Bad Ronald (1974)

Directed by Buzz Kulik
USA Home Video VHS

“I killed Carol Mathews. I found a shovel. I buried her.”

Soak those anxious feelings in. When Bad Ronald himself timidly delivers the lines above during the film’s opening minutes, jitters are a given; they’re both welcomed and unexpected. And that’s just the first few minutes. Imagine what the next sixty-five have in store.

Bad Ronald is an anomaly in the world of 1970s made-for-TV movies. Where most are easily dissected on the grounds of their familiarity (Home For The Holidays) or slogging pace (Die, Sister, Die!), this brilliantly-named film is an island, immune to all antagonists. The story arc is so unexpectedly realistic and engulfing that technical aspects are moot. From the opening shocks to the fidgety climax, Bad Ronald never goes south. Or, if it does, I’ve always been too carried away to notice.

Meet Ronald Wilby. Unstable high school senior. Nerd. Ronald (Scott Jacoby, older brother of 80s teen-comedy staple Billy Jacoby) lives in a dusty Victorian mansion with his divorced Mother (Kim Hunter, Zira from Planet Of The Apes). On the eve of Ronald’s birthday, a toolbox gift leads to confidence, then teenage disquietude, and finally accidental murder. Weirdie Mom decides to do that which she does best: hide Ronald. Walls are built. A bathroom is concealed. Ronald lives in solitude for months. Mrs. Wilby dodges the cops and a nosy next door neighbor. When fate intervenes and a new family moves in (including the great Dabney Coleman), they discover a bonus that wasn’t mentioned on closing day: Bad Ronald.

First broadcast on October 23, 1974, based on a ’73 novel by Jack Vance, and lost ever since, Bad Ronald makes you think, but not about anything relevant to your life. That’s a key point. It won’t let you go, no matter how real or unreal it all seems. The film invokes dozens of questions; “Does he shower?”, “What will he do to the girls?”, and most of all, “Could this really happen?” The fact that such questions relate solely to the frightening, dejected life of Ronald and his make believe world (“Atranta”) reflect the potency of simple, clever filmmaking. Events are presented in a way that could probably happen, but couldn’t possibly happen. Anxiety and anticipation take center stage. Sparse strings and stretches of silence help them to stay. By the end, seventy minutes seem like five and the questions still linger. That’s not only the mark of a great TV horror film; it’s the mark of a great horror film, regardless of context.

Bad Ronald saw an extremely rare release from USA Home Video in the early 80s. The washed out color is a casualty, but clarity makes up for it.

Hey-o! Two trailers are included — Never Pick Up A Stranger and The Executioner’s Song. Both thrillers. Both boring.

Ronald is indeed bad(ass). But his movie is even badder(ass). Bad Ronald is a royally badass made-for-TV horror from the golden era of 1970s TV horrors. The film’s unique, absorbing qualities only improve as the years go by, so make it a priority.