December 28, 2012

BREAKING GLASS (1980) - a pivotal time in music, fashion and politics

(1980, UK)

This was England

When Breaking Glass was playing cinemas in late 1980, I'd already seen Stardust, also a drama warning us of the machinations of the music industry, but set in the world of rock bands. Recently, I caught up with Slade in Flame which also preceded it. But I found this far more engaging, the main difference being the punk attitude and birth of several music genres. Back in 1980 though, this music could be heard all over the radio and even on Top of the Pops and the movie Quadrophenia (1979) had already captured the attitude effectively.

So instead, that month, I opted to go see the very different musical movies Can't Stop The Music and Fame, ahem. With the gift of retrospection I should've seen  Breaking Glass.

I remember songs from the soundtrack being in the charts and hadn't realised that singer/star Hazel O'Connor has been recruited for the film, which launched her as a pop act in parallel with the plot! The songs 'Eighth Day' and 'Will You' were the strongest, but it's fair to say her career as a singer and actor floundered soon afterwards.

Film Review, August 1980
The story is a small idealistic band being gently bludgeoned into shape as a pop product by a record company (an insight I'd like to see dramatised again in the present music industry). As in Stardust and Flame the various players all look deadly accurate, no doubt modelled on key characters of the time. What sets this apart is the year, 1980, a transitional time when British bands were finding their feet post-punk. New wave and new romantics were getting started and cheap electronic keyboards added a new important new sound to garage acts.

Janine Duvitski and Hazel O'Connor
Amazingly, this emerging minority music scene is reflected in a slickly-produced amply-budgeted movie. Smooth crane shots at odds with the grotty, non-spectacle of North London locations. We see the Camden Town that Withnail & I have only just vacated. There's added grottiness from the dustmen strikes and power cuts from the end of the 1970s which, synched with the nihilism of punk, suggested that society was breaking down.

Full page ad from Film Review, October 1980
The end of the 1970s also marked the rise of Oi! bands, music for skinheads, some of whom supported racist extreme-right organisations. The punk fashion use of swastikas had blurred their politics in the eyes of the media. So, in the movie, fictional post-punk band Breaking Glass take a visible and vocal anti-fascist stance, reflecting the time when young anti-Nazi groups emerged to face off against the rise in organised racist rallies around Britain.

While the story has few surprises and the dialogue more than a few unintentional laughs, the rare representation of the political, musical and fashion scenes are a valuable snapshot of what was going on at the pivotal dawn of the '80s.

Hazel O'Connor's many images includes one that predates the scary Pris (Daryl Hannah) of Blade Runner and a glowing circuitry suit and helmet before Tron had been made.

Phil Daniels plays the band's manager, linking this movie to Scum and Quadrophenia, making a violent and cynical trilogy of young people finding out about the system in place. Inexplicably, this was his last great role.

Jonathan Pryce (just before Something Wicked This Way Comes, Terry Gilliam's Brazil) has a good, but largely mute, supporting role as a deaf saxophonist. The enigmatic Jon Finch (The Final Programme, Frenzy, The Vampire Lovers) struggling to avoid TV roles. Jim Broadbent and Richard Griffiths have pre-fame cameos, as well as future feature director Jonathan Lynn. There's also the original Zaphod Beeblebrox (of radio and TV), Mark Wing-Davey, and Gary Tibbs just before he joined Adam and the Ants.

All this and a beginner's guide to rigging the pop charts...

Breaking Glass has recently been restored for DVD and blu-ray in the US, with a longer 'uncut' edition released on DVD in the UK. Unusually for downbeat British cinema, it was shot 2.35 widescreen.

December 27, 2012

HOTEI TOMOYASU - Japanese axe-god live in London

Live in London, living in London!

On December 18th at the Camden Roundhouse, part of the HyperJapan festival, this concert was a superb return to the London stage (after twenty years) for Japanese rock star Hotei Tomoyasu, one of the greatest living guitarists!

For two hours, I could have been listening to a non-stop 1970s electric guitar solo. Tomoyasu played his recent hits ('Bambina') and many tributes to '50s rock 'n' roll, '70s rock heroes (Steppenwolf's 'Born To Be Wild') and his favourite avant-garde British idols like Roxy Music, T Rex and David Bowie (notably 'Starman').

I was delighted to hear his barnstorming opening 'Battles Without Honour or Humanity', which I'm sure many other bands, celebrities and, ah, wrestlers have used as playback intro music. But Tomoyasu plays it live, made world famous by its inclusion in the Kill Bill Vol 1 soundtrack. He followed this up with a blinding arrangement of the Mission Impossible theme.

I'd seen some of his pop promos and two of his film appearances (Samurai Fiction, and Red Shadow), but wasn't expecting his English to be so good. He told the audience (of mostly Japanese Londoners) that he'd now moved from Berlin to live in London. I thought he was just visiting for this gig! So look out for him playing more dates in the UK.

The entire gig was also filmed with five HD cameras, so keep your eyes peeled for something better than iPhone footage in the near future.

Here's a great, longer review of the gig with photos and extracts from HaikuGirl...

December 15, 2012

LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) - how to enjoy a lost film

(USA, 1927)

What to do until this lost film is found...

December 17th, 1927, was the American premiere of an unusual Christmas movie. Starring Lon Chaney and directed by regular collaborator Tod Browning, this proved to be their biggest hit at the box office.

But after the initial cinema release, this silent movie was rarely (if ever?) revived and by the time Chaney's work became better appreciated and started being restored, all existing prints of London after Midnight had been lost. The last known copy was destroyed in a studio vault fire. Not even a fragment or a trailer has been found. There are regular rumours and hoaxes announcing that it's been found (one just last week) that keep raising our collective hopes.

London After Midnight is now one of the most sought after lost films, demand fuelled by the tremendous publicity photos of Chaney's fearsome character, 'The Man in the Beaver Hat', one of the earliest depictions of a vampire in American cinema. With these photos we can still appreciate his effective, unique, painful make-up, but what we've lost is any movement from this superb, physical performer. A bent-legged hunchbacked figure, creeping towards the camera down a long corridor, descending triumphantly down a cobwebbed staircase, his grinning face in close-up as he hypnotises his victims...

But we can still experience London After Midnight in other ways, and better understand what's been lost. While The Man in the Beaver Hat is now a horror movie icon, this film is from the silent Hollywood genre of mystery movies, when haunted houses and supernatural subjects always had Scooby-Doo explanations...

David Skal and Elias Savada, authors of Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, conclude that Browning's story was inspired Dracula, a huge stage hit at the time. The mansion next to a decaying ruin is the central plot of Dracula boiled down to two locations - the vampire's lair and a nearby house full of prey. London includes an empty coffin, bats, howling dogs, neck bites, a vampire who transforms into mist, targeting a young woman while her suitor and a vampire expert are powerless to protect her. There's the suggestion that Browning wrote this when he couldn't get the rights to film Dracula (but he got that chance four years later).

The scriptbook and photo-reconstruction

Browning's original story 'The Hypnotist' was rewritten as a script by Waldemar Young (The Unholy Three, The Unknown, Island of Lost Souls). If you find it easy to read scripts, the second draft was published in 1985 in this book by Philip J Riley. Dated July 1927, the script describes only what was envisioned. Several key scenes were later omitted, other scenes shot but left out.

The second half of this book is a photo reconstruction of the finished film, interspersed with the original title cards. The author had the good fortune to find the original 'cutting continuity', a shot-by-shot description. A document I'd still like to see in full, it's a guide to the framing (wide shot or close-up) and exact timing of every shot in the released print.

The book includes a reminiscence from Forrest Ackerman (who saw London After Midnight when it first opened), original publicity material, shots of the sets, and even Lon's special 'location' make-up box just used for this film.

Even back in 1985, there was a longing to to reclaim this film, Riley's astonishing research providing this superbly detailed book. My first chance to experience London After Midnight. And also quite a deflation of my expectations. Not the film you'd expect from the photos of Chaney's vampire. I was hoping for another Dracula.

Once an expensive hardback edition, this wonderful book is still available in paperback reprints and even available for Kindle.

The novelisation

As a script, the story is quite confusing, though the photo reconstruction demonstrates that the finished version simplified the set-up, adding as many red herrings as possible. But the novel proved immensely helpful in understanding the plot, defining the characters and their motivations. It's not really a novel, but an adaption of the original script and was first published in the UK and US in 1928.

While recent novelisations have a reputation for being swiftly written and even wildly inaccurate, Marie Coolidge-Rask produced an atmospheric, well-written tale with less comedy, more romance and drama. However, she's so thorough, that the mystery is far too easy to solve from the start, allowing room for only one real suspect! The elaborate scheme is detailed enough to make all the subsequent versions easier to follow. The first several chapters set up the story before the events of the film kick in.

The 1928 novelisation includes photos from the film
While I bought this tattered original 1928 copy off eBay several years ago, this early example of a movie tie-in has recently been reprinted, with its original photo inserts, in this paperback edition and also this brand new limited edition.

My copy of the novelisation is bare, though I've just found that this site sells replica dust covers!

The TCM recreation

In 2003, Turner Classic Movies attempted their own resurrection of London After Midnight for a special Halloween programme, later released on this Lon Chaney DVD set.

An unprecedented attempt to rebuild an entire movie from its publicity photographs was initially disappointing. Partly because of the amount of talky melodrama. There are many creepy scenes in the film, but these pass by too quickly. I'm sure many films from this era would also have an uninspiring effect, given the same presentation.

But for me, there's still room for improvement. The photos have been filmed overusing movements that wouldn't have been in the film. The rostrum camera swoops across the photos in ways the camera wouldn't have. It would have been static shots - wide, medium and close - with most camera moves only tracking as a wide shot. More importantly, the editing style often fails to identify which character is speaking the lines shown in the intertitles, making it harder to follow.

The advantage this has over Riley's photo-reconstruction in print, is that the photos are better reproduced and often shown in closer detail. Reading the novel, studying the script and watching the reconstruction all helped me follow the story better, with a fuller idea of the horrific Chaney scenes that we've lost. But I'm still no closer to knowing how he might have moved, or the effect on screen.

This 2-disc set also includes a superb feature-length documentary about Chaney's life, including surviving clips from others of his lost films.

The remake - MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)

Further help is at hand. Eight years later, London After Midnight was remade, with sound, by the same director. But by the time Tod Browning shot Mark of the Vampire, he'd made Dracula with Bela Lugosi, and Chaney had tragically died. Only logical that Lugosi should step in to play the vampire in this remake. But without the beaver fur hat or use of any distorting make-up.

A different approach in many ways, the remake provides further clues as to how London looked. Remakes with sound often copied the most effective scenes from the silent originals, even recycling hard-to-film footage (sadly not the case here). While the story has been tweaked further, the setting isn't even London this time, Browning appears to be jibing the audience by repeating elements from his Dracula, the early scene in the superstitious middle-European village, the variety of weird animals scurrying around the ruined mansion, even Lugosi walking through a cobweb. There are just as many references to Dracula as London After Midnight.

Lon Chaney's original character of the investigator is now split between two major actors, Lionel Atwill and Lionel Barrymore. Atwill (Son of Frankenstein, Mystery of the Wax Museum, Doctor X, Murders in the Zoo) provides a determined and believable police inspector, already a great horror actor for helping the surreal seem real. But the top-billed Lionel Barrymore treats this more like pantomime, overplaying every line, patronisingly preaching vampire lore, at the same time softening it with a self-amused smile as if tipping off audience that it's just hokum. He dominates the film and sets a light tone - perhaps the studio wanted less of a horror film and were pulling back from the harshness of the 'suicide'. The bleeding hole in Lugosi's temple constantly reminds us that the mystery centres on Lord Balfour shooting himself in the head.

Admittedly Barrymore was one of the few actors who could attempt to replace Lon Chaney. But I liked him far more in The Devil Doll (1936), again for director Browning, in a dual role that echoes Lon Chaney's two versions of The Unholy Three.

Mark of the Vampire is a good introduction to the characters, story and structure of London After Midnight, right down to the mix of scares and comedy.

It also gives us an idea of the special effects that might have been used - the way the vampire emerges from the mist, and the flight of the 'bat girl'. Note that despite being a single shot, the trailer for Mark of the Vampire uses a completely different take to the more spectacular one in the film. Hopefully absent from London After Midnight is the large, slow-moving model bat that hovers more than it flies. It might even have been intentionally playing for laughs, Lugosi patiently waiting for it to pass by.

A possible echo of Chaney's crouched walk is glimpsed when Lugosi also goes into a low stalk directly towards the camera down a similar corridor. Though it cuts off remarkably early for something that could have been quite horrifying. Lugosi's face is even distorted into an animal snarl.

Mark of the Vampire is available in a great MGM boxset of early horror films, on a double-bill DVD with the pre-code delight, The Mask of Fu Manchu.

In conclusion, I'd suggest that anyone new to London After Midnight starts by watching Mark of the Vampire, to introduce themselves to the story, the characters and the plot twists as effectively as possible. Then try one of the photo-reconstructions, either the TCM recreation or the Riley scriptbook, to compare the differences from the remake. Then read the novel to expand on the original story and characters, and catch up on the scenes that were even cut from the original film, including an extra murder!

To find out more about the amazing life and work of Lon Chaney, Michael F. Blake has published several books based on his superb researches.

December 10, 2012

Son of Monsterpalooza convention - October 26th, 2012

A quick, furtive look around...

If we're lucky, when we're in Los Angeles, there's a chance of catching a movie convention. This time around we lucked into Son of Monsterpalooza, just before Halloween at The Marriott, Burbank. We could only catch the Friday evening, having already booked a hotel out of town for the Saturday and Sunday. But we went along for the vendors and to see if any guests showed up early.

The weekend was built around special effects make-up, with displays of masks and head sculptures on almost every table. The most impressive display we saw were Mike Hill's sculpts of three characters from Bride of Frankenstein. Eerie full-body likenesses of Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff. About as close as you can get to seeing them in person.

This figure of Colin Clive fascinated me the most. His performances always seem to channel a tortured soul. His aspect here was more menace than despair, but I was very happy that anyone had even bothered to recreate his likeness so carefully. Although the figures were cordoned off, Mike Hill himself said it was okay to get close enough to have my picture taken with the iconic Henry Frankenstein.

Earlier in the week I'd had a similar experience with a high-quality life-sized photo of Lon Chaney as The Phantom of the Opera. For a second, I felt I'd seen him face to face. A rare advantage of jetlag - delusional time travel.

Even better of course, there were plenty of horror celebrities alive and kicking around the event. I usually turn into a burbling mess talking to the icons I most want to meet, but meet them I must!

A young man sitting at a table covered in photographs of Charlie Gemora caught my eye, not to mention his recreation of a mask from I Married a Monster From Outer Space. This was Jason Barnett, who's currently putting together a documentary about Gemora, called Genius Monkeyman. He was kind enough to run through an impromptu biography collecting a few aspects of Charlie Gemora that I knew about (his ape suit and brief appearance as the alien in The War of the Worlds (1953), but so much that I didn't know. His ape work stretching back to classic Laurel And Hardy two-reelers and Marx Brothers' movies, and his other make-up work (like on the robot in The Colossus of New York). The breadth of Gemora's enthusiasm and skills certainly deserve an extended look.

With him was Diane Gemora, who was actually there helping her dad to drastically reshape the Martian costume overnight for it's appearance in the ruined farmhouse, way back in 1953. That costume then inspired the look of E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial, because the scene had frightened the young Steven Spielberg