Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Television Review: BAD RONALD (1974, Buzz Kulik)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 74 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Scott Jacoby (THE ANDERSON TAPES, THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE), Dabney Coleman (CLOAK & DAGGER, NINE TO FIVE), Pippa Scott (THE SEARCHERS, AUNTIE MAME), Kim Hunter (PLANET OF THE APES, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE), Linda Watkins (THE PARENT TRAP, FROM HELL IT CAME), John Larch (DIRTY HARRY, PLAY MISTY FOR ME), John Fiedler (SHARKY'S MACHINE, the voice of Piglet). Music by Fred Karlin (WESTWORLD, THE STERILE CUCKOO). Adapted by Andrew Peter Marin (HOG WILD, BLACK MARKET BABY) from the novel by John Holbrook Vance (THE LAST CASTLE, THE DREAM MASTER). Directed by Buzz Kulik (BRIAN'S SONG, 9 episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE including "A Game of Pool" and "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim"). Produced by Lee Rich (THE WALTONS, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, DYING ROOM ONLY, THE STRANGER WITHIN).
Tag-line: None.
Best one-liner: "I'm Prince Norbert, I know everything!"

In my continuing series seeking to explore the completely whacked-out tradition of 1970's made-for-television horror movies (DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, TRILOGY OF TERROR, et al.), may I submit, for your consideration: BAD RONALD. Possessing what is quite possibly one of the most bizarre plotlines of all time (surely the most bizarre to play on ABC on a Saturday afternoon), BAD RONALD is a hotbed of adolescent psychosexual tension, unsettling voyeurism, and general eyebrow-raising lunacy. I won't reveal the plot's entirety by any means, but allow me to provide a brief introduction so that you have some inkling as to what the hell I'm talking about.

BAD RONALD is a real 'cut to the chase' kind of movie. It sets up its characters, lays out a murder, lays out a coverup, and commences with some bona fide insanity, and all by the twelve minute mark! Ronald (a very proto-Matthew Modine-ish Scott Jacoby) and his creepy mother (a delightfully crazed Kim Hunter) lead an eerily, uh, idyllic existence. His mother dotes on him, feeds him chocolate cakes, and insists that he grow up to become a doctor to cure her because she has some kind of debilitating medical condition, possibly involving a gall bladder.

Ronald wants only to please his mother, but he also has artistic aspirations, most of which involve a Medieval fantasy world called 'Atranta.' Wanting to branch out with his social life (i.e., away from his mom), Ronald makes romantic overtures toward the jock-luvin' neighbor girl. Said overtures are rebuffed, and as if to put salt in the wound, her seven-year old sister taunts dear Ronald (not yet 'Bad' Ronald), who promptly engages in a "Say you're sorry!" shoving match, grabs her head, and smashes it into a rock. It's an oddly unsettling death scene with no gore whatsoever...they don't make 'em like this any more.

But it was just an accident!...kind of.

He decides to bury her (!), and then confesses all to his mother, whose only natural response is to wall him inside the first-floor bathroom so he can lay low for a while (!!).

This roomy, Victorian first-floor bathroom is transformed into living quarters...

...hidden beneath a fresh slapping down of wallpaper...

...and accessible via a secret entrance in the pantry.

I think this taps into a childish, 'clubhouse' fascination- what kid wouldn't want to have an entirely secret chamber to call their own, from which they could come and go as they pleased? It's got that secretive thrill to it, too- like how kids connect with FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, because who wouldn't want to spend the night alone in a cavernous, empty museum? Of course, in BAD RONALD, it's tempered with all this weird, brutish sexual energy, but the concept of the secret room was probably a big enough hook to get the kiddie viewers initially engaged (...and ultimately freaked out). I like it.

Anyway, because he suddenly and mysteriously has disappeared, he's the cops number one suspect, a fact which doesn't seem to bother his mother, who promptly dies after a gall bladder operation (!!!). Alone, and living inside the walls, what's an unhinged kid to do? Soon, a new family (led by patriarch Dabney Coleman, matriarch Pippa Scott, and three young lasses) has moved in...and then the real shenanigans can begin!

And bear in mind that at this point, we're only thirty minutes into the movie. Who knows what depravities await you as we journey deep into the maelstrom and beyond with our petulant host, BAD RONALD...

...So- without rehashing any more of the plot- allow me to recommend six quick additional reasons why you ought to check out BAD RONALD:

#1. Dabney Coleman furiously doing some sit-ups and then, while still on the floor, snagging a beer and taking a hearty swig.

I like your style, Dabs. You don't mind if I call you Dabs, right?

#2. The sprawling, quasi-surrealist paintings that Ronald sketches on the walls while in his lair.

Which leads me to...

#3. ....the ridiculous graffiti in said lair!

The camera doesn't linger on this particular section for long, but I feel as if it was drawn by excitable P.A.s on their lunch break: a broken heart...crossed out!, a compass sign with an 'R' in the center for 'R'onald, a depiction of Ronald's glasses, "Mother! Mother!," "See no Evil," "Ha! Ha! Ha!," "Help!," etc. etc. Truly a portrait of a psyche... in chaos!

#4. May I present to you, Linda Watkins, the original fuckin' nosy neighbor, the recockulous Mrs. Schumacher. She'll be here all week, ladies and gentlemen.

The role requires no dialogue, but does require some ludicrous eyebrow action and incredulous looks. I'd be lying if I said this wasn't my favorite element of the movie.

#5. Prescient presidential references? There's a character named Jimmy Carter in a movie called BAD RONALD (Reagan?) a full six years before the 1980 presidential election and two years before '76. Coincidence? Or can BAD RONALD predict the future?

#6. Strange face touching. As we saw above, Ronald contorts, quite unnervingly, the face of his young victim before she dies, something which we see his mother do to him as well.

Are we to imagine he learned it from his mother, and as he torments young female victims, he has motherly (á la PSYCHO) inclinations?

The dirtying of a young girl's mouth bears a weird psychosexual weight to it, too- it feels like a real Cronenberg flourish. You're thinking to yourself 'How can they show that on TV?!' and then, of course, you realize that it's not at all explicit in the 'by the book' sense. Perhaps this is more adequately fleshed out in the novel, which I'm more than tempted to check out. (Though it appears to be quite rare, as it's exorbitantly priced on the used book market- i.e., $50.00 or more for a mass market paperback!)

In the end, it's a strange, fever dream of film which may have been an inspiration to everyone from George A. Romero (MARTIN) to Wes Craven (THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS). Four censor-shirking stars!

-Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

Awesome review. Gave me nightmares as a kid. Nice to see it's available now from Warners.

Tempest said...

I may have seen parts of this. I definitely recall the title and poster. I appreciate how you don't give away too many plot details in your reviews--that is rare. In fact, it is part of why I stopped reading reviews in the paper in the late 90s---too many spoilers.

Sean Gill said...


Thanks- I didn't see it until just recently; the bizarre things I'd heard about it are what made me spring for the Warner Archive disc.


Thanks for the kind words- I often avoided reviews for the same reason, or I'd just read halfway down before they'd inevitably spoil the finale. It's a fine line between piquing someone's interest and giving away too much, so I generally try to err on the side of caution.

✿⊱╮Terri said...

The girl he kills at the beginning, in the novel she's eleven, not seven.