"This is the worst wallpaper
I've ever laid eyes on!"
Bad Ronald has been lurking in the corners of our friend Loren's brain since she saw it as a child, which is appropriate since the title character does a fair amount of lurking himself. Amused by Loren's fixation on the film and curious as to the sort of story that might implant itself so firmly in her memories, we tracked down an aged videotape of the movie and sat down one Saturday night to watch it with her.
The filmmakers do themselves no favors with the film's title; to associate yourself with the word "bad" is to invite mockery. No doubt John Vance, who wrote the original novel, suffered through his share of insults from critics who licked their chops at the chance to scribble out "Bad Ronald = Bad Novel." The movie, struggle as it might to attain respectability, cannot deflect similar criticism. Bad Ronald is authentically creepy but it also comes with a generous helping of '70s TV movie cheese.
"You're right, son. It was
cruel of me to make your
clothes from the same fabric
as the wallpaper."
Kim Hunter is Ronald Wilby's mother; she dotes on him, and the fact that she and Ronald are the only participants in his birthday party lets us know that such dotage isn't entirely healthy. Ronald (Scott Jacoby) tries his best to overcome his social awkwardness by asking a classmate out on a date, but he is publicly and brutally rebuffed. A chance encounter with a young acquaintance makes matters worse: a 12-year old girl makes the mistake of calling Ronald "weird." When she expands her comments to include his mother, Ronald can take no more. An angry shove becomes manslaughter when the girl's head strikes a rock, killing her. Ronald, finally driven over the edge of sanity, buries the body and runs home to tell Momma.
We'd like to congratulate the filmmakers for making Ronald as likeable as an angry pit bull who just happens to sell life insurance. Nothing like a child murderer to bring in those audiences! Mom is a little freaked out by what Ronald has done, but comes up with a sane and reasonable plan to deal with her child's impending second-degree murder charge. She instructs Ronald to build a fake wall over the door to the spare bathroom of their large house and hide within it, never coming out for fear that their "nosy neighbors" will spot him. (A trap door to the pantry provides access for Ronald's mealtimes and the occasional dinnertime chat with Mother.) When the police come asking questions, Mom tells them blithely that Ronald ran away.
The wallpaper claims another victim!
The plan works swimmingly, except that mom never bothered to think of any kind follow-through before turning her son into a shut-in. Perhaps she was simply giddy at the thought of keeping him around when he was supposed to go to college. Weeks later Ronald is still living in the single room, drinking powdered milk and writing an increasingly complicated story about the fantasy world of "Atranta." (Next on E! True Hollywood Story - The Life of George Lucas!) He's still there when Mom goes into the hospital for a gall bladder operation and checks out via the morgue. The house is sold to a family with three young blonde daughters and a patriarch played by Dabney Coleman, and no one ever notices the missing bathroom or the creepy young man peering out at them through the peepholes in the wall of his hideout.
"Meet my new girlfriend! Sure,
she's kind of quiet, but you'll
like her once you get to know her."
Age hasn't been kind to Bad Ronald. It's easy to dismiss the film's menace while giggling at the clunky '70s fashions and too-earnest TV-movie style of acting. (Dabney Coleman, a veteran chewer of scenery, seems particularly restrained here.) Whether you're guffawing at Jacoby's hair or marveling at the short skirt included in the youngest daughter's tennis outfit, it's a safe bet you won't be quaking in fear at the thought that Ronald might come out and say hello to the family that lives in his house. In fact, we were kind of at a loss to guess at what the scruffy and malnourished boy was capable of doing, which really helped us to feel some surprise when he got up off his duff to act.
What little scare factor Bad Ronald might have possessed is held in the fact that the story set-up is mostly plausible. People have holed up in weirder places for worse reasons, and there have certainly been homeowners who overlooked things about their new digs. The thought that an orphaned lunatic might still lurk in the forgotten corners of a creaky old house is enough to make you start knocking surreptitiously on the walls of your own home, listening for hollow spots. However, this central conceit probably worked better as a novel than as a movie. On film, it becomes obvious that Ronald's subterfuge wouldn't last long once the other family moved in. Besides the fact that the lack of a shower in his room would probably mean that Ronald's body funk would knock passing planes out of the sky, Ronald couldn't possibly be quiet enough that everyone wouldn't figure out something was up. "It's just the house settling" only goes so far, especially when you consider that Ronald has a toilet in there. ("My house is haunted by a Phantom Flusher!") When Ronald carves all of his peepholes at eye level, the idea that he could go unnoticed in the house becomes downright ludicrous.
Although no one seems to have heard of this film, it's tough not to notice that it prefigures a number of movies that came later. Bad Ronald has years on Flowers in the Attic (movie or book) or Mazes and Monsters (again, movie or book). The idea of teenagers obsessed with a fantasy world was done much better in Heavenly Creatures, and it's tough to see Bad Ronald now and not think of it as Panic Room in reverse. Maybe Loren could just tell at a tender age that Bad Ronald was a film well ahead of its time.