Kindertrauma Classic:: Bad Ronald (’74)

BAD RONALD is a made-for-television movie based on a book of the same name by Jack Vance that originally aired on the 23rd of October 1974. In its brief seventy-four minute runtime, it packs many a creepy thrill as it examines the mind of an isolated outsider as he slides swiftly toward a psychotic break. Challenging viewers’ sympathies with the titular character at regular intervals, BAD RONALD juggles a dark character study, a family drama, suspense, and finally horror in a unique way. It’s easy to find yourself scared FOR Ronald and scared OF Ronald at the same time and it’s never quite clear just how “bad” Ronald is willing to get in order to preserve the fantasy world he has armored himself with.

Ronald Wilby (Scott Jacoby) is a social pariah who lives with the knowledge that when his parents were divorced, his father made a deal with his mother (Kim Hunter) to break all ties in exchange for never having to pay child support. One day after fleeing a humiliating experience with an unrequited crush at a pool party, Ronald bumps into his crush’s younger sister who makes the mistake of dissing his mom. Ronald loses his temper, pushes the girl to the ground, and unfortunately, her head hits a cinder block causing her death. He then buries the girl in a shallow grave and heads home. After hearing of the incident, Ronald’s mother crafts a secret room out of a downstairs bathroom where he can hide away from the world and avoid prosecution. The plan works fine for a while until Ronald’s mother dies and the house is sold to a new family. Observing the new residents from his concealed space, Ronald becomes obsessed with one of the daughters and begins to lose his grip on reality. Madness, another dead body, and multiple kidnappings ensue until finally Ronald’s eye is spied in a peephole and he comes crashing through a false wall raving like a madman and is apprehended.

BAD RONALD is in an awkward position when it comes to delivering scares. For most of the runtime, the audience has been led to sympathize with Ronald’s plight and most of the tension comes from the fear that he might be found out. Yet, when an innocent family is in danger and Ronald’s sanity clearly begins to unravel, gears are switched and anguish and concern are stoked over what he is actually capable of. No matter your level of empathy for Ronald though, the idea of a person secretly hiding in your walls and spying on you is inescapably unnerving. I’m sure many young folks went to bed after viewing BAD RONALD on TV (it was a late-night staple for decades) with their imaginations ignited with thoughts of some unseen presence hiding nearby, quietly watching and waiting.

Positive (not to mention creeped-out) word of mouth has kept BAD RONALD notorious for decades. Happily, it’s one of the lucky few TV movies that have been consistently available on home media from VHS to DVD and more recently Blu-ray (Note: the latter two of which sport an applauding quote from this very page on the back). Something about this tale of an antisocial misfit covertly lodging within a family’s walls has kept Ronald’s legend alive and spreading like a whispered urban legend (there was even a short-lived popular band named after the telefilm). Ronald himself may have been a shunned outcast but the film that bears his name couldn’t be more popular among those who enjoy classic made-for-TV horror. Now, go check your walls for peepholes.

Kindertrauma Classic:: Don’t Go To Sleep (’82)

On December 10th, 1982 ABC aired the horror-thriller DON’T GO TO SLEEP at 9PM. This “ABC Friday Night Movie” was produced and directed by Richard Lang, executive produced by Aaron Spelling & Douglas S. Cramer, and written by actor/screenwriter Ned Wynn. The unique production combined BAD SEED-inspired evil child elements with the popular slasher movie formula of its day while still tightly embracing the heart of a classic gothic ghost story. The end result (in my opinion anyway) is arguably the best made-for-TV horror film of its decade.

When recovering from the death of a child maybe it’s not a good idea to move into a house with the address of 13666.

Dad Phillip (Dennis Weaver), Mom Laura (Valerie Harper), daughter Mary (Robin Ignico) son Kevin (Oliver Robins), and cantankerous grandma Bernice (the great Ruth Gordon) are hoping for a new start after eldest child Jennifer (Kristin Cumming) died in a tragic car fire. All’s well until the ghost of Jennifer seemingly appears before Mary, vocalizing a grudge that won’t be satiated until the entire family is dead. Is Mary mad as a hatter and hallucinating her sister or has her devious sibling really come back for revenge? In any case, burning beds, iguana-induced heart attacks, rooftop falls and baths with electricity ensue. Eventually, Mary is prime suspect number one and is fitted with a child-sized straight jacket and shoved into a padded room where she recounts the genesis of the horror and becomes the poster child for those suffering from middle child syndrome everywhere.

