Monday, September 29, 2008

Bad boy in the house

Earlier this month I wrote about my 12 Must (somehow Sees) -- rare or hard to find movies I long to view. I had little hope of watching any of these movies, but that was before good samaritan and all-around awesome blogger Marty McKee basically gave me a "step inside my office." Through Marty's goodwill, I will be able to cross two of those movies off my list, including the one I had most wanted to see -- Bad Ronald. A 1974 television movie, it seems like I've been aware of Bad Ronald for a long time, though I'm not sure when I first learned about it. I had high expectations for this movie, and am happy to say that they were largely exceeded.

Based on the book by the same name, Bad Ronald stars Scott Jacoby in the titular role as a sweetly weird teen who has a very bad 18th birthday. Lots of people have had miserable birthdays, but few of them can say they accidentally killed an adolescent girl on their big day. After blowing out the candles on his cake and re-affirming his desire to be a doctor with his clingy Mom (Kim Hunter!), Ronald is flush with confidence and heads out to ask mean girl Laurie Matthews on a date. This goes badly, as Ronald is laughed out the door by Laurie and her friends, and in his haste to get home, Ronald collides with Laurie's little sister Carol on a sidewalk. Things quickly get worse as Carol starts making fun of Ronald and his mom, and in his desire to get an apology from the girl, she falls down and hits her head on a cinder block.

Naturally, Ronald finds a shovel and buries the dead girl, which as Mom will later tell him was not a bright idea. Mom is of course heart broken at the news of her son being a murderer, but also strangely delighted, as Ronald now won't be able to study in college and leave her alone. Mom's big plan is simple yet dramatic: she and Ronald will construct a hidden "lair" in their house for him to hide out in while the mess dies down. Using Ronald's "incredible" tool kit that he just opened as a birthday present, the Good Family erects a mock wall over the door to a bathroom ala Dawn of the Dead, adds a secret entrance in the neighboring pantry -- and Ronald's new life has just begun.

It's these scenes of Ronald's new captive life where I thought Bad Ronald was at his best. Jacoby is well cast as a dorky teen shut-in, and we see that he doesn't exactly share his mother's enthusiasm for her hideaway plan. As Ronald's mother, Hunter is the best thing the movie has going for it, growing increasingly creepy in her transition from mother to warden. In her brief interactions with Ronald in the lair (as she refers to it), Mom is quick to shut the door on her son and remind him how stringently they must stick to their plan. Ronald's new dwelling also allows him ample time to tend to his literary creation of Atranta, a Tolkien-like fantasy world complete with life-size illustrations. This subplot is really our only clue to Ronald's label of being weird, but it never feels natural.

So everything's going just fine until Mom goes in for surgery and doesn't come back. In fact, the next visitors to the house are realtors who are trying to sell it. Ronald is soon joined in the house by a "they all were blonde, like their mother" nuclear family, helmed by Dabney Freaking Coleman. It's not long before the family notices missing food and strange noises, leading them to believe that the house is haunted. Ronald takes some delight in being the ghost of the house, and gradually loses his grasp on reality. When the youngest daughter finds herself alone in the house, Ronald takes the opportunity to cast her as the princess of Atranta, and hijinks ensue. The family's eventual discovery of Ronald and his lair is played out perfectly, and is probably the movie's best (and scariest) moment. For the genre, the ending is pretty by-the-numbers, but it doesn't take anything away from the previous 70 minutes.

I had hoped Bad Ronald would combine the sensibilities of a made-for-TV movie, with a highly creepy story that could have come from a Stephen King short story. While obviously hampered by time constraints and content sensitivity, Bad Ronald is never boring and packs in a few honest scares with a constant air of creepiness (my wife surrendered 30 minutes in, proclaiming it "too creepy"). With a longer running time would have served it well, as we barely see any of Ronald before the accidental murder, and never really get to know him as a normal kid. What Bad Ronald does best is maintain a consistent ghost story/urban legend feel, it's the kind of story you heard at the playground that's "totally true."


Erich Kuersten said...

wow! Thanks for covering this... with screenshots no less! I saw the first half hour of this back when it premiered on network TV, and was creeped out off my rocker... I guess I was 8 or 9. Ronald is the penultimate D&D-style geek boy and so what kid can't relate to that? It's even scarier having never gotten to see the ending... so I'm still waiting for a mainstream release, as graymarket stuff is too depressing on my neural synapshes.

Adam Ross said...

I can't imagine seeing this at that age, as I would have been as freaked as you were. It's interesting to note that the 1973 book "Bad Ronald" is based on is allegedly much darker -- the murder in the beginning is no accident, and he has more sinister hobbies than just Atranta. I'd love to read the book but used copies go for $95 on Amazon!

MayorMcCheese said...

And the Motion Picture Association of Canada felt it met "PG" guidelines!? Yikes, I'd hate to think of what goes for NC-17 up north.

Marty McKee said...

The fact that DVD companies refuse to put out 1970s made-for-TV movies only proves to me that they have no interest in making money. I'm convinced there is a huge audience for stuff like this that is being tremendously underserved.

PIPER said...

Bad Ronald is such a joke of a title I'm sure I've used it several times in conversation not even knowing the show.

Is this readily available somewhere?

Adam Ross said...

Marty -- I'm with you, especially strange since DVD companies are willing to release any kind of TV series.

Piper -- hey, I barely recognized you! There's web sites like that specialize in lost movies like Bad Ronald, though I've never used their services myself.

Fox said...

I'm jealous that you got to make this trip into the world of Bad Ronald before I could. Still, I enjoyed living the experience through you.

Eww... that sounded kinda creepy!

elgringo said...

One down, eleven to go!
Which other one did your hookup get for you?

I had never heard of Bad Ronald but any movie that sends people out of the room for being "too creepy" has my vote of confidence!

Zane said...

"Today I begin drawing Prince Norberg, he's the ruler of Atranta."

Man ... what it must've been like in his head, living out those extraordinary visions of fantasy - all within the confines of 150 square feet. Oh wait ... I've been there.

Actually meant to send you a copy of this awhile back. Sorry someone beat me to the punch. I've probably lent it to 12 people in the past 6 years, every single one was like, "that was the awesome."

Think I'm gonna drop $95 on the book.

Adam Ross said...

Don't worry about it Zane, if anything I owe you for letting me see "Necromancy" and "The Jar." I'd like to read the book as well, might be a good excuse to visit this thing called a library.

Anonymous said...

There are bootlegs of BAD RONALD floating around the web.
As to the other flicks you’re looking for like SUMMER OF FEAR or NIGHT OF THE CREEPS or SANTA SANGRE or LOOKING FOR MR GOODBAR you need to come over to ROCKET VIDEO in Hollywood, we have em on VHS. As well as Johnny Depp's directorial disasterpiece THE BRAVE with Brando or the BEAVER CHRONICLES with Crispin Glover. Lotta hard to find cool stuff.
Of course it’s impossible to see the Mick Jagger FITZCARRALDO since it doesn’t exist. Just like the Harvey Keitel version of APOCALYPSE NOW was never finished, nor for that matter the Anthony Michael hall version of FULL METAL JACKET.

Adam Ross said...

Sweeney -- Thanks for stopping by (and nice blog!). I wish I had a video store resembling Rocket Video in my area, it sounds like a great place for cinephiles. In regards to the Jagger version of "Fitzcarraldo," as I understand it more than half the movie was shot with Jagger and Jason Robards before things fell apart. It doesn't exist as a movie, but there's certainly plenty of footage out there that I would love to see.

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