Cinema/TV, Film Notes

TV Movie review – Bad Ronald (1974)

My notes on Bad Ronald (1974)

There’s a tiny sub-genre of modern gothic movie melodramas in which a psycho lives in a hidden room or the hollow walls of a house or apartment, spying on the regular inhabitants. This 1974 TV movie, from a novel by fantasy author Jack Vance, seems to be the ur-text of the cycle, which is represented also by the bluntly-titled Hider in the House, a French remake (Mechant Garcon), The House That Mary Bought and Through the Eyes of a Killer (from Christopher Fowler’s story ‘The Master Builder’). The most memorable moment, summing up this whole bunch of films, comes when an innocent notices a spy-hole in her wall and peers through it only to see a mad eye looking back.

Bad Ronald spends a lot of time on the set-up, which requires architectural and familial contrivances – as oddball teenager Ronald Wilby (Scott Jacoby), who puts a lot of time into drawing pictures and writing about an invented fantasyworld (prefiguring Heavenly Creatures, though Vance might have been inspired by the real-life case), is rejected and ejected from a pool party by the small-town cool kids and gets into an argument with a bratty younger girl (Angela Hoffman) on the way home, which leads to her semi-accidental death. Ronald’s poorly, overprotective mother (Kim Hunter, underplaying nicely) persuades him to hide out in their second bathroom, which he has the handyman skills to conceal behind a new wall. When Mrs Wilby dies, a new family (Dabney Coleman and Pippa Scott are the parents) move into the old Victorian house, and Ronald spies on them through holes in the walls – fixating on a young girl he wants to make his princess in his fantasyworld.

Cramming a plot which plays out over months into the 72 minutes movie-of-the-week running time, this doesn’t have room to build its second half properly. The new family are so thinly-conceived the film’s done before each of the three daughters (Cindy Fisher, Cindy Eilbacher, Lisa Eilbacher) have fully registered and scenes of suspense and peril blow over before they’ve really ramped up. A nosy neighbour (Linda Watkins) glimpses Ronald lurking in his house and drops dead of fright, perhaps thinking he’s a ghost – which gives him the house next door to haunt too, though this business is hurried through. It gets us on the sensitive Ronald’s side in early scenes as the neighbourhood normals seem like bullies, and when the dead girl’s jock brother (Ted Eccles) starts courting one of the newcomer girls it’s hard to tell whether the fact that he seems only mildly pissed off at his sister’s death is a character point or poor acting. None of the regular kids is as interesting as Ronald, who seems cruelly treated throughout – and the story would play better if at least one of the girls were better-disposed towards his self-image as a fantasy prince or related to him as an imaginary playmate before he shows up as a pasty-faced, unhealthy-looking maniac.

Because of the creepy premise – and the strong characterisations by Hunter and Jacoby – this has stuck in the memory in the way a lot of ‘70s TV movies do, but it’s not as gripping or grueling as you’d like it to be. With pop-eyed John Larch in one of his many local cop roles, John Fiedler as the whiny little real estate agent and Aneta Corseaut, star of The Blob, as the dead girl’s mom. Directed by Buzz Kulik.


7 thoughts on “TV Movie review – Bad Ronald (1974)

  1. Walt O’Hara
    well, it was no People Under the Stairs, that’s for sure.

    Alex Bledsoe
    Man, this movie disturbed me no end when I saw it as a kid. And I once saw a warehouse store with probably 200 VHS copies of it for $1 each.

    Damon Wise
    On balance, how bad is Ronald in the final analysis? Over 50 per cent?

    Chris Herzog
    My copy of this was taped from late night TV decades ago and is interrupted by the same commercial for a catfish farm about every 12 minutes.

    Steve Duffy
    I enjoy the bits and bobs of commercials, old programmes, whatever, that turn up on the ends of old VCR recordings.

    David Edwards
    Gracious, this takes me back to c.1988 when I rented Crawlspace. I’ve never forgotten the sight of Klaus Kinski, in full Nazi regalia — plus lipstick — scurrying around airvents to spy on his tenants.

    Carl Ford
    Sounds just like HIDER IN THE HOUSE

    Steve Duffy
    I also like the reversal of this trope in Wes Craven’s highly enjoyable THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS. Plus, Wendy Robie? Nyahahahaha!

    Chris Cooke
    I’ve heard they’re planning a remake of People Under the Stairs… I think that the reason Wes Craven enjoys the accolade of ‘most successful’ in his film genre is his willingness to put his name to anything and to have his entire directing back catalogue remade… even his new film, 25/8, sounds like Nightmare on Elm Street re-imagined…

    Posted by kimnewman | April 9, 2022, 10:42 am
  2. Ever read the novel?

    Posted by Todd Mason | April 9, 2022, 12:01 pm
    • No, though I notice it was reissued fairly recently. Some editions credit the author as John Holbrook Vance, presumably because it’;s very unlike the science fiction/fantasy work he was known for.

      Posted by kimnewman | April 10, 2022, 10:40 am
  3. Like this film very much, though it is kind of a kids film; feels like a condensed silent movie the way it wallops through events. Love the mix of the poignant and the creepy – someone should remake … just the basic premise, Tim Burton in younger days could’ve made a suburban Phantom of the soap opera ,,, Speaking Silents, treasure the final expose with the light pouring out of the spyhole … Flowers in the attic is a girly spin … would love to see the other Crawlspace based on the Herbert Lieberman book … has a wrinkle been done wherby the hider in the walls and the erstwhile menaced homeowner fall into a creepy symbiosis, disposing of abusive intruders cannibalistically and wotnot?

    Posted by wmsagittarius | April 24, 2022, 5:29 am
  4. … kind of a Henry Darger-lite, crying out for a Jarre Yeux Sans Visage or Rosemary’s Baby creepy music box soundtrack … Good blunt title that offers suggestions of an unfairly maligned figure, or egregiousness underplayed, implying much, much woise …

    Posted by wmsagittarius | April 24, 2022, 5:33 am
  5. By all accounts in the original novel Ronald’s considerably worse…

    Posted by Victor Field | November 30, 2022, 8:13 pm
  6. Has anyone ever thought how strange it is that the realtor never supplied the family that bought the house with the planning documents? That would have immediately blown the whole thing. Unless I’m mistaken this is a requirement when selling a house!! Doesn’t it also sound alarm bells when the woman interested in buying it asks why there is only one bathroom, and the realtor replies that that’s how they used to build them? That’s a MASSIVE gaing flaw in this film that no one ever picks up on and it’s so painfully obvious.

    Posted by Simona | January 27, 2023, 9:27 pm

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