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.