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Bad Ronald (1974)
Between 1969 and 1975, the television network ABC was king of the TV movie scene, running up to two movie-of-the-week series at a time, supplemented by the occasional miniseries event. Tales of horror accounted for roughly 20% of these. The shorter running time (75 minutes or less) and lower production values were perfect for concise chillers that might have strained to fill the scope of a theatrical feature. Bad Ronald, which originally aired October 23rd, 1974, has that kind of a story - a quirky bit of creepiness that succeeds in its general aim to entertain and thrill in the same way a fast food cheeseburger succeeds in satisfying hunger.
Ronald Wilby (Scott Jacoby) knows his mother loves him. She makes him chocolate cakes and gives him great presents on his birthday. Plus, she always knows just what to do. When Ronald accidentally kills a neighbor girl, she's super quick to have him seal off the first-floor bathroom in their Victorian home so he can hide. She even delivers him meals through a hidden door in the pantry. After all, that's what family's for, right? Unfortunately, Ms. Wilby dies during a routine surgical operation, leaving Ronald to fend for himself in his secret lair. Ronald occupies himself by painting an imaginary fantasy world where he is a fugitive prince. Every prince needs a princess, though, and the Woods, that nice family that's just moved into Ronald's house, have a girl who looks perfect for the part. With the proper application of voyeurism and planning, Ronald won't have to be lonely for much longer...
Let's quickly address the limitations of the television movie format, because it's a tired subject and I'd like move past it. Yes, the production values are obviously low and the camerawork can be uncinematic. The fades to black in preparation for the commercial break are distracting. Some of the younger actors are incapable of convincing line readings. Bad Ronald is neither coy about these flaws nor does it celebrate them; it has a story to tell and it sets about telling it given the resources (or lack thereof) at its disposal. I can appreciate that.
What works in Bad Ronald is the story and the way in which it's told. The plot is a bit far-fetched, I'll grant you -- how anyone could move into a house and not notice that there's missing square footage is beyond me.1 Leaving that aside, though, the general idea of an unknown resident skittering behind the walls, peering through peepholes, and growing steadily more obsessive is plenty creepy. Writer Andrew Peter Marin (adapting the novel by John Vance) gives the fear more resonance by making the Woods refugees from suburbia, trying to increase the character of their family by moving into a Victorian home. They find the concept of the high ceilings and intricate woodwork romantic, but they're also quick to replace the entire kitchen. They're babes in the woods, oblivious to the basic reality of any old house - that beyond four bedrooms and one bathroom and real wood siding, they've also bought a piece of history. They're surrounded by the lives of the past residents and quite literally so in the case of Ronald.
Ah, poor Ronald. Despite the title, he really isn't all that bad. If anything, he's just lonely. Even at the start of the movie, his life isn't that great - schoolmates tease him, women reject him, and even little girls on bicycles can't wait to tell him what a putz he is. All in all, the bathroom hermitage is kind of an improvement for Ronald; he doesn't start slipping until after his mother dies. While Ronald's actual descent into madness doesn't get quite the time it probably deserves, director Buzz Kulik comes up with some effective visual shorthand to compensate, increasing Ronald's dirtiness and the desperation in his art work as the character's sanity peters out.
Once Ronald is at full derangement, the movie really kicks into gear, starting with a thrilling chase sequence where Ronald chases Babs, his intended princess, to the house next door. Demonstrating that your average hulking slasher killer has nothing on a brainy shut-in, Ronald pulls the telephone line while changing course to flank his prey. When Babs makes the boneheaded move of heading down to the basement, Ronald doesn't fall for the old "come find me in a place with a dozen places to hide" -- he's the hiding expert. He coolly locks the door and whistles as he walks away, confident that he can come back for her anytime. By letting Ronald use his intellect as his weapon, the film is able to turn a rather nebbishy geek into a credible threat.
Like many TV movie terrors of its time, Bad Ronald provides enough entertainment to fill its running time, but holds no greater resonance. It's the fast food of fear, which is not as bad a thing as it sounds. I like a good burger now and then. Thankfully, Warner Bros. has seen fit to release Bad Ronald as part of the Warner Archive Collection, so this ABC Movie-of-the-Week can be enjoyed any old time, so long as you can see past the flaws to the solid storytelling underneath.
1 My perspective may be a bit skewed here. My father is an expert on historical home restoration and growing up I witnessed more than a few false walls torn down (often to reveal stunning original woodwork or even stained glass windows).