Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bad Ronald is SCARY!

The 1974 made-for-tv movie Bad Ronald, starring Scott Jacoby, is nothing short of a cult classic.  This psychological thriller about a teenage murderer hidden inside the walls of a Victorian home in Oakland California undeniably left a strong impression on anyone who viewed it.   In the movie, Ronald Wilby is the ultimate teenage outsider.   Denied the affection of his peers and a girl who he has a crush on, a frustrated Ronald accidentally kills a young girl.  He returns home and admits the crime to his mother who hides him away in a sealed off downstairs bathroom.   Ronald lives there, only occasionally communicating with his mother through a secret entrance in the pantry.   Locked away, Ronald reverts to an intricate fantasy world that he calls Atranta and rules over as Prince Norbert.  He covers the walls with paintings from the characters in his imaginary world.  When his mother unexpectedly dies, a new family moves into the Wilby house.   Still in hiding, Ronald creates peepholes to spy on the three teenage daughters.   In the process he grows more deranged and eventually tries to lure the teenage girls into his lair. The horror in this film comes from mood and atmosphere rather than blood and guts.  Jacoby was a natural for the role, having already played a disturbed teenager who attempts to murder his stepfather in the rarely seen feature film Rivals (1972).
The film’s screenplay was based on the paperback book published just one year earlier in 1973 by John Holbrook Vance (who is better known as sci-fi writer Jack Vance).   The novel was an unlikely choice for a television adaptation and even though much of the book’s contents remained intact, all of the disturbing brutality was removed.  In retrospect, reading the novel seems all the more shocking.  In the film, Ronald’s situation seems somewhat accidental allowing the viewer to have some sympathy for Ronald’s unfortunate situation.  The same cannot be said for the book.  In the novel, the character of Ronald Wilby is far more despicable.  Here is how it differs:

In Vance’s book Ronald is far more sex obsessed.  He pines for his neighbor Laurel and when he attends her pool party, he finds her wearing a very revealing bikini.  When she ignores him, Ronald becomes so sexually frustrated, that he takes out this angst on another one of his neighbors Carol Mathews.  In the film, Carol’s death is shown as an accident.  In the novel, it is anything but. 
In the film, Ronald is a momma’s boy and is at least honest with her about his crime.  In the novel, he flat out lies, never mentioning the rape that brought about Carol’s death.  Also in the film, Ronald appears skinny and nerdy.  The fact that his mother wants him to be a doctor is believable.  In the novel, Ronald is overweight and shows no interest in science or medicine.  Sex and fantasy are his preoccupations.  When the Woods movie in, he takes advantage of the voyeuristic opportunity for all it's worth.  Much of his free time is spent finding ways to eventually take advantage of the girls.
In the movie the girls are more fortunate.  In the novel, not so much.  Two of them are captured and later killed by Ronald.

In the book, he gets what is coming to him.  When Ronald is discovered, he is set on fire.   After he busts out of the house, he attempts to return to the original “scene of the crime” and the first place he goes to hide is Laurel’s home, and finally her pool, before he is captured.

In short, the novel is a far darker version of this story with harsher, nightmarish sexual overtones.  On the one hand, this makes it a more horrific story.  On the other, it takes away from the reader's/viewer's ability to identify with the metaphor for Ronald's terrible predicament and psychosis as one of a more typical awkward male teenage yearning and loneliness.  For what it's worth, Vance's book is a frightening one.  It's far more terrifying than the film and far more straight forward than any of Vance's other books.  That being said, it's still exceptionally written and worth a look for any fan of horror or books dealing with teenage psychopaths.  The movie is a toned down version of this nightmare as Scott Jacoby, as an actor, is more sensitive than he is terribly creepy.  So to sum it up, both the book and the movie are worth your time, albeit for two very different reasons.

If you are already a fan of Bad Ronald and are looking to bill this as a triple-feature with two other movies dealing with frightfully dangerous teenagers, here are my recommendations.


The Lost (2006).  Chris Sivertson is my favorite "young" director currently making movies and The Lost is his masterpiece.  Based on the novel by Jack Ketchum, this is a fictionalized story based on the true crimes of the "Pied Piper of Tucson", Charles Schmid.  Marc Senter is brilliantly evil as the deranged teenage killer Ray Pye,  Be warned: this is not for the faint of heart as extreme violence ensues.  Sivertson also directed the crazy and highly-underrated Lindsay Lohan vehicle I Know Who Killed Me.

The Young Poisoner's Handbook (1995).  In this rarely screened film, director Benjamin Ross has crafted a comedy out of the true account of Graham Young, the St. Alban's Poisoner.  Hugh O'Conor plays the part of a teenage poisoner who tries, and sometimes succeeds at offing his family members and co-workers.  This movie did not play long in theaters as soon as family members of the deceased got a hold of it.  Putting the true crime element aside, this is a truly entertaining movie with a structure that mirrors A Clockwork Orange.

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