Noel Marshall, 1981, USA
There are a few films that have a genuinely WTF ingredient. I don’t mean in the way that they amaze through execution, a wow of wonderment reaction; no, what I am referring to is that reaction where you find yourself thinking What the fuck were they thinking when they made this?! All the way through. I’m not thinking of examples such as Troma’s output, as that’s contrived to elicit such a response. I mean those films that seem to be genuine in intent, have no idea that they are bizarre/laughable/outrageous. And when you revisit them, they still have that WTF effect, because it is in their DNA. It’s not something easily explained: you have to watch it and experience all the elements to fully get and feel why it causes jaw to drops and laughter of disbelief. It’s in the timing of things, the presentation of scenes, a turn of phrase. ‘Troll 2’ has it. ‘The Children of Ravensback’ has it. Even ‘Shrunken Heads’ has it, although that’s partially intentional.
And ‘Roar’ has it. In a way that few films can ever reach.
A man lives in Africa and has a house full of big cats. Dozens and and dozens dozens of them. Over a hundred, in fact. His problem seems to be that they attack visitors all the time, albeit and arguably playfully. Anyway, he has invited his family to come live with him. And the premise seems to be that since he is late meeting his family at the airport and he is on his way – um, his getting to such an important appointment on time doesn’t seem to be his concern – they get to the house early when he’s not there and the big cats think it’s playtime, or dinner.
From the very beginning, the film has the lions and tigers and panthers pawing and lunging at the cast as well as each other, and the film essentially does that throughout. Even when they are being playful, they are lunging at people to have “hugs”. The film doesn’t try to soften the idea that when they are playing around these big hunters still cause injuries. I mean, even being friendly and disinterested, they cause mayhem. It’s all part of their being wild animals. Characters even tell Hank – their deluded landlord rather than their owner - that he’s crazy to invite his family, but he insists that the big cats are just misunderstood, even as they playfully chomp on his foot and make his hand bleed and… Well, the thing that makes the jaw drop is watching the actors trying to act whilst wild big cats do their thing. Hank is played by Noel Marshall, the director, and the cast is filled out with his family. One imagine a family being convinced this is a good idea, but the crew? The official ‘Roar’ website even states:
“No animals were hurt during the filming, but over 70 people were injured, including all cast members except Mativo. Not the animals fault, but the fault of the project. We’ve now learned that these are wild animals. If you do what the family did in the film, it’s not “if” you’ll get bitten, it’s “when”!”
“We’ve now learned that these are wild animals.” “We”? The website writers? Because if it was the filmmakers, well it apparently took eleven years to make so one would imagine they would have worked out the wildness before then. And there’s a certain lightness to that paragraph – as if being bitten by a big cat was all part of the hi-jinx! –that even a cursory summary on Wikipedia will easily cast a somewhat more sceptical light, saying that “It has been considered the most dangerous film shoot in history.” Reading through the “cast and crew injuries” will loosen the jaw for dropping. There is this irreconcilable friction between the idealised vision of the big cats and the threat they pose, and the film swings from one to the other without any qualms, even if it acknowledges that very friction, and that’s where the WTF element lies.
So the premise is that the big cats are misunderstood and the family’s arrival and terrifying experience by being met and attacked by a whole menagerie – hey, the elephants are just as aggressive – is just a kind of comedy of feline manners? Indeed, the positive reviews all seem to reference a humour and amusement, which means I guess they were seeing a farce where I was thinking This is crazy! I guess the moment where the guy is holding his breath underwater in a barrel as the big cats drink above is meant to be comedy whereas I was thinking it could be read a moment of genuine danger and suspense? Indeed, much of the positive response seems to display a sentimental view of these wild creatures that I am not sure gives them their proper respect.
So the big cats are both the threat and, ultimately, the loveable critters that just need to be understood and lived with? In the end, according to the closing montage, the family just goes about their lives with the big cats without apparently any incidents. Hmm. I’m not buying it and no crappy closing song will convince me otherwise.