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.