Forgotten Horrors: Bad Ronald
Back in 1974, calling something a “made for television” movie could actually be taken as a compliment. Unlike most of the sludge indiscriminately pawned off on the cable networks these days, movies from this era were actually required to have decent scripts and moderate production values. These films may have lacked some of the more extreme moments of their theatrical counterparts but they were also first run entertainment for free in the privacy of your own home. Since they were created for the small screen of the 70’s, the content was probably a mild PG at worst, so these films were also suitable for most members of the family.
Bad Ronald is a perfect example of these types of films. The story is a strange little tale of a strange little teenager named Ronald Wilby. He would probably be a perfect date for Sissy Spacek’s Carrie White character (from 1976’s Carrie). They both live in old Victorian style houses with their overbearing mothers and both are social outcasts among their peers. They also have problems interacting with the world outside their isolated homes that ultimately culminate in acts of violence.
Ronald falls into a massive patch of bad luck one day when he accidentally kills the younger sister of one of his tormenting classmates. To make the situation even worse, he tries to dispose of the body and essentially seals his own fate. After confessing to his mother, she decides to hide him inside their large old home rather than allowing the police to lock him up. The plan seems to work fairly well at first after they convert a spacious downstairs bathroom into a secret room with an access panel in the kitchen. Aside from having to dodge the almost obsessive stares of a nosey neighbor, life for Ronald goes on at a reasonably normal pace. At least as normal as it ever was for him!
The long term goal is to hide Ronald until the heat dies down and he and his mother can move to another town where no one knows them (remember how different life was before the Internet?). Things start to break down when Ronald’s mother has to go into the hospital for some minor surgery that turns major and ends up with her dying. Rather than packing up and blowing town in the middle of the night after he learns the news from relatives checking out the house, Ronald decides to reinforce his hide out and stay put.
A short time later, Dabney Coleman, his wife and three daughters, who resemble the female portion of The Brady Bunch, buy the creepy old house with the intention of fixing it up. By this point, Ronald’s loose grasp on reality has slipped almost completely and he has retreated into a fantasy world he originally created as an illustrated story. The new family and the oldest daughter’s boyfriend become the characters of his tale until he makes the mistake of trying to interact with them.
The final act has Ronald trapping the youngest daughter in the deceased nosey neighbor’s basement, conking the boyfriend with a vase and terrorizing the remaining two siblings. The local police, who have been indifferent at best and incompetent at the worst, get everything dropped in their lap at the end without even having to break a sweat. Television movies served as moral lessons as well as entertainment.
While the story may not be anything terribly original, Bad Ronald gets a boost from the strong cast. Scott Jacoby is actually likeable in the lead role and manages to generate some sympathy for a character that could easily be irritating in other hands. He manages to save the over the top antics for the final moments which keeps his them from getting old. Kim Hunter, Zira from the first three Planet of the Apes films, is excellent as the overprotective mother who goes too far to save her only child. Like Jacoby, she manages to walk the fine line between caring and obsessive and gives the impression that, had she not passed prematurely; their plan may very well have succeeded. In supporting roles, Dabeny Coleman and Pippa Scott play the new residents straight and believably. While the three daughters are a little bland, the only bad performance in the whole movie is that of the nosey neighbor who seems to be skulking around when it is completely unnecessary and mugging for the camera so you don’t forget what she is up to.
Clocking in at a tight 74 minutes (making it a perfect candidate for half of the old three hour double features the networks would sometimes run), Bad Ronald doesn’t overstay it’s welcome or give the audience time to ask too many questions. The film could have probably benefited from some additional character development, especially where Ronald’s history and the new family are concerned, and some more explicit violence but it still manages to maintain a good eerie vibe for its entire running time. Bad Ronald was recently made available in a no frills DVD edition from the Warner Archives Collection and is worth picking up as an example of this defunct genre.