Bad Appellate Judge Tom Becker wrote this in a broom closet at the old Marley place.
The Wilby place is haunted…by a ghost who isn't dead!
If you were around in the '70s, you likely remember The ABC Movie of the Week. Each week, ABC aired an original made-for-TV movie in a 90-minute slot (Tuesdays from 8:30-10 p.m. initially).
To our post-millennium sensibilities, this might not seem like such a big deal, but in September 1969—when Seven in Darkness, the first MoW premiered—there was no home video or cable. The three (yes, three) networks had bidding wars over the right to show recent hits like Airport or classics like The Sound of Music or The Ten Commandments. Made-for-TV movies were novelties, often either pilots (such as Fame Is the Name of the Game, which introduced the series The Name of the Game) or high-minded events such as Death of a Salesman with Lee J. Cobb (1966) or Annie Get Your Gun with Ethel Merman (1967).
While MoW spawned a number of pilots eventually picked up by ABC—including Marcus Welby, M.D. and Starsky and Hutch—most of these made-for-TV movies were low on quality and high on cheese. There were some notable exceptions, including Brian's Song and the Steven Spielberg-directed Duel, but the fond memories engendered by MoW are more of the kitsch variety. The Karen-Black-versus-doll schlock classic Trilogy of Terror was an ABC Movie of the Week. So were Crowhaven Farm (Hope Lange vs. Puritan witch hunters), How Awful About Allen (Anthony Perkins vs. Julie Harris), The Sex Symbol (Connie Stevens does Marilyn Monroe vs. venal and braying Shelley Winters), and The Girl Most Likely to… (from a Joan Rivers script about a plain woman who gets plastic surgery and goes after the men who were mean to her).
And so was Bad Ronald.
Directed by TV veteran Buzz Kulik, whose '70s output included Brian's Song, A Storm in Summer, and the Susan Dey girl-in-prison spectacular Cage Without a Key, it's the story of Ronald (Scott Jacoby, That Certain Summer), who's not at all "bad," just a dork. He lives in a big old house with his sickly, neurotic mother (Kim Hunter, A Streetcar Named Desire). One day, on his way home from being mocked by his peers, he finds himself being mocked by a 'tween girl. In a fit of pique, he kills her. Hurrying home, he confesses to his mother, who determines the only way out of this calamity is to hide Ronald in the house until things cool down and they can escape. They quickly convert an old bathroom into sleeping quarters, plaster and wallpaper over the bathroom door, and make an entrance to the room in the pantry. Ronald might be a dork, but he's a handy dork, and they bang out this home improvement over night. When the police come looking for Ronald, mom lies and says he ran away.
After a few weeks of this, his mother goes to the hospital for gallbladder surgery. She expects to be gone a week, but she ends up dying. Devastated and scared, Ronald passes his days in the secret room making mural-size album-cover art of a fantasy kingdom called Atranta and writing stories about this magical place, in which he is a prince. In 21st Century America, he'd be wacky but revered iconoclast; in the era of The Ice Storm, he's just a loon.
Then the house is sold (by the great character actor John Fiedler) to the perky, all-American Wood family—Dad (Dabney Coleman, Nine to Five), Mom (Pippa Scott, Petulia), and their three lovely teen daughters. Ronald is aroused by these newcomers, and while he manages to keep his safe-room a secret, his fascination with this new family seems to be drawing him out—particularly when he fixates on one daughter as his "princess."
Tightly directed, with a strong central performance by Jacoby, Bad Ronald is one of the best remembered Movies of the Week. Like other MoWs, it got extensive play after its original ABC airings—that ability to fit in a 90-minute time slot is golden—and its deadpan title and creepy goings on made it something of a cult item, its name even inspiring a late '90s band.
Jacoby does a fine job as the increasingly deranged Ronald. Early in the film, he just seems like a doofy but nice kid who doesn't realize how out of place he is, what with his histrionic mother and their big, crumbling home. Jacoby's lanky form and unruly hair make him at first the perfect outsider kid—you just know the pretty cheerleader-type he pines for is going to humiliate him—and later, as he becomes unhinged, edgy and sinister. Jacoby effortlessly takes the character from hapless but sympathetic to dangerous villain. As his mother, Hunter keeps a leash on her freakshow. This kind of character could easily slide into parody, but Hunter plays her with just enough dignity to make the crazy believable. The new family, with its perky mom, generically attractive kids, and bright home decor is more normal than Ronald and his mother, but also less interesting. Naturally, the girl Ronald zeroes in on is the discontented younger one, and frankly, part of us wouldn't mind seeing her run off and find happiness with the unkempt, wild-eyed, but creative nutjob.
Bad Ronald has that TV-movie-from-the-'70s look, but Kulik's direction is solid, finding and exploiting the inherent creepiness of the story. A number of shots are from Ronald's point of view as he spies on the family, and they're unsettling, as are the scenes of Ronald's forays out of his hiding place to steal food from the family and go through their belongings. Things pretty much end up where you'd expect, but it's a fun trip, good for a few laughs and some well-earned shudders.
Bad Ronald is available through Warner Archive, an on-demand arm of Warner Bros. Warner Archive offers around 300 unreleased, lesser-known films for either digital download or DVD-R. The good news is that films like The Crowded Sky, Johnny Eager, and Dusty and Sweets Mcgee that might never have seen the light of day on home video are now available, and the company is not taking a hit by pressing a lot of copies for a niche market. The not-so-good news is that little if any work has been done on tech, and the package is as no frills as can be: no extras, no chapters (though there are chapter stops), no subtitles or set-up options—these are more like VHS tapes than what we've come to expect from DVDs. These films also don't come cheap: this bare bones edition of Bad Ronald is $14.95.
The Bad Ronald disc is a pretty dismal affair. The picture is very badly washed out, to the point that some scenes look like they were shot in black and white. Audio is low, and while there's no cracking or distortion, the voices are often muffled. In addition, the disc I received had a nick on the edge and wouldn't play the last three minutes. Whether it was damaged in shipping or was just a bad disc, I have no way of knowing.
A fun and chilly trip down memory lane, Bad Ronald is worth seeing at least once. Whatever reservations I have about Warner Archive, I'm glad they're releasing films like this that might otherwise end up lost.
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