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‘Rondo and Bob’ (review)

Rondo and Bob is an American docu-drama directed by Joe O’Connell that documents the parallel lives and careers of Robert A. Burns, best known as the production designer and art director of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 50’s character actor Rondo Hatton, a strange looking veteran of creature features and a bit of an obsession for the aforementioned Burns.

The film at its strongest points draws on a kind of dramatic irony that Hatton, who suffered from acromegaly was a surprisingly gentle, conventional man, and Burns, who seemed quite average prima facie, was a cornucopia of strange and humorous gimmicks.

I say at its strongest points because, unfortunately, Rondo and Bob is a documentary with more heart than head.

It is severely hampered by the decision to alternate between traditional documentary interviews and dramatic reenactments of the key events in the lives of the two subjects.

This decision is catastrophic for the film: the segments are staged, photographed, and acted at a subprofessional level. This is an enthusiast film, and I’m reviewing for an enthusiast site so I don’t want to dwell on what doesn’t work in the films I review, particularly one made with as much passion for its source material as this one.

That said, I wouldn’t be doing my job as an honest reviewer if I did not single out this decision as one that harms the film at a fundamental level: actors cannot deliver their lines naturalistically, the editing is clumsy making scenes feel fatter than they are, and everything is shot in the most flat manner possible.

This should have been scrapped, and the information contained within them delivered in another way.

Speaking of which, there’s a little bit of an imbalance in the film’s two subjects. Mr. Burns is described by friends and colleagues as a lively joker and talented professional who made an indelible contribution to many of the finest horror films of the 70’s and 80’s, but Rondo Hatton’s story as a handsome war hero who developed his condition later in life and had it cost him everything, only to rebuild his life, find a fine career, marry a beauty queen, and find time to make some easy money as a “monster” in the motion pictures is fascinating.

I found myself, at times, losing patience with the main thread of Burns’ life and wishing the film would get back to Hatton just to see what would happen next. The same technique of archival material interspersed with dramatic reenactment is employed in both sections but the Hatton sections gel better and seem to hold up as a cohesive whole.

There is a thread of profound melancholy that runs through Rondo and Bob, and I’m not sure it was intended by the filmmakers. By the film’s end I was thinking about how genre films can become a substitute for and an escape from the messy world of real people and their emotions. Robert Burns, by his own admission, never related to people all that well and channeled that alienation into all sorts of wonderful creative obsessions. Ironically, Hatton, his foremost obsession, was cruelly disfigured by fate but had no difficulty navigating the world intellectually, emotionally, or financially.

Burns’ forays into horror overtook his regular life but, for Hatton they were “easy money.” He truly was just punching the time clock because he had a family to provide for. By implication the ravenous elements of horror fandom we’re introduced to over the course of the film compel us to ask: is our fandom a supplement to the rigors of daily life, a necessary escape or a substitute for a world where monsters are not so easily identified and the good guys don’t always win in the end?

Rondo and Bob is a flawed film, but worth a watch for those interested in the subject matter.

2 out of 5 stars

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Joe O’Connell, Ed Touant
Written and Directed by Joe O’Connell,
Starring Gary Kent, Dee Wallace, Stuart Gordon, Joseph Middleton,
Joe Bob Briggs, Peter Locke, Edwin Neal,Fred Olen Ray, Robert Burns


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