The thing about Roar, a bizarre big-cat film from 1982 that screens at the Capitol Theatre at midnight Saturday, is that the horrific production notes are more entertaining than the film itself. Starring Noel Marshall and Hitchcock alum Tippi Hedren (husband and wife at the time), this story of a zoologist in Africa living on a plantation overrun with lions, tigers, jaguars, cheetahs and elephants has been dubbed "the most disaster-plagued film in the history of Hollywood."
In many ways, this makes it a perfect fit for Cleveland Cinemas' Late Shift series. It's been revived by Drafthouse studios expressly because of its insanity. Marshall and Hedren and their three actual children (Melanie Griffith, John and Jerry Marshall) filmed Roar over the course of 11 years, during which time most of the financiers abandoned the project and 70 members of the cast and crew sustained injuries. Melanie Griffith required facial reconstructive surgery. Both Marshall and Hedren suffered multiple bite wounds that became gangrenous. The cinematographer was scalped. (The irony, of course, is that no animals were harmed during the making of the film).
It plays like one very long cat-themed YouTube video loosely framed as an old-school madcap Disney adventure flick. But the animal-chase thrills put Cujo and even Jurassic Park to shame. With more than 100 big cats on set (in an animal reserve north of Los Angeles now known as Shambala, run by Hedren to this day) much of the film was unscripted by design: Marshall wanted the cats, innate comedic geniuses, to "improvise."
They were given ample opportunity within the film's very basic narrative structure: A zoologist's family comes to Africa to visit him. Due to a logistics mixup, they arrive at his home while he's out trying to pick them up at the podunk airport miles away. While he races back by car and bike and foot to the homestead, his family is getting acquainted with the home's undomesticated felines. They (the family) scamper from room to room, hide in lockers, leap from second-floor railings, attempt all manner of water and treeborne escape. The home, meantime, is torn to shreds, as is a zebra, which the lions see fit to eviscerate in the living room.
Except for the blood-soaked alpha intruder, Togar, the cats are by and large a friendly bunch. Still, these are creatures whose heads alone weigh 80 pounds, and even their playfulness can be deadly. On set, John Marshall was once pinned to the floor by a 300-plus pound lion for 20 minutes with his head in the lion's mouth.
The lines between narrative and documentary are fairly blurry, but not to the detriment of the film. You're going to see this one for the novelty of the human-animal interaction, not for the intricate plotting. And whether it's a character or an actor inches from a hungry maw, the danger is very real.
There are also, be advised, moments of raucous humor. Marshall is an accidental hybrid of Steve Irwin, Will Ferrell and Leslie Nielsen and seeing him being toppled by herds of lions or sprinting to corral bickering Bengal tigers in his underpants probably qualifies as unforgettable.
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