The 1974 made-for-TV flick Bad Ronald is a movie that really shouldn't work as well as it does. Its focus is a dweebish 16-year-old misfit who would be among the least attractive attendees at any GenCon event; what little action there is takes place in a single location, mostly involving our protagonist puttering around a one-room studio; and the acting is pure 1970s sitcom-level cheese, only without the dated punchlines. Add those together, and by rights you should arrive at a disposable piece of movie-of-the-week boredom.
And yet, it works. Whether on the strength of its completely left-field premise, the strangely charming naivete of its characters, the tantalizingly hinted-at but never-exploited psychosexual subtext, or the sheer force of magnetism contained in Dabney Coleman's moustache, Bad Ronald comes together as the video equivalent of a dimestore page-turner--sure, the style isn't all that great and the print comes off in your hands, but still you keep reading all the way through because you just *have* to find out what happens next.
We open with geeky lad Ronald Wilby (Scott Jacoby) celebrating his 16th birthday with his mother, alone in the cavernous Victorian house they call home. It's significant that Mom (Kim Hunter, better known as cheeky monkey Dr. Zira from Planet of the Apes) is the only party guest, since Ronald immediately strikes you as the sort of kid who would have more pet turtles than friends. Ma Wilby absolutely dotes on him, though, and after cake presents him with a fully loaded Sears Craftsman Toolbox ("The salesman said it had everything!") and a set of art supplies. In addition to being handy around the house, Ronald is also an artist and amateur fantasy author of a series of stapled and memeographed books about the fairy kingdom of Atranta--pay attention now, both these facts will become important later.
Ronald finds his love having a pool party with many of her popular high school friends, and it doesn't take long to establish he's in way over his head. The jocks and cheerleaders in the pool tease him mercilessly while bikini-clad Laurie taunts him with her adolescent hotness, as cruel as only a beautiful teenager can be to a socially inept admirer. When Ronald gets the hint and sulks away, her parting shot--"Come back when you can't stay so long!"--says pretty much all you need to know about Ronald's high school situation.
Realizing the cops will never buy the truth of the accident--that whole "covering up the body with dirt" thing does not tend to play well at the station house--Ma Whilby quickly devises a fool-proof plan to keep Ronald out of jail: they'll wall off the downstairs bathroom and cover the doorway with plaster and wallpaper, leaving only a trap door in the pantry for ingress and exodus. Then they'll tell the cops he ran away, sending the manhunt to another state while Ronald stays comfy right there at home. Once the murder blows over--Mom estimates a month or two--they'll move to a new town and start a new life. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
That birthday toolkit definitely comes in handy, as in a single evening Ronald and Mom are able to create an absolutely undetectable cubby-hole where the bathroom used to be. Just in time, too, as the cops show up asking questions about Ronald and the dead girl. Everything goes according to plan--the pigs buy the runaway story and head out in search of the fugitive, and Ronald settles in to his well-stocked studio, spending his days doing calesthenics, writing fantasy, and drawing pictures of himself as an Armored Fairy Hero. Nosy neighbor Mrs. Schumacher peeks in (hilariously) every now and then to keep the Whilbys on their toes, but mostly it seems like they're all set to get away with murder.
However, after a leisurely few scenes in which we see Mom and Ronald uniting in solitude and foiling the cops with their stealth, the unthinkable happens when Mrs. Whilby goes into the hospital for a routine gallbladder operation and comes out in a body bag. His only connection to the outside world gone, Ronald sits on his crates of canned food, chewing chocolate bars and descending further and further into his fantasy world of Atranta. He also finds some time to cut a few more trapdoors into the walls and drill some peepholes from his lair (that handy toolbox again!)--because you know, idle hands.
As I said before, the acting here is pretty much standard 70s TV-show level. Kim Hunter comes off best as Mrs. Whilby, and it strikes me she would have made a good Mrs. Bates in a psycho prequel, since that's essentially what she's playing here. Jacoby is believably awkward and blank, but doesn't do much besides look stunned at everything going on around him. And in the first 30-40 mins, we get out of the house exactly *once*, just so the murder can happen. And yet as the narrative builds and we see events conspiring to leave Ronald sealed secretly in the walls of his own house--well, don't *you* want to know what happens next?
What happens is the house is quickly sold, and before Ronald runs out of pork & beans the new owners move in--Mr. and Mrs. Woods (the better-than-everybody Dabney Coleman along with Kate Hepburn-clone Pippa Scott) and their three daughters Ellen, Althea, and Babs. As the semi-Brady Bunch crew gets used to the new digs (commenting several times on the inexplicable lack of a second bathroom), youngest daughter Babs starts complaining of noises in the walls and the feeling that she's being watched. Tut-tutted by her entirely unsupporting family, Babs also unknowingly suffers the rapt attentions of the crazier-by-the-day Ronald, who sees in her a beautiful princess and fit bride for the King of Atranta.
When Mrs. Schumacher finally catches Ronald stealing food from the Woods' icebox while they're out, the shock is so great she has a heart attack and tumbles down the stairs, dead! Once again faced with an inconvenient corpse, Ronald stays true to form by dragging it into the crawlspace underneath the house and then raiding the Schumacher place for snacks. And when a few days later the Woods parents leave their little girls unsupervised for a weekend business trip, well, Ronald the Fairy Prince sees his chance to bring his Princess back to Atranta for their wedding...
As a TV movie from the 70s, obviously Bad Ronald is kind of limited on just how far it can go with the pyschosexual aspect of the story (the fact that the protagonists are all kids--actual kids for a change--further limits this, I think), but the filmmakers do a good job of implying a lot and letting the slow-burn creepiness build for a good hour and five minutes without losing your attention. In fact, when Ronald finally reveals himself to his Princess and All Hell Breaks Loose, it's such a contrast to the rest of the movie that it packs perhaps an amplified wallop. A couple of the images they manage are really great ones too--for instance, Althea following a beam of light to one of Ronald's peepholes, only to find an eye on the other side staring back! (Another scene with Babs trapped in the basement of the Schumacher place toys devilishly with your expectations--I thought she'd find the old woman's body, naturally, but what she *does* find is even more out of nowhere and effective, imo.)
P.S.--I'd be remiss if I didn't give a shout-out to Unkle Lancifer over at the excellent site Kindertrauma, whose wonderful review of this movie I had to study carefully in order to cover up any plagiarism. Also mad props to Unk for coining the term "Anne-Franking It" to describe Ronald's living quarters, a phrase I wish to Zog I had come up with first. If you're not visiting Kindertrauma everyday, you're wasting your life!
ETA: Art imitates art! I just discovered thanks to IMDb that Scott "Bad Ronald" Jacoby actually starred in the 1980 TV adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, as Anne's friend-boy Peter Van Daan! I can only assume his work in this movie landed him the role! :)
Friday, March 6, 2009
Flush with his new feeling of maturity, Ronald heads out to visit hot girl-next-door Laurie Matthews, for whom he's clearly carrying the torch. Overprotective Mom warns him, "You shouldn't waste your time with someone who doesn't care!" but Ronald is having none of that. After all, how could Laurie say no to a playa like Ron?
Phil the Porn-Stache Pool Guy--Ignoring Restraining Orders since 1972
Crushed and humiliated, Ronald leaves in disgrace, only to run smack dab into Laurie's younger sister Carol, knocking her off her banana-seat bike. The young girl is obviously well on her way to emulating her elder sister's snotty insouciance, unleashing a torrent of abuse that culminates with: "You're weird, and so's your mother!" Enraged as any good son of a domineering harpy would be, Ronald pushes the girl down, accidentally crushing her head on convenient cinderblock! In a panic Ronald does the only thing to do in such a situation--he drags the girl off and buries her in a shallow grave, then rushes home to tell Momma about his rotten day.
Nothing ever moves too quickly in the movie, but as Babs hears more and more movement behind the walls and the director shows us some of Ronald's increasingly disturbing art, you can't help starting to feel a little uncomfortable for the likable young girl. Things get creepier when eldest daughter Ellen starts dating Duane Matthews (Ted Eccles as a pretty fair Wally Cleaver-analog), the brother of the late lamented Carol, who fills them all in about the bad, bad boy who used to live there. Spying on them, Ronald quickly casts Duane as the Evil Duke standing between him and his lady love--which you just know isn't going to end up well.
More than a little creepy
In the end, I enjoyed Bad Ronald a lot, got totally wrapped up in the story and was dying to see how it would all play out. And you have to admit--the idea of a fantasy-mad high school geek peeking at you through the walls is enough to inspire the shivers; in fact, I'd be surprised if Wes Craven hadn't seen this before attacking his similarly themed but much-wilder-in-scope The People Under the Stairs. Not one for those with short attention spans, but if you're in a nostalgic mood, you could do a lot worse. 2 Thumbs--if you get the chance, give it a shot.