RONDO AND BOB **** USA 2020 Dir: Joe O’Connell. 100 mins
Writer-director Joe O’Connell follows up DANGER GOD (a celebration of death-defying B-movie stuntman Gary Kent) with this compassionate study of two distinct horror film personalities from different eras: actor Rondo Hatton and art director / production designer Robert A. Burns (who, as this film reminds us, also portrayed the Henry Lee Lucas-inspired title character in CONFESSIONS OF A SERIAL KILLER).
These two men are positioned as polar opposites: Hatton, presently immortalised as a genre award trophy, is conveyed as a nice, loving guy whose “monstrous” face was exploited by the movie industry but also helped make him a cult star long after his death. Burns looked like an everyday Joe but was an unpredictable eccentric, described by one commentator as a combination of Beetlejuice and Leonardo da Vinci. Their lives become inextricably linked via the juxtaposition of documentary talking heads and dramatic reconstructions of key life moments. Joseph Middleton portrays Hatton, signed to Universal Pictures as a Karloff replacement in the 1940s while coping with the disfiguring disease (acromegaly) he contracted in the First World War. Both men died young: Hatton at 51, before the release of his last film THE BRUTE MAN (1946) and Burns, played by Ryan Williams and best remembered for his nightmarish design work on THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974), at just 60 in 2004.
O’Connell gives us dramatized background for both: we see Burns, who came from a line of hermits, befriending a young, self-described poet named Gunnar Hansen (Kyle Hanson) at their Austin school, meeting Tobe Hooper (Adam Littman) and bringing a disarmingly offbeat humour to a range of projects, including 135 music posters of the 60s and 70s. While Burns puts the weird in “Keep Austin Weird”, decades earlier Hatton encounters verbal cruelty and abuse (including from his first wife) before settling down with the unconditional love of Mae (Kelsey Pribilski).
As a documentarian, O’Connell captures some memories of Burns projects THE HILLS HAVE EYES and THE HOWLING, while the late Stuart Gordon enthuses over the authentic morgue sets of RE-ANIMATOR and David Gregory recalls tracking down the elusive Burns – who hated CHAIN SAW – for his documentary THE SHOCKING TRUTH. The ambitious hybridised format sometimes jars: the dramatic scenes verge on the hokey (the sentimental score and distracting old age make-up don’t help) and a couple of interviewees are pleasant without adding anything. But it’s heartfelt and engaging, offering a welcome insight into two of the genre’s great characters. Along the way, you learn stuff you never thought you’d be pleased to know, particularly Burns’ “Bette Davis Eyes” parody “She’s Got Colonel Sanders Thighs”.
Review by Steven West