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Two Cult Horror Lives Entwine In Joe M. O'Connell's Documentary Rondo And Bob

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The webs of fate are oftentimes long, strange and intricate. What links the past to the present, the living to the dead, can be found in the thinnest and most inexplicable of threads. So it is with the connection between tragic cult horror film actor Rondo Hatton (1894-1946), whose unusual appearance earned him monstrous appeal in noir-era Hollywood, and the late Bob Burns (1944-2004), whose influential and iconic art direction on such movies as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, The Howling and Re-Animator was only one facet of his eccentric and obsessive personality.

Hatton, once dubbed ‘The Ugliest Man In Pictures’, came to his immense stature, both physically and within the annals of cinema, by way of a disorder called acromegaly, a form of gigantism (also shared by wrestler Andre the Giant, actor Peter Mayhew of Chewbacca fame, the Bond villain Richard ‘Jaws’ Kiel, and ‘Lurch’ performer Ted Cassidy from The Addams Family TV series), that spurs the pituitary gland to produce excess growth hormone in early adulthood. The initial symptom is typically enlargement of the hands and feet followed by severe distortion of the forehead, jaw, and nose. In addition to disfigurement, complications include joint pain, thickening skin, a muffled, deepened voice, recurrent headaches and vision problems. A track and football star during his youth, in high school Hatton was voted ‘Handsomest Boy’ and his gregarious personality made him popular as a journalist for The Tampa Tribune. It was in the course of military service in the First World War when a diagnosis of acromegaly was initially applied, and the shape of Hatton's head, face, and extremities gradually became savaged by the disease. Divorced due to verbal belittlement inflicted by his first wife about his deteriorating condition, Rondo was noticed by a Hollywood director while still a reporter and convinced to move to California, where he eventually starred in a string of Universal pictures as The Creeper, a loathsomely large and murderous fiend, in such films as The Pearl of Death, House of Horrors, and The Brute Man before succumbing to a series of acromegaly-related heart attacks at the age of fifty-one.

In many ways Hatton’s mirror opposite, Austin, Texas native Bob Burns, a ‘small, average looking guy brimming with odd creativity’, seemed an improbable figure to carry the nearly-extinguished torch for the virtually forgotten cult star. During adolescence, Burns’ keen interest in Hatton’s career led him first to collecting memorabilia, then to contacting and interviewing anyone from the deceased actor’s life under the premise of creating a screenplay about his disfigured hero. Entering the motion picture industry as the casting and art director on fellow Texas University in Austin alum Tobe Hooper's seminal 1974 horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, his meticulous attention to detail and fascination with the macabre resulted in the realistic ‘bone décor’ of the Sawyer clan’s farm house, and led to a thriving career working for other horror directors including Wes Craven, Joe Dante and Stuart Gordon. Long before passing away from kidney cancer, Burns' quirky expertise as a self-dubbed ‘Hattonphile’ delved into fixation, yet had the intended effect of introducing Rondo to new generations of eager fans ready to embrace the unlikely icon.

Each man's life, divided by time and space, intersect in Joe M. O’Connell’s new documentary, Rondo and Bob, a silver screen love letter to the strength of fandom and the dedication, devotion and reverence that genre entertainment can and often does instill in audiences. Interweaving dual narratives powered by lively reenactments, interview footage, archived audio tapes, still photos and old letters, intimate portraits of both Hatton and Burns emerge. Exploited by the horror movie machine and known primarily to the public through his grotesque physicality, Burns’ tireless lifelong quest unveiled instead the real Rondo: humble, kind, friendly, a man who battled his progressing illness with bravery and panache, and who eventually found love in second wife Mabel Housh, noted as ‘one of the most beautiful starlets in Hollywood‘, who fell for Hatton’s good-naturedness in spite of a brutish visage.

Burns, too, is revealed; affable, quietly outgoing and loudly unconventional, Rondo and Bob is as much about his offbeat escapades as it is his pursuit of the truths surrounding Hatton’s life. The level of enjoyment derived from such a movie lies in direct relation to how much one revels in the celluloid horrors of their respective subjects; to a non-genre or casual terror-flick observer, the sly wink-and-nod references to movies both well-known (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), and obscure (ummm, Microwave Massacre, anyone?) and on-camera appearances by Dee Wallace, Fred Olen Ray and (in archived footage) Gunnar Hansen will mean little, but to longtime fright fare fanatics, each subsequent interviewee and revelatory anecdote (Not-So-Fun-Fact: Both Burns and Chain Saw auteur Hooper were on campus the day infamous mass-sniper Charles Whitman killed seventeen and wounded thirty-two from the University of Texas in Austin’s tower observation deck in 1966) will rightfully earn many a contented and knowing smile.

If there is any drawback to Rondo and Bob, it’s simply one of length; the topic, no matter how worthy of note, allows ample space for mental meandering towards the end, arousing suspicions the documentary would’ve been better suited as a Blu-Ray’s special feature item than a full-fledged theatrical work. That most trivial objection aside, Rondo and Bob is an earnest, at times humorous and moving tribute to two individuals whose integral achievements in the horror canon should not and, thanks to O’Connell’s efforts, will not soon fade from the collective pop cultural memory.

I give Rondo and Bob a perfectly respectable 3.5 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. Add a point if you have a fevered passion for black-and-white horror or anything relating to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.And read up on Rondo Hatton. I know your curiosity has been piqued.

Grade: 
3.5 / 5.0