What do you do if your child is a killer? This parenting nightmare plays at the center of The Lie, one of four movies Amazon is releasing this month in their Welcome to the Blumhouse series. However, the roots of this horror premise reach back to 1956’s The Bad Seed. There have been plenty of terrifying tykes since then — from Village of the Damned (1960), to The Omen (1976), to Children of the Corn (1984), to Orphan (2009) — yet The Lie proves a direct descendant, carrying commonalities, while offering a contrasting spin on the nature-versus-nurture narrative.
Adapted from the hit Broadway play, Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed centers on the mother-daughter bond between doting housewife Christine Penmark (Academy Award nominee Nancy Kelly), and her picture-perfect daughter Rhoda (Academy Award nominee Patty McCormack). Having mastered politeness and a polished look of pristine dresses, shiny shoes and perfectly braided pigtails, Rhoda is praised by neighbors, teachers and her oft-away-on-duty father, Col. Kenneth Penmark (William Hopper). However, Christine has seen the flip side to Rhoda’s charms. She’s witnessed her daughter’s fits of rage, her coldness and how she uses affection to manipulate others. So, when a school rival turns up dead, Christine is forced to face what her mercurial girl has done. Then comes the impossible choice of what to do next.
Screenwriter/director Veena Sud adapts The Lie from the 2015 German thriller We Monsters, yet its DNA is deeply tied to The Bad Seed. Both films focus on parents who learn their kid has killed. In both, the child in question is a daughter, who is introduced as a happy little girl. The Lie begins with home movies of Kayla Logan (Joey King) playing, laughing and generally being an adorable ray of sunshine even on a rainy day. Then, Sud jumps to the present, where Kayla is a sulking teen, silently suffering from her parents’ divorce. She scowls at their new significant others and transparently tries to urge them together in clumsy reunions.
Just like Rhoda, Kayla is a jealous girl who envies a school friend. Here it’s not a golden badge for good penmanship, but the attentions of boys that our Evil Kid desires. Kayla’s best friend, Brittany Ifrani (Devery Jacobs), is flirtatious, curvaceous and confident, where she is shy, slight and sullen. Just like Rhoda, Kayla and her rival go near a body of water, here a bridge over a rushing river as opposed to a dock on a lake. Then, deadly disaster strikes!
True to its Bad Seed inspirations, The Lie keeps violence off camera. As in The Bad Seed, the parents don’t see what their child has done to her classmate, but instead are aware of the evidence, which includes an emotional confession. While Christine was alone with her suspicions, The Lie has both parents in the know. Though stung by resentments past and present, exes Rebecca (Mireille Enos) and Jay (Peter Sarsgaard) must come together to save their daughter’s future. As the former is a prosecutor, Rebecca gets to strategy, while Jay scrambles to isolate Kayla from those who’d question her.
Looping in these details along with a police investigation, the film leans more into crime-thriller than The Bad Seed ever aimed to. This makes the film less cerebral than The Bad Seed, which maintained the simple staging of a play, unfurling mostly in the Penmark living room, where psychologists, investigative reporters and experts on the criminal mind conveniently gather to converse over cocktails while Christine frets in secret. Instead of delivering theatrical asides about her inner turmoil to an empty room, Rebecca and Jay argue tactics together, then square off against prying police officers and Sam Ifrani (Cas Anvar), the father of the missing girl. Here’s where The Lie branches sharply from The Bad Seed.
To bring the guilt home in the most hard-hitting way, The Bad Seed brought to the Penmarks’ door Hortense Daigle (Academy Award nominee Eileen Heckart), the mother of the drowned boy. A hairdresser and confessed “lush” who wears less fine clothing than Christine, she is coded as low class. Clearly, she couldn’t provide for her boy the way the Penmarks have for Rhoda, who wants for nothing, be it tap shoes, popsicles or fire hazards. Her lack of wealth and status means Hortense has no influence to get justice for her boy. So, she drinks, begs for an answer from the last little girl to see him alive, and bellows all the things you’re not to say in polite society, including which teachers dye their hair. This is her only tool, and it’s one that cuts both ways, making her seem hysterical and therefore all the easier to dismiss.
In The Lie, the difference between the Logans and Ifranis isn’t one of class: Both Kayla and Brittany live in an upper-class neighborhood, in big houses with professional parents who can afford to send them to four-dance ballet camps. The difference is racial. Kayla’s parents are white, and exploit their privilege not only to proclaim their daughter’s innocence, but also to frame Britney’s Pakistani father for her disappearance. They fabricate allegations of physical abuse and note he’s been acting strange. (Hortense could likely relate to such slander.) The Logans never need to say anything about Ifrani’s race, yet racial profiling occurs when a sneering cop abruptly asks Sam Ifrani, “What are you? Indian? Arab?” After all, what does this man’s heritage have to do with his missing daughter?
Rather than the high theatricality The Bad Seed brought from the Broadway stage, The Lie’s cast offers more grounded panic and pained expressions. Yet the most crucial difference between The Lie and The Bad Seed isn’t in performance style, crime-thriller leanings or even the endings, which aim to shock. The core contrast is the source of a parent’s fear: In The Bad Seed, Christine discovers her mother was a notorious serial killer, and thereby her child had no chance — Rhoda was born bad, destined to murder like her grandmother before her. None of the toys, tenderness or talkings-to that Christine could give would make any difference. In the battle of nature versus nurture, The Bad Seed terrified audiences with the threat that there is nothing parents can do to fix a Rhoda.
Kayla has a lot in common with Rhoda. When she’s confronted about her missing friend, she kicks her feet with an eerie levity. She admits to what she’s done, but will not accept responsibility, blaming the victim and then her parent. Like Christine, Jay loses his temper, and lashes out violently only to catch himself and worry he is to blame for his daughter’s behavior. Christine blamed her bad blood, but the Logans suspect they’ve ruined their child through indulgence. As Rebecca cries to Jay, “She’s nothing but a spoiled brat because you let her get away with everything!” In quiet moments, they reminisce about how sweet and happy she was before the divorce. Frighteningly, her joy returns the day after the incident at the bridge, when she beams over a fraught family breakfast. Kayla’s parents are left to wonder: Did they break her?
While The Bad Seed centered on parental fear of powerlessness, The Lie focuses on the fear of unintended parental influence. Parenting has changed dramatically since 1956. The role of caretaker is no longer considered exclusively the domain of the mother, so Christine would no longer bear this dark burden alone, even as divorce rates rose. The oversight on a child’s activities has increased intensely, especially as moral panics about Satanists, stranger danger, white vans and killer clowns grabbed headlines nationwide. The American parent today is expected to do much more than provide meals, the occasional kind word and a story at bedtime: The Lie shows the Logans creating goals, schedules, safe environments and lies to keep their child safe. They thought their big house, wealth and perhaps even their whiteness could keep them away from horrors that make headlines. Then, their darling little girl turned and said, “I pushed her… she was being a bitch.”
Regarded on its own, The Lie might seem a crime-thriller walking in the footsteps of a giant, and thereby tumbling into clichés that coddle audiences into snoozy expectations. However, when regarded as a response to The Bad Seed, you can see how Sud is reconsidering the haunting tale in a modern context. Her adapted screenplay leans away from theory and more into investigation details that speak to an audience that’s grown ravenous for true-crime narratives. We witness the Logans, clock their cover-up mistakes, note the clues left to be discovered and judge their parenting fails. However, before “the lie” that plunges the Logans in a downward spiral, their mistakes were frightfully common. What this new interpretation on Evil Kid offers, then, is the lingering terror that might whisper in your ear in the middle of the night: What have you done to break your child?