Two scenes, in particular, seem to have been seared into viewer’s memories deeper than others. One involves a pizza cutter being used as a threatening murder weapon (hey, this was during the eighties slasher boom when literally no tool found in a kitchen, garage, or barn was out of bounds as an instrument of death), and the other concerns the movie’s door slamming mind-blowing closure. The latter delivers a visual so eerie that it boggles the mind how it could be so perfectly constructed without some kind of trickery. I won’t spoil much here but it presents the creepiest Cheshire Cat grin I pray I’ll ever have to witness. Not since I think, THE HAUNTING (‘63) has a singular image carried so much phantasmagorical weight.

Momentary lapses toward soap opera histrionics aside, DON’T GO TO SLEEP delivers an exceptionally dark vision of family dysfunction, sibling rivalry, grief, and finally insanity. Unlike the same year’s ghost spectacle POLTERGEIST (which shares actor Oliver Robins) there’s no “phew!” happy relief ending and few family members survive. You may need a neck brace for the way this movie’s mood swings from campy to cutthroat to undeniably uncanny and back again. Absurdities abound (that pizza cutter!) but don’t be surprised if this TV movie’s final image is difficult to shake from your brain.

Kindertrauma Classics:: Burnt Offerings (‘76)

Robert Marasco first wrote BURNT OFFERINGS as a script for a film meant to be directed by Bob Fosse in the late sixties. When that project fell through, he turned his ideas into a 1973 novel that was successful enough to be given its own film adaption. Fate probably had the right idea because this time, TV horror heavyweight Dan Curtis (DARK SHADOWS, THE NIGHT STALKER) was enlisted to bring Marasco’s story to the screen. William F. Nolan (who adapted two of Richard Matheson’s tales for Curtis’ TRILOGY OF TERROR) reverted Marasco’s novel back to screenplay form adding more than a few frightening concepts of his own. The resulting movie would have little impact theatrically but a generation of TV viewers would eventually end up traumatized by it just the same.

Ben Rolf (Oliver Reed), oldster Aunt Liz (Bette Davis), wife Marian (Karen Black) and son Davey (Lee Montgomery) decide to spend the summer in a glorious, though visibly ill-kept mansion. The entire family is sick of city life and Ben just can’t say no to the marvelous, low-cost offer to rent the place they’ve gotten from strange siblings Arnold (Burgess Meredith) and Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart). The only stipulation is that the duo’s elderly shut-in mother who resides in an attic suite and is likely to be never seen, must be given a tray of food three times a day. Things go swimmingly well at first but soon everyone in the Rolf family is clearly negatively influenced by the house; Marian becomes obsessed with housecleaning; Aunt Elizabeth loses all her spunky mojo; and Ben begins to have visions of a creepy chauffer from his childhood along with murderous urges towards his son. Moreover, each time a family member takes a psychological blow, the house appears to grow stronger as if it’s thriving upon their mental anguish.

BURNT OFFERINGS uncoils quietly for much of its runtime but every so often it cleanly lands a strike that leaves lasting scars. Ben’s hallucinations of a smiling chauffer/hearse driver (Anthony James) are particularly memorably dreadful. This lanky harbinger of doom can easily be seen as a precursor to such cinematic grimacing ghouls as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET’s Freddy Krueger, POLTERGEIST 2 & 3’s Reverend Kane and “The Tall Man” from PHANTASM (Note: BURNT OFFERINGS & PHANTASM both utilize to great effect the Dunsmuir-Hellman Historical Estate as the location for their horrific happenings).

If BURNT OFFERINGS wasn’t exactly built as an Oscar contender nobody seems to have informed the cast, all of whom bring their scene-chewing, A-game to the material. One truly disturbing scene involves Oliver Reed’s Ben transforming from protective father to rage-faced monster in an instant. While swimming in the backyard pool with son Davey, Ben turns an innocent moment of horseplay into a near drowning incident. The parent-on-child violence is hard to behold at any age and the sequence skillfully stokes both a parent’s fear of losing control of their emotions and a child’s fear of being physically overtaken by a suddenly unrecognizable guardian. Stephen King has admitted to being a fan of the original book and it’s not hard to believe at least some of the horrifying nature of this pool scene dripped its way into his THE SHINING.

