The Austin Chronicle

Rondo and Bob

Not rated, 100 min. Directed by Joe O'Connell. Starring Ryan Williams, Kyle Hanson, Joseph Middleton, Kelsey Pribilski, Adam Littman.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 20, 2022

What triggers a cinematic obsession? Is it seeing something of yourself in what's on the silver screen, or is it finding something alien, something other? That's the implicit question in double biographical documentary Rondo and Bob, the story of one Austin filmmaker's fascination with the life of a horror icon. The Austin filmmaker was Bob Burns, art director for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and not just a Rondophile but the self-declared world authority on Rondo Hatton. And who, you may ask, was Rondo Hatton?

Even if you don't recognize the name, if you know 1940s horror you'll know the face of Hatton: a towering, lumbering creature with features that looked like nature had stopped in fear halfway through making a man. Universal Pictures had him lined up to be the next Bela Lugosi, until he died in 1946, age 51, from heart attacks caused by his acromegaly, a condition caused by excessive growth hormone. Burns saw beyond the face and saw the man – a small-town kid and high school baseball star who became a journalist and only took up acting in his 30s, and whose condition didn't reveal itself until he was in his 20s.

In Rondo and Bob, Austin filmmaker and writer Joe O'Connell (whose work has appeared in the pages of the Chronicle) has collated a massive scrapbook of anecdotes – interviews, archive footage, and reenactments – about both men, and especially of Burns' fascination with the man beyond the monstrous myth. It's also a depiction of an era in Austin – of pre-Slacker slackers Burns (played in flashbacks by Williams) and future Leatherface Gunnar Hansen (Hanson) and their history going back to Austin High, of the surprising importance of a local medical prosthetic company in film history, of the Austin Sun – and of people who remembered it, like Chronicle co-founder Louis Black and Austin American-Statesman columnist John Kelso. It's also very specifically about Hatton the man, not Hatton the icon whose face is immortalized in reproductions of the poster for The Creeper and in the Rondos, the independent horror awards named and modeled after him. As portrayed by Joseph Middleton under a mask specially commissioned for this film, Hatton is revealed as a gentle, humble, funny, loving man whose second marriage, to Mabel Housh (Pribilski), gave him the happiness he seemed to feel his affliction would render impossible. His story is told in flashbacks within flashbacks, as a makeup-aged Pribilski meets Burns (played by Ryan Williams) while he's trying to get a biopic of the actor made in the late Nineties.

But while Hatton is the co-star, Rondo and Bob leans most heavily into its efforts to revise the reputation and significance of Robert A. Burns and his incredible role in defining the look of Seventies and Eighties horror – not just The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but The Hills Have Eyes, Tourist Trap, Re-Animator, and The Howling. His obsessive eye and grasp led to a unique aesthetic ("I found some more bones, I'm gonna make some more stuff," as Ed Neal put it). The two subjects become mirrors of each other: As author Ernest Sharpe frames it, Burns was the outsider artist who looked like a frat boy, while Hatton was this regular guy who was shoved into a life he never expected due to the condition that reshaped his face.

But there's also something about their attitudes: Hatton faced the world with a certain grace, while Burns had a bitter streak (like many involved did) about how he was treated over the The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. He was an outsider even in the outsider culture of Austin, his poster art always in demand but at complete odds with the cosmic cowboy aesthetic that defined the era. There are so many aspects of Burns that you may never have known about (such as his excellent Halloween costumes) but O'Connell gets into them all, even if the end result can be a little lovingly overstuffed. So there are two levels of obsession here: Burns with Hatton, and O'Connell with Burns. Maybe in a few decades we'll get Rondo and Bob and Joe.

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