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Home / Film / Feature Articles / HE WHO RULES ATRANTA: Lee Gambin looks at BAD RONALD (1974)

HE WHO RULES ATRANTA: Lee Gambin looks at BAD RONALD (1974)

Made for TV horror movies from the seventies have an undeniably distinct charm. I mean who can forget the sleek sinister tension that builds from story to story in the wonderful Karen Black vehicle TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975), or the dark creeping spookiness of DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973), or even the almost Hanna Barbera-esque vibrancy of DEVIL DOG: HOUND OF HELL (1978)? These films are comfort movies for many genre fans – and the small-scale budgets, minimalist production efforts and involvement from usually two or three stars at the crossroads of their careers, all add up to some meaty and earthy entertainment that warms the heart. One of these super fun, alluring and also genuinely creepy TV rides emerged from the swift writing of prolific and well-regarded genre writer Jack Vance – an artist normally associated with fantasy and science fiction – who delivered a disturbing modern day American Gothic chiller with BAD RONALD. This wonderful 1974 ABC TV movie adaptation remains faithful to Vance’s story – successfully capturing the building paranoia, oppressive claustrophobia and all-consuming instability of it’s protagonist Ronald Wilby, while opening up the original source material so that the dynamics made between psychological torment and struggle can play against the back and forth shared between characters who occupy the space of prescribed normalcy – with the titular Ronald at the centerpiece of the picture, staggering into a vortex of blinding insanity.

Played by the extremely talented Scott Jacoby, who two years beforehand in 1972 won an Emmy Award playing a young boy coming to terms with his father’s homosexuality in the powerful landmark made for TV film THAT CERTAIN SUMMER (which incidentally would be one of the first television motion pictures to primarily deal with gay subject matter head on) and two years before co-starring with Jodie Foster  in the moody and disturbing THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (1976), Jacoby taps into the mental instability and torment of his character with measured nuance and a quiet intensity that fuels a solemn repression that eagerly awaits eruption. Ronald is constructed as a wonderfully complex and eternally captivating freak – and this is all to do with Jacoby’s mesmerizing performance. Jacoby, with his messy mop-top of ringlets, spindly physique and pasty innocuousness, gives his Ronald a disturbing presence that both embodies a socially inept sixteen year old as well as a young man with burning intelligence, solemn madness and artistic determination. Ronald lives in a fatherless household with his domineering mother Elaine (played by the always solid Kim Hunter), who dotes on the boy and champions him as a secret genius who will one day be the greatest surgeon that ever lived. Elaine wants what is best for her boy, and cannot wait for him to start medical school. She also has a bad gallbladder and wants to wait for her precious son to complete his studies so he can operate on mommy dearest – a testament to her devotion to Ronald and an insight into her own personal madness bought upon by loneliness. Ronald insists that she get her condition checked out, however Elaine is adamant that he train up and become the doctor she wishes him to be and perform the operation himself. She is a woman fearful of the outside world (something that will be handed down to Ronald) and completely divorced from any reasonable thought – insisting that everyone is incapable of doing a “good job” and that no one is as dutiful or as apt as her boy Ronald. This characteristic leads her to protect her son when he is in dire straits and ultimately be the inadvertent cause in the horror to unfold.

On Ronald’s birthday, Elaine gives him two gifts that will soon become extremely important to the plot’s development: one gift is a tool kit, complete with everything necessary to build a house. This offering represents stoic practicality which is something Elaine wishes to instill in her almost always up-in-the-clouds son. Instilling pragmatic ideals into Ronald’s mindset is important to Elaine, but because she loves her son and acknowledges his creativity and free-thinking, she also gives him a paint set which will become integral to the subplot which details and examines Ronald’s descent into suffocating fantasy. Ronald is a fantasy buff and a budding writer and artist. With his new paint set, he can illustrate the stories he has been working on, and although Ronald has promised his mother that he will become a doctor, he spends most of his time devoted to creating his own fabricated world populated by knights, princesses, sorcerers and wizards. His writing fantasy stories is a definite nod to Jack Vance’s own keen interest in the genre, and Ronald’s fictitious kingdom Atranta – a home to magical dragons, demons and other fairy tale creations – is an extension of Vance’s own concocted worlds that have entertained readers for years. But what Vance does here, is upsets the notion of healthy and productive escapism, with BAD RONALD, he capsizes the notion of artistic creativity and turns it into something sickly, depressing and malevolent.  