BURNT OFFERINGS was not a success with audiences or critics upon release. In a decade very welcoming to supernatural elements in film, it actually lost money. No matter though, Dan Curtis’ more familiar stomping ground, television would eventually insure that Marasco’s tale left its rightful mark upon viewer’s psyches. I can tell you from experience that this was a movie that played very often in late night syndication and perhaps it just naturally worked better on the more patient small screen. It’s a film that offers no happy endings, that spares no one (look out for that falling chimney!); a wicked chiller with a many-pronged downbeat conclusion (one fate even mirrors Curtis and Black’s previous brilliant effort, TRILOGY OF TERROR). Like most horror films, It’s especially powerful when viewed right before bed, when the mind is more vulnerable to the unsettling vibes it delivers. Critics and cynics can scoff all they want, like the house it depicts, BURNT OFFERINGS will always quietly have the last laugh.

Kindertrauma Classics:: Salem’s Lot (’79)

Two horror titans joined forces on TV screens across America on the night of November 17, 1979 when CBS aired SALEM’S LOT. Tobe Hooper, who helmed the blood curdling THE TEXAS CHINSAW MASSACRE (‘74) and Stephen King, the mind responsible for the horror juggernaut CARRIE, were a powerful combination few could prepare themselves for. As if having their living rooms invaded by sights guaranteed to rob them of peaceful slumber wasn’t diabolical enough, viewers would have to wait a full week until November 24 for the miniseries’ jaw-dropping conclusion. At the time both horror masters were playing outside of their comfort zones. King’s novel was more expansive than anything he’d attempted before, juggling an entire town of characters as he scrutinized a vampire infested PEYTON PLACE as it careened toward Hell, while Hooper pointedly steered his trademark manic, ultra violence toward the eerie and uncanny.

Novelist Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his hometown of Salem’s Lot determined to confront and ultimately be inspired by a childhood fear. Once upon a time, he broke into the town’s notoriously haunted Marsten House and he has been forever unable to shake what he encountered within.

As it turns out, Ben finds that the ominous mansion has been recently purchased for one Kurt Barlow by his shady henchman Richard Straker (James Mason). Strange happenings, disappearances and murders begin to contaminate the town and we come to understand that Barlow is actually a hideous vampire bent on devouring all in his path. As the town buckles under Barlow’s menacing will, Ben finds allies in love interest Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia) and teenage horror movie fan Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) who has witnessed his family and friends meeting horrific fates firsthand.

Although created for broadcast television, in the hands of Hooper, SALEM’S LOT offers a plethora of unforgettable nightmare inducing imagery. Taking liberties from King’s novel, Barlow is presented as a silent ghoul unnervingly inspired by Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in NOSFERATU (‘22). No matter how brief it may be, his every appearance stuns with the power of a lightening bolt. Even his possessed undead victims (Mike Yerson as played by Geoffrey Lewis for example) are horrifically demonic in appearance complete with otherworldly glowing eyes and serpentine, hissing voices.

As much as SALEM’S LOT offers a chocolate box assortment in the indelible scares department (did I mention the death by antler impalement or Mark’s parent’s heads being knocked together?), there’s one sublimely pitch perfect moment of abject terror that stands (or floats, rather) above the rest. After a frightening abduction in the woods, a young boy named Ralphie Glick goes missing while his older brother Danny escapes stunned. Later as Danny prepares for sleep, Ralphie appears before him in his bedroom widow smiling deviously, scratching on the glass and hovering about in an eerie fog that appears to roll in reverse. Everything about the scene strikes a cord of discomfort. Devilishly, the mortifying set up is returned to again when an infected Danny mirrors the same routine upon his pal Mark (who is fortunately versed in horror cinema and makes wise use of a handy cross).

Viewership for SALEM’S LOT was so great that there was talk of using the miniseries as a springboard for a weekly series. Reviews were mostly glowing (in fact, Blu-rays feature a blurb on the back from yours truly declaring it, “One of the last truly great gothic vampire films”) and the success further solidified Hooper and King’s reputations as masters of the genre. The productions’ portrayal of vampirism proved influential as well. Almost overnight the (then popular) image of vampires as darkly romantic love interests reverted to visions of them as soulless parasitic monsters associated with death and decay. In 1987, Larry Cohen delivered a half-hearted, tongue-in-cheek sequel called A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT but it did little more than stoke nostalgia for the original and in 2004, a respectful remake was attempted for cable television that boasted a game cast but far less potent scares. As of this writing, yet another adaptation has been announced, this one destined for a theatrical release. It’s impossible to say what future visits to the fictional Maine town of Salem’s Lot will unearth but it’s quite clear you can’t keep a good vampire down for long.