Problem Child

The movies' present-day fascination with kid killers, midget murderers, even lethal leprechauns can perhaps be traced to a single entity ("girl" doesn't quite cut it): Patty McCormack's incomparable, Oscar-nominated portrayal of 8-year-old serial killer Rhoda Penmark in the 1956 kitsch classic The Bad Seed. Rhoda is perfect in every way, except when she doesn't get her way. Then her jaw locks in a grimace and she skips off to drown a classmate, set the janitor on fire, or push an old lady off the roof to relieve all the tension that builds up from smiling too much.

In a film that director Mervyn LeRoy, adapting the Broadway hit, simply hands to the actors, several performances stand out: Nancy Kelly's hilarious hysterics as Rhoda's tortured ma; Eileen Heckart's drunken shrew turn as the mother of one of Rhoda's victims; and Henry Jones' leering janitor, who dies by "excelsior" when Rhoda decides he knows too much. This weird, riveting melodrama, which has two endings, is either above or beneath criticism, depending on your viewpoint. Fans can extend the experience in their chosen direction at the Castro's gala showing, complete with drag queen Rhodas and gossip guru Michael Musto's interview with McCormack live onstage. The fun begins at 7 p.m. Friday at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro (at Market), S.F. Admission is $15; call 863-0611. Admission for just the late-night screening at 10:45 p.m. Friday is $7.50. There will also be a matinee screening and Q&A session with McCormack at noon on Saturday ($8).

-- Gary Morris

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