Much to his mother’s dismay, shy and nerdy Ronald decides to ask a neighborhood sweetheart named Laurie (Shelley Spurlock) out to a movie. His mother knows that the girl will reject his plea and begs him not to bother. But Ronald is adamant that he at least ask this suburban beauty. When he arrives at Laurie’s house, she is surrounded by friends who all mock and torment poor little Ronald. He is practically kicked out and sent on his way where he comes crashing into Laurie’s younger sister Carol (Angela Hoffman). Carol angrily taunts Ronald; screaming at him and saying that Laurie would never dream of going out with the likes of him because he is a freak and that his mother is also a freak. This angers Ronald and he pushes the loud brassy kid onto the ground where her head lands flat onto a heavy large brick killing her instantly. Ronald is panicked and buries the body in a desperate cover up. When he returns home he is forced to tell his mother what has happened and this is where the film really takes off in a demented right hand turn.

During this period, Kim Hunter was making an impression in many memorable TV movies, most notably as the counselor for the troubled Linda Blair in the graphic BORN INNOCENT (1974) and here in BAD RONALD, Hunter handles the role of an obsessive mother who only wants what’s best for her boy perfectly. Her initial reaction to hearing that Ronald has killed someone pales in comparison to the jolt of nervousness she gets when he tells her that he has buried the corpse. This is a beautifully realized summary of the kind of woman she is and the kind of relationship she has with her son. Ronald’s killing of the young girl is not as horrible as him hiding her body – his calculative mother understands what horrific consequences may occur, so she comes up with a plan. She suggests Ronald use his brand new tool kit to renovate the downstairs bathroom into a secret live-in dwelling within the walls of the house. She explains that with the right craftsmanship (and Ronald is an extremely talented young man when it comes to carpentry) no one will ever notice that there is a secret room within their Los Angeles suburbs home. Ronald becomes Elaine’s dirty little secret and she hides him from police and nosey neighbors – she makes up a story that young Ronald had gone forever, possibly left to find his neglectful father. But then things get complicated when Elaine’s gallbladder pain becomes unbearable and she simply has to leave her boy to check herself into hospital. There are some correlative plot elements that link a film like BAD RONALD to movies where parents are either subtly or entirely consumed by the fear of losing a child – not to death, but to life. This can be presented with healthy melancholy as seen in THE EXORCIST (1973) where Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) suggests a somber longing for her daughter Regan (“It’s not even a good picture, you look so mature”) to not have to go through the impending teen years, or it can come across as an unhealthy and demented attribute such as Margaret White’s (Piper Laurie) loss of control when her teenage daughter CARRIE (1976) decides to go to the prom and hence enter normalcy. In BAD RONALD, Elaine Wilby is saddened by her son graduating from high school, because this means that he is growing up and will soon be on his own. This fear becomes throwaway when Ronald is forced to stay hidden in her house – it’s as if Elaine is excited by the fact that she has to hide her son in order to protect him from being arrested; at least now she won’t ever lose him. After providing him with substantial quantities of food, Elaine leaves to have her surgery and Ronald throws himself into the dark and twisted world of Atranta where he has envisioned himself as the Prince, eagerly awaiting his rightful Princess who will sit by his side. With his new paint set he decorates his new hidden dwelling space with characters and locations from his made up fairy tale kingdom.

