It’s hard to believe that it was four decades ago on this very date (October 23rd) that the made-for-television classic BAD RONALD premiered. I have no idea exactly when I first encountered RONALD, it seems like it was always part of my family’s boob tube mythology. “The one with the guy in the wall” it was called until it materialized in the TV GUIDE and then we’d call it BAD RONALD for a while as we planned our viewing and then afterwards, at some point, it would always regress back to “The one with the guy in the wall” again. That literal alias actually came in handy years later when I worked in a video store because every once in a while a customer would inquire about “The one with the guy in the wall” and I’d have a pretty good guess as to what they were talking about. Eventually the Internet came around and spray-painted BAD RONALD’s tag all over cyberspace but for many years, like so many TV movies, this gem was as elusive as an oily eel. Not that there was ever any risk that BAD RONALD would disappear entirely, if you didn’t bump into it on late night TV or at the rare video store that stocked it, you could always count on someone (provided they were of a certain age) bringing it up whenever the conversation turned to freaky movies that camp out in the corners of your head.
In case any of you have been living in a bathroom that has been repurposed into well-camouflaged secret living quarters for the past forty years, I’ll draw a quick sketch of the plot. BAD RONALD concerns a young social pariah named Ronald Wilby who is played by the ever-sincere SCOTT JACOBY. Besides enduring the cruel rejection of his classmates, Ronald lives with the knowledge that when his parents divorced, his father made a deal with his mother to break off all ties in exchange for never having to pay child support (ouch). One day while fleeing a hater pool party, Ronald bumps into a shrewy twerp on a bike who makes the mistake of blasting his mom which causes him to go berserk. He grabs her by the freckled face and pushes her down to the ground and …oops, how come cinder blocks are never around when you need them and only show up at the wrong time to kill folks you only meant to stun? So annoying.
Rather than simply tip toeing away from the scene of the accident and forgetting about the whole mess with a toasted cheese sandwich like a normal person, Ronald does the dumbest thing ever and buries the body in a shallow grave condemning himself as the responsible party. After hearing of this gaff, Ronald’s sweet mother (KIM HUNTER) tsks-tsks his rookie mistake and comes up with an awesome plan to get him off the hook. With some help from the tool kit he just received for his birthday (finally a fortuitous break!), the two devise the ultimate secret fort by transforming a bathroom door into a wall and creating an undetectable living space in the heart of the house. When the police come looking for Ronald, Ma just says he split the scene! All’s well that ends well until mother goes to the hospital for a routine operation, kicks the bucket and eventually a new family lead by the one and only DABNEY COLEMAN moves in. Things get sticky when the increasingly unstable Ronald becomes obsessed with one of the new family’s daughters (CINDY EILBACHER, who you may recognize from CROWHAVEN FARM) though who can blame him, he has a lot of free time on his hands and this all takes place before the invention of the Playstation.
I’m going to be honest with y’all, BAD RONALD is creepy, tense and builds up to a fantastic climax but as a budding recluse, I never solely took it in for thrills, a part of me has always been attracted to it as a hermitic fantasy. I mean who needs Walden’s Pond when you’ve got art supplies, a working sink and apparently an endless stash of chocolate bars? I feel the same way about its unofficial sister flick THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (which also boasts an indelible outsider performance from JACOBY) in which, secret orphan Rynn Jacobs (JODIE FOSTER) hides away from the world drinking tea and reading books all day in hippie garb with a hamster named Gordon.
Rynn and Ronald may be ostensibly presented (at least as a selling point) as threats to normalcy but the engine in each flick is run by the fuel of the viewer routing for their success in protecting a small space to call their own and the right to decline participation in the nonsense of the world (see also: SHIRLEY JACKSON’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE and any album by THE SMITHS). In our current “If you don’t see me, I don’t exist” culture, it’s nearly a verboten idea but I think there’s something admirable about creating your own universe and carving out a sense of self autonomous from the observations and opinions of others.
It’s very likely I’m missing the whole tragic point of BAD RONALD and happily so. In any case the guy got loads of time to concentrate on his art (and his make-believe kingdom Atranta) rather than his rent and we can all agree there are worse fates than that. (According to the sequel that exists only in my head, Ronald, once discovered, is given a year or so of prison time, some therapy of sorts, a book deal and the level of notoriety to sell his artwork at exorbitant prices. He takes all of his millions, buys a mansion and then ends up living in just one small bathroom of the manor with the door nailed shut anyway- because that’s just who he is.)
There are TV movies and then there are TV movies and BAD RONALD is certainly up there with the very best of the best. Oh, and here’s another wonderful thing: If you buy a BAD RONALD DVD you will get a free bonus Kindertrauma blurb at no extra cost! It’s true! They actually quoted yours truly and slapped it right there on the back of the DVD for the world to see. That probably doesn’t seem like a big deal but to me it’s an honor to be shrink wrapped with a lifelong favorite. It’s also proof that even the twitchiest shut-ins don’t mind a little acknowledgment of their existence every once in a while. Now I’m hungry for a chocolate bar. Happy Birthday Prince Norbert! I’ll see you in Atranta.