earlier than many of the films I’ve featured in my Halloween posts, but I’d wager that this movie is right up there with much newer films in terms of terror.
Meet Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack). On the surface, she looks like a typical 1950s girl, complete with blonde braids and flouncy dresses. She seems like a model child in her demeanor, polite and loving to her mother. And yet her mother seems weary and at times frantic. Why is that?
Rhoda’s mother, Christine (Nancy Kelly) suspects throughout the film that Rhoda is responsible for the death of a classmate, Claude Daigle, who has drowned. There are also hints to other deaths where Rhoda might’ve been a party to murder (and made it look like an accident). Throughout, Rhoda is emotionless, calculating, except when she needs to turn on the charm to fool the adults. There’s one adult, however, she can’t fool.
Leroy (Henry Jones) is the maintenance man at Rhoda’s building, and he has her number. He keeps telling her that he knows what she did and that she’ll get caught. He’s attempting to rattle the little girl, but she’s having none of it. He even goes so far as to tell her that they have a pink electric chair for little girls. It sounds horrible, but you don’t know Rhoda.
Claude Daigle’s mother, Hortense (Eileen Heckart), comes to see Rhoda, since she was the last to see Claude alive and, according to Rhoda’s teacher, seen trying to take Claude’s penmanship award away from him. She asks Rhoda what happened, hoping to get some answers. Hortense is sad, revealing that she stays drunk to mask the pain of losing her son. Rhoda remains calm, but Christine’s suspicions are increasing with every moment. She knows that Rhoda wanted the penmanship award. She catches Rhoda trying to get rid of a pair of tap shoes after it’s revealed that Claude had crescent moon-shaped wounds on his face and hands.
In the midst of all of this, it’s also revealed that Leroy has burned alive when his bed caught on fire. I’ll give you three guesses who did that.
It’s then that Christine realizes what she has to do. And it’s in this revelation that the film shines. She realizes her seemingly perfect daughter is a cold-blooded murderer. We see her journey from love to concern to despair and duty. Nancy Kelly does a fantastic job playing the role of Rhoda’s mother. She exudes a pathos that is unmatched in a lot of horror movies.
Patty McCormack in a lot of ways is the perfect monster. It’s immensely creepy to think of a child so emotionless that she can murder without remorse, especially over something like a penmanship award.
When Rhoda starts screaming her confession, it chills me to the bone. Patty McCormack is intense. It’s definitely not a concept widely explored in film in the ’50s. I remember watching this film with my mom during a horror marathon on AMC when they still showed really old movies and were commercial-free. It startled me.
The title card at the end of the film warned moviegoers not to reveal the ending of the film. Even in the ’50s, people had to worry about spoilers. But the ending is shocking, so I understand. (Notice how I didn’t tell you what it was.) The bread and butter of films like this is the twist at the end, so in order to keep people coming into the theatre, filmmakers had to ensure people didn’t find out the ending. (I’d also like to submit that this title card be at the end of every film made today.)
The film was based on a play by the same name, and was remade in 1985. I haven’t seen the remake, but I can’t imagine it’s anywhere near the caliber of the original. If you’ve never seen it, even if you know the whole story, take a look. It’s definitely worth seeing.
So have you seen this one? What other films from this era would you add to your Halloween watchlist? Aren’t horror movies with kids the creepiest?