When Elaine dies in surgery (the jittery unstable woman’s beliefs manifesting into a realized happening) Ronald’s one connection to the outside world is now gone forever. Left alone and living inside the narrow walls of the house, Ronald watches a new female-dominated family move in and he becomes infatuated with the youngest daughter Babs (Cindy Fisher) who is both taunted by her elder sisters as “someone who watches too much television” and believes in “ghosts and the supernatural” (a fellow escapist) and as someone who is the most perceptive and aware. Babs complains about hearing strange noises at night that are coming from within the house but her sisters and parents dismiss this and attribute it to her overly active imagination. When Ronald manages to break free from the compounds of the house’s walls, he causes great distress for the family – he eats from their refrigerator and they can’t account for the missing food, he reads the eldest daughter’s diary and it causes an argument between the girls and so forth. The film tips into the domain of urban legend where stories about creepy, deluded young boys living within the walls of one’s house can join the laundry list of such occurrences as the headless horseman, spiders in the hair or babysitter stalkers.

While the family question and quibble about the house they have bought, Ronald decides that the smart and pretty Babs will be his beloved princess that will rule alongside him in the mystical realms of Atranta, so he plots to kidnap her and keep her hidden behind the walls which are now the protective surroundings to his magical world. As Ronald’s hunger for both food and human interaction grows, he starts to watch the new family with great scrutiny and when the coast is clear he emerges, completely filthy, like a wild animal trapped inside a small space. While scavenging for food, Ronald is spotted by a nosey neighbor who had her suspicions about Elaine and her strange boy from day one since little Carol went “missing”. When Ronald faces this curious neighbor, it is the first time we get to see Scott Jacoby as a genuine menace – a monstrous teen straight out of the horror subgenre of the evil child film. The neighbor is shocked and keels over from a heart attack and Ronald is forced to bury her under the house. Like Mrs. Kravitz in the supernatural TV show BEWITCHED, the nosey neighbor in BAD RONALD is an annoyance, like ants at a picnic, therefore her death is inevitable. Meanwhile, the new family headed by Pippa Scott and Dabney Coleman are not without their own problems, as they soon learn that perhaps their youngest daughter isn’t exactly wrong in her observations while the eldest daughter Ellen (Lisa Elibacher) has become romantically involved with local boy Duane (Ted Eccles) who happens to be the older brother of the late Carol, Ronald’s accidental victim. Duane informs Ellen’s parents about the strange late Mrs. Wilby and her unstable son. Hiding within the walls, Ronald hears all this and decides that Duane is the elusive demon that plagues his fabricated Atranta and must be stopped.

The film truly belongs to Scott Jacoby as Ronald as the quintessential fantasy nerd gone malevolent. He is spindly and awkward, edgy and moody and completely out of step with the rest of the world. He is played out similarly to the sickly wimp Arnie Cunningham in John Carpenter’s CHRISTINE (1983) as played by Keith Gordon, who found confidence (however perverse) in his love for the demonic ’58 Plymouth Fury. Here in BAD RONALD, Jacoby’s deluded accidental murderer turned frightening fiend finds his strange strength through his own creations – his intricate and also delicate fantasy world of Atranta. He brings a psychosexual dangerous edge to his clumsy and accidental tragic geek and his twisted utopia is at the core of his growing madness.  

The film’s second greatest accomplishment next to Jacoby’s dedicated turn as the central character is the clean mounting and writing of the teleplay. Andrew Peter Marin has woven together a flawless script that remains thoroughly engaging throughout. The film plays out like a dirty little pulp paperback that you’d find at the back of a drugstore where the characters and series of events unravel so effortlessly – this is writing at it’s most streamlined, simple and continually interesting. Also, the idea of a young cretin living behind the walls of your home is something that truly is terrifying. The idea of a demented creep watching you at all times and knowing your every move is totally nightmarish, and although he is trapped by oppressive secrecy he is also somebody completely aware of your own personal torments, trials and tribulations. BAD RONALD is an effective demented little piece and deserves a thorough watch; if not just to thrill and excite horror hounds who enjoy creepy little oddities from the seventies but also for writers-to-be to study a straight narrative structure that continually paces itself soundly and also makes biting commentary on the complex dance between accidental horror, emotional scarring and psychological instability.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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