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.

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SmallDarkCloud
SmallDarkCloud
3 months ago

Yep, yep, yep, Unkle Lancifer, I love this movie. The blu-ray from Warner Archives looks spectacular- maybe even better than it looked on broadcast television in 1974. It’s astonishing that a television film from the 1970s could look this good.

I first saw Bad Ronald on the TBS network in the mid-90s. Back then, TBS would fill time on weekend overnights by running cheap programming like 70s television movies and 80s horror films that didn’t need much editing to satisfy the FCC (it’s where I also watched One Dark Night for the first time). Watching this movie felt like watching a strange oddity from another world – it wasn’t a feature film, but it was pretty dark for television, especially in the 70s. It felt like watching an episode of The Brady Bunch infiltrated by a horror story. I was mesmerized by the idea of someone hiding inside the walls of a house (not knowing it was a very old idea before Bad Ronald got there).

The movie runs a tight line between giving Ronald some empathy (the neighbor’s death is an accident and other kids seem to dislike him for no valid reason), and showing how dangerous he is as his fantasy consumes him. I read Jack Vance’s novel a few years ago, and didn’t like it much. Vance’s Ronald is a psychopath from the start, kills the neighbor girl intentionally, and does some other horrifying things that couldn’t fly on network television, maybe even now. Vance’s novel also reads like a pale, deliberate imitation of Robert Bloch’s Psycho.

I think Hitchcock’s film and this one both humanize the title character, and in this case, it’s a vast improvement over Vance’s book. I guess some might say the novel was watered down for prime time television, but I thought making Ronald a semi-tragic character, at least for the first half, was the right decision.

Fun fact – a few years ago, I caught a rerun of The Golden Girls that featured Dorothy’s son, played by… Scott Jacoby!

Last edited 3 months ago by SmallDarkCloud