Bad Ronald (1974)

OCTOBER 5, 2020


I know by now not to expect too much out of old TV movies that fall into the horror genre; they all have their moments but their rep is largely based on adolescent (specifically, TOO adolescent) half-memories of sneaking looks at them when their parents were watching, or in some cases simply seeing the commercials for their broadcast during something far more wholesome. Bad Ronald is no exception; I can certainly see how a few of its moments would have freaked out an unsuspecting nine year old at a time when the scariest thing on TV was probably Bozo, but it is very much a product of its time and, sadly, doesn't have enough meat on its bones to register as much more than a curiosity today.

It doesn't help that a number of films have taken its basic premise and gone further with it, though as a television film it obviously had its limits. Still, there's no real reason for it to be as anticlimactic and curiously suspense free as it is, as those sort of things wouldn't have triggered the censors. The first twenty minutes are probably the tensest in the movie, weirdly enough. Ronald is your typical weird kid who has a crush on the prettiest girl in school, oblivious to the fact that she isn't remotely interested (even his mother seems to be like "Dude, stay in your lane"), and after being laughed away from her pool party he accidentally runs into a younger girl, who also teases him, and in response he shoves her, which unfortunately kills her when she strikes her head on a stone. Rather than just run away and let it look like an accident, the dummy buries her and leaves evidence behind.

So his mother decides on the most normal thing to do: they work through the night to make a fake wall over the downstairs bathroom, in which he will hide and stay quiet until the whole thing blows over. The cops show up first thing in the morning since it's obvious he was the girl's killer, and the director is able to milk the scene for some tension - will their ruse work at all, let alone when the cops actively start snooping around? Will they notice that there's an awful lot of unaccounted for space near the stairs? And what, er, exactly is going to give this movie the rest of its narrative?

After about a half hour we get our answer - the mother dies while undergoing a surgery, leaving Ronald to fend for himself while still living in his makeshift "lair". Eventually another family moves in, and thus at around the halfway point it finally turns into where most other movies would start: a nice family moves into a house and discovers that something is wrong with it. Here there is no such mystery, it's just a matter of when Ronald will be discovered before he strikes again, and it's about even odds since he's so timid and non-proactive and the family is completely oblivious. Ronald sets up a number of peepholes to keep an eye on the family (parents and three daughters), and somehow they never notice the holes - even the one directly below where they hung some artwork and didn't notice that the "wall" was just a cheap layer of glorified cardboard!

A few minutes into the movie I tweeted a joke about how I identified with Ronald, since he was asking the girl to go to a double feature and she wasn't interested (been there, my man!), prompting someone to suggest that if I read the book I wouldn't find much in common with him. I didn't think much of it until the movie ended without anything else happening (he accidentally scares the nosy neighbor lady to death when she sees him crawling out of his hiding spot one day, but that's not really his fault), at which point I decided to see if I could find a good synopsis of the novel to see what, if anything, was different. Instead I noticed that the eBook was only five bucks, and at 173 pages seemed like something I could skim through in time for this review.

Almost instantly I could see the difference (and what that twitter guy was referring to), as the girl's death wasn't as accidental, and Ronald also raped her prior (she was also younger than the girl appeared to be in the movie). From then on it's basically the same, save for Ronald's inner thoughts (including the reveal that he's racist, when the realtor shows the house to a Black family and he is repulsed at the notion), but the third act goes in a very different direction than the subsequent film since author John Holbrook Vance wasn't restricted by network censors. While movie Ronald just peeps on the girls for a while and eventually locks one up in the neighbor's house for a day, only to be discovered after trying to kill the oldest one's boyfriend and quickly arrested without any real incident, the book version is far more evil.

In Vance's text, Ronald kidnaps, repeatedly rapes, and ultimately murders the two younger daughters, after forcing them to write notes that make it seem like they ran away. The boyfriend character - who is also the older brother of the girl he killed at the beginning - starts putting the pieces together and ultimately discovers the girls' bodies (buried under the house's crawlspace), then blocks off Ronald's getaway exit under the house. Then he along with the girls' parents smoke him out of his hiding spot, prompting him to run - on fire for a bit - into the street and all the way back to the house with the swimming pool that kicked off all this tragedy. It's pretty grim; Vance is pretty delicate with his descriptions of the sexual assaults and the girls' deaths (it's basically all implied; he'll write about Ronald approaching the bed the girl is tied to, then skip to "when he finished..."), but it doesn't change the fact that it's about a perfectly nice family losing their two youngest children to a sex pest living in their walls.

Unfortunately, with the movie unable to even broach that kind of material, yet remaining fairly faithful to it, it's just kind of a snooze. Apart from the brief kidnapping of the one girl, Ronald eating their food is pretty much the extent of their "torture", and the cops barely factor into the proceedings once the mother dies. And they don't even bother putting him in a tight spot; I kept thinking of Sleep Tight and how it managed to make nervewracking scenes out of the awful villain perhaps being discovered when he hid under his target's bed after they came home early - there's nothing like that here. Every now and then he'll go out for a snack and someone will come downstairs or something, but he will just duck around a corner and race through his hidden door a few seconds later, without as much as a "What was that?" kind of pause from the family member.

The actors do their best (was delighted to see Dabney Coleman as the girls' father, though he sadly gets written out of the final act when the parents go on vacation), but there's only so much one can do with a thrill-free thriller. Ronald's climactic burst through his fake wall (and, moments before, eye in the peephole, very Black Christmas) probably inspired a nightmare or two back in 1974 and is almost definitely the answer to someone's online query of "Can anyone identify this movie, a guy with glasses was in the wall...", but it is, even by TV movie standards, too uneventful to really serve much of a purpose when we have Hider in the House, The Boy (spoiler), and See No Evil doing the "he's in the walls" thing much better (not to mention comedically minded ones like Housebound). At least it was for a 90 minute block instead of a two hour one; it slags even at 75 minutes (usual 90 minute slot time minus ads), it'd be PAINFUL at 97 or so.

What say you?

P.S. At some point I got the Imagine Dragons song "Bad Liar" in my head and kept singing "I'm a bad RONALD! Bad, RONALD!" over and over. I'm pretty sick of it, so hopefully I've passed this curse on to you, Ring-style.


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