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Friday, September 11, 2009

BAD RONALD -- DVD review by porfle

Back in the 70s, when it was still a novelty to see movies that were made exclusively for TV instead of theaters, there was a series called "ABC Movie of the Week." Imagine--brand new movies made just for TV, every week! We couldn't wait to see what this series would offer next, and for awhile they came up with a string of films--such as DUEL, TRILOGY OF TERROR, DAUGHTER OF THE MIND, and THE LOVE WAR--that would have the whole school buzzing the next day.

One of these made-for-TV gems that, to this day, still lingers in the minds of those who saw it back then is BAD RONALD (1974), now being released on DVD as part of the Warner Archive Collection. Aging child actor Scott Jacoby plays Ronald Wilby, a shy teenager who lives with his overprotective mother (Kim Hunter, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, PLANET OF THE APES) and often retreats into a fantasy world he calls Atranta. Distraught after being ridiculed by a girl who refused to go out with him, Ronald runs into a young neighbor girl and, in a fit of anger, accidentally kills her.

Panic-stricken Ronald buries the girl and rushes home to tell his mother. Imagining the worst, she instructs Ronald to convert their downstairs bathroom into a hidden room where he can hide until things have settled down enough for them to move somewhere else. The plan works perfectly--until Ronald's mother dies during an operation and he's left to fend for himself. Things get even more complicated when another family, the Woods--consisting of a mother, a father, and three daughters--moves into the house.

Technically, BAD RONALD is typical of these movie-of-the-week entries, with modest production values that give the film the look of an extended TV show episode. Veteran television director Buzz Kulik (BRIAN'S SONG, the similar CRAWLSPACE) is up to the task of telling this offbeat story in an interesting way and giving it a few creepy suburban-gothic touches.

Kim Hunter, of course, is great in her brief scenes as Ronald's mother, the last sympathetic figure in his life. Jacoby really underplays his role although this tends to emphasize Ronald's growing detachment from reality. The idea of him living alone in that hidden room--isolated, disheveled, and growing ever more mentally unbalanced--is intriguing, especially when he starts creeping around scrounging for food and spying on the family who moves into the house. A nosy old biddy next door, Mrs. Schumacher (Linda Watkins), adds tension by constantly peering through the windows.

Pippa Scott and a young Dabney Coleman are Mr. and Mrs. Wood, while sisters Lisa and Cindy Eilbacher play the two older daughters, Ellen and Althea, and Cindy Fisher is the youngest, Babs. The film grows steadily more creepy as they begin to notice various things amiss inside the house and eventually get the sick feeling that there's an unknown presence watching their every move. Voyeuristic Ronald's numerous peepholes enable him to keep tabs on the family and develop a dangerous obsession with the youngest daughter, Babs, whom he envisions as the fair princess to his valiant prince of Atranta. When he can no longer remain in hiding and finally makes his presence known to her, all hell breaks loose.

Someone recently described the Warner Archive Collection as "down and dirty, no frills" DVDs, intended to offer a selection of obscure and/or previously unavailable films that certain fans have wished for over the years. That's what the BAD RONALD DVD is--simply a passable copy (in 1.37:1 full-screen) of a film that didn't look that great originally, on a barebones burn-on-demand disc with no bonus features or chapter titles and a generic menu. Since I value the movie more than the extras, and am happy that films like this are available at all, this is fine with me. A much more in-depth discussion of the Warner Archive Collection can be found here.

A real gem among made-for-TV movies of the 70s, BAD RONALD is one of those low-key and subtly effective psychological horror-thrillers that just stays with you. Mention it to anyone who saw it back then and chances are they'll nod and smile as the memory of Ronald lurking in his hidden lair, peering furtively out at the world, comes creeping back to them.



Max the drunken severed head said...

Thanks for this review. Have wondered if this was worth picking up!

porfle said...

I watched it again last night and enjoyed it as much as ever!