Back in the 1970s, the TV networks delivered some pretty crazy made-for-TV movies — stuff like Gargoyles (1972), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973 – the Guillermo del Toro-produced remake is coming soon), Killdozer (1974), Trilogy of Terror (1975), and lots more. In 1974, ABC brought us Bad Ronald, an oddball little flick that I can’t believe hasn’t been remade yet.
As the movie opens, we meet young Ronald Wilby (Scott Jacoby), apparently still good, on his birthday. His over-protective mother (Kim Hunter — and all I can see when I look at her is that saucy chimpanzee, Dr. Zira) serves up his birthday cake (“I baked it myself!”), then treats us to some exposition as to the whereabouts of Ronald’s dad — as Mrs. Wilby points out, the day after Ronald’s birthday is the anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. Wilby’s divorce, and we learn that Dad never gave a damn about his son and has been out of the picture for years. Mom also suffers from some kind of intestinal distress, which only frosts the muffin of exposition with a buttery topping of foreshadowing.
Once the gettin’-us-up-to-speed info has been shoveled into our laps, Mrs. Wilby gives Ronald his presents — a tool box full of everything you’d need to do a little construction (hint), and a set of paints. Ronald is excited about both gifts, but particularly the paints — Ronald is a budding author, you see, and has written a fantasy novel called The History of Atranta (which I’m guessing is a lot like Yeast Lords). He gleefully tells his mom that with the paints, he can illustrate his story. “I don’t want you occupying all your time with those extraordinary visions of fantasy,” Mrs. Wilby scolds.
Feeling dapper, Ronald sets out to a young lady’s house, intending to ask her on a date. Unfortunately, the chick is in the middle of a pool party with her cool-kid friends (one of whom has an awesome 70s porno mustache), and they all make fun of Ronald.
As he’s leaving, Ronald leaps into the alley, knocking a little girl off her bike. When the kid tells him he’s weird (“And so is your mother!”), Ronald demands an apology. When none appears forthcoming, Ronald shoves the little girl away and she conks her head on a cinderblock.
When he realizes he’s killed her, Ronald buries the little girl and heads home to Mom. He confesses his misdeed and Mom flips out — Ronald will never become a doctor now! Mrs. Wilby decides the only course of action is to squirrel Ronald away until it’s safe for them to move on. Settling on the downstairs bathroom as the perfect hiding place, Mrs. Wilby tells her son “You’ll be able to live in decency and cleanliness” (which is significantly better than I was able to do when I had my apartment in Hollywood). Using that handy birthday tool kit, Ronald removes the bathroom door, replacing it with a sheet of drywall and some wallpaper (which they just happened to have upstairs). Ronald builds a little secret door into the room, hidden at the back of the pantry.
At first, things work out fine. When the cops show up, Ronald remains safely in “the lair” (as Mrs. Wilby calls it), nibbling away at a candy bar as he listens to the detectives talking to his mom (and for some reason, Ronald eats everything in tiny little hamster bites). Mrs. Wilby convinces the cops that Ronald has run away, and with the immediate threat seemingly past, Mom and son settle into their odd new life.
Trouble comes into paradise, however, when that intestinal distress becomes too much for Mrs. Wilby to bear, and she has to go into the hospital for a week, leaving Ronald alone. You’re probably way ahead of me on this, but of course Mrs. Wilby dies on the operating table, and Ronald is essentially trapped in the lair. Eventually, the house is emptied and prepared to be sold. Ronald takes the opportunity to create a few peepholes and a doorway into the crawlspace, going a little crazier and becoming a lot dirtier (and presumably stinkier) as he remains tucked away out of sight.
Soon, Dabney Coleman and his wife purchase the house, moving in with their three troublesome teenage daughters — and Ronald decides the youngest one is the living embodiment of the Princess from The History of Atranta.
He begins doing huge illustrations of characters from the story (and covering the walls of his hidey-hole with crazy-person graffiti), occasionally creeping out to steal food from the kitchen or paw at the girls’ belongings.
Eventually, Dabney and his wife go out of town for the weekend, leaving the girls home alone. I don’t want to give too much away, but when the older girls can’t find little sis, they tell the cops “She stood up a date with Jimmy Carter!” (which is even creepier than whatever Ronald was up to, now that I think about it). From there, the movie gets even more disturbing, delivering upskirt shots of the youngest daughter as it races towards its exciting conclusion.
Bad Ronald is pretty low-key overall but is definitely worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of 70s-era TV movies (and you know I am). Despite some clunky dialogue and goofy moments, the flick manages some real creepiness (and not just that upskirt business) and the performances are all very solid. A little pricey at $19.95 for a DVD or $14.95 for a download, but you can get Bad Ronald via the awesome Warner Archive Store.
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