Nov 1, 2018
On Blu-ray: TV Horror Classic Bad Ronald (1974)
For years, being a fan of television movies has meant squinting at faded VHS prints or watching whatever somewhat viewable titles I could find streaming online. I’ve just come to expect that as part of the experience. That’s why one of the most mind-blowing aspects of watching the new Warner Archive Blu-ray of television horror classic Bad Ronald (1974) is simply that it looks sharp, clean, and vivid, in addition to sounding great.
Of course there is more to Bad Ronald than looks. It’s a profoundly creepy film, presented with a sort of cold-hearted efficiency that makes it all the more chilling. It’s hard to believe that this twisted flick was broadcast on prime time television, let alone to the millions of viewers that the Movie of the Week could attract in those days of more limited viewing options.
The titular Ronald (Scott Jacoby) is a misfit teen who lives alone with his over-protective mother (Kim Hunter). When his parents divorced, his father agreed to relinquish all parenting rights to his son in exchange for avoiding child support payments. Without other friends or family, it is these two against the world.
After being rejected and humiliated by the girl he wants to date, Ronald is mocked by her little sister. In the resulting argument, he accidentally kills her. Instead of going to the police, he buries her in a shallow grave. Aware of how poorly Ronald has handled the situation and terrified of losing her son, Mama Jacoby devises a plan to wall up Ronald in the spare bathroom, where he can hide until the heat dies down and they can skip town.
For a while it seems like they will get away with it, but then Mrs. Jacoby dies during gall bladder removal surgery. A new family, with three teenage daughters, moves into the house. Ronald watches them through a hole in the wall, while becoming increasingly unhinged as he pursues his interest in painting to create his own fantasy world in captivity.
One of the most effective things about Bad Ronald is the way it weaves realism into its outrageous premise. It’s hard to believe the family would never discover a teenage boy living in their walls, or even notice the eye-level holes surrounding them, but the way Ronald reacts to the situation rings true. His psychopathic tendencies bloom without social pressure to be otherwise. Unlike many films about captivity, he actually looks like he has been locked up with his paints and decaying trays of food. He’s dirty and greasy; you can almost smell him.
The family that inhabits Ronald’s home also feels real. They’re a group of people too occupied with their busy lives to truly see each other, but still functional and loving. The fights between the sisters are especially authentic, full of screeching and frustration, but always with an underlying feeling of love and belief in each other. Watching these essentially decent people strive for happiness makes the horror within their own walls that much more terrifying.
Ronald is pure horror, but if you read any viewer comments about the film, it’s clear that he is also in some ways relatable. As he sits on the couch nibbling an apple from the side of his mouth like a pensive rat, he inspires both revulsion and sympathy. Everyone has had a social outcast in their lives who fails despite all efforts to fit in. Many of us are that outcast. Just about everyone has had an idea, if even briefly, of how it feels to not fit in. We cringe when Ronald terrorizes a teenage girl or misreads social cues, and we know he must face punishment for his more serious actions, and yet we also understand and feel for him.
Bad Ronald is a suspenseful, often scary film that works well within the limitations of television horror.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.