Saturday, September 27, 2008

Convention Finds- Bad Ronald

Well, I’ve finally got a little time to devote to this blog, and I’ve decided to revive a feature called “Convention Finds”, wherein I review some of the various and sundry videos I’ve found while trolling the dealer tables.

Today’s little flick is Bad Ronald- a TV movie originally aired on October 23, 1974.

Let’s go back to 1970s- before there several hundred cable channels, before these channels broadcast 24 hours a day, before there were VCRs or DVD players. If you wanted to watch TV, you were at the mercy of the three major networks, PBS, and (if you were lucky to live near a large city) a few local UHF stations, all of which went off the air around 2 or 3 AM. To fill these limited viewing hours, the three majors aired more than just the standard sit-com and hour-long drama fare. They tried to be a bit more ambitious, and regularly aired their own movies.

And what movies they were- I remember my mom shuffling my sister and me off to bed so she could watch Helter Skelter, which carried a viewer warning that it might be too intense for younger viewer. I remember my mom being freaked out the day after seeing Trilogy of Terror, especially over the Zuni Doll episode. There was Steven Spielberg’s debut feature, Duel. There were two “Kolchak” movies, which led to the Nightstalker TV series. And there were so many more (Brian’s Song, Something for Joey, Born Innocent) that left their marks.

Looking back on these movies, they tended to have a lot in common. Their budgets were not that big, and some of the sets looked a little cheesy. Since “Made for TV” carried the same cachet as “Straight to video” does today, they didn’t really attract the big movie stars. Mostly they featured actors who had made their careers in television, and who weren’t appearing regularly in a series at the moment. The writing tended to be workmanlike, with the stories being efficiently told within the constraints of a 90-minute minus commercials running time. But the good ones certainly had a certain charm. And because of the previously-mentioned limited viewing options, they could reach a large audience, and, if they were especially memorable, could become part of the pop culture landscape.

Bad Ronald is one of those memorable movies- it certainly has a small cult following to this day. It’s got your TV character actor stalwarts- Dabney Coleman, John Fiedler, Linda Purl, Kim Hunter, and Pippa Scott. Buzz Kulik, the director, seems to have made quite a career out of directing TV movies- he also gave us Brian’s Song, and quite a few biographies (Babe, The Lindbergh Kidnapping, George Washington, Ziegfeld, and more). The script takes care of setting up the back-story quickly so we can get straight to the action, and resolves the story mighty quickly.

So what’s it all about?

Ronald is a high school geek who lives with his mom. In the first scene we learn that his parents are divorced and his mother wants Ronald to be a doctor so he can cure the unspecified medical condition that is slowly killing her. The other kids in school don’t like him, but his mom says it’s better that way- she can have him all to herself.

Ronald heads out to a popular girl’s house, where she and her popular friends are having a pool party. Of course, he gets laughed at when he asks her out, and he runs away, humiliated. He meets up with a 10-year-old girl, who also makes fun of him, telling him (and us) how disliked he is by the neighborhood. And to prove to us that she’s not lying about his defective personality, he knocks her down. The girl hits her head on a rock and dies.

The only thing Ronald can think of to do is to hide the body and then run home to confess everything to his mother. Mom feels that no one will ever believe that this was an accident, and that Ronald will never get to be a doctor, so she does the only sensible thing- she has Ronald wall off the door to a downstairs room, converting it into a secret room where Ronald can live until the whole thing blows over. She covers for Ronald when the police come by, telling them that he ran away.

Having nothing better to do while he’s waiting to be let out, he begins to create his own fantasy world. He writes and draws stories in which he is a prince, and he has a beautiful princess by his side. He makes occasional brief excursions out of his room to get food, but other than that, he’s pretty much a prisoner.

Some time later, Ronald’s mother gets sick and his taken to the hospital, where she dies. Ronald, unsure of what to do, remains in his secret room, drawing and writing. The house is soon sold to another family, one with three daughters. Ronald still makes the occasional food gathering trip, but now he has another reason to leave his prison- he has become infatuated with the youngest daughter, who, in Ronald’s mind, becomes the princess to his prince.

The family tries to shrug off the strange noises and disappearances of food, but it is affecting the youngest daughter, who thinks the house is haunted and that she’s being watched. As Ronald grows more delusional, he begins to see everyone as a threat to him and his “princess”. Things come to a head when he attacks the oldest sister’s boyfriend, imagining him as a devil that must be destroyed.

Things pick up rapidly from here, as Ronald is discovered. His hiding place is breached, the police arrest him, and he is dragged off to jail, crying and screaming.

A lot of people have fond memories of this movie, although, I must confess, I have no memory of it myself. (Strangely though, my wife remembers seeing it several times on TV in Ecuador.) So, when I managed to get a copy of it, I was able to look at it with fresh eyes, and without too many pre-conceived notions.

First off, I was surprised at how much of a dick Ronald was. He wasn’t somebody you could sympathize with easily. In fact, you can’t wait for him to get caught. From the beginning, when he maliciously knocks down and kills the little girl (and then buries the body), to the end when he stalks the youngest daughter, you find yourself liking him less and less.

I also like how there was really no fat in this script. This story had to be told in 74 minutes, and if that means that everyone must talk in exposition, well, then, dammit, exposition it will be. The movie opens on Ronald’s birthday where we learn his whole family history- you’ve got to wonder why Ronald and Mom have to remind each other of the divorce, or that, as part of the settlement Dad has agreed never to see Ronald again, or that mom is terribly ill. I liked that Ronald’s birthday presents were a tool kit and art supplies. Hmmm... do you think either one will play a part in future events?

Obviously, we are meant to see mom as someone who has an unhealthy level of influence on her child, as in Psycho or Carrie. But it’s a little too ham-handed, and Ronald is too much of a dick. If he were more sympathetic, like Carrie White, maybe we wouldn’t be rooting for him to get caught.

Still, all in all, this was a decent diversion. I’m not sure if I’ll ever watch it again, but at least now I can say I’ve seen it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Trip Back to the 90s

I've been in a bit of a reflective mood lately- I've been listening to some of the tapes I made when I was a DJ at grad school, and have been pretty much going through a late 80s/early 90s music kick.

So, in lieu of actually writing anything, here's a brief glimpse into what was spinning in my CD player way back in the (first) Bush years:

First up- "The Mayor of Simpleton" by XTC. To me, the best unrecognized pop band ever.

Matthew Sweet's "Girlfriend"- from one of my all-time favorite albums

Lloyd Cole's "Weeping Wine"- the song appeals to the sap in me.

The Connell's "74-75"- an even more criminally overlooked band than XTC.

And, as a bonus, "Make a Circuit With Me" by The Polecats. I saw the video once when the song first came out (about 1982 or so), and it's stuck in my mind ever since then. Thanks to the miracle of YouTube, after 26 years, I've been able to see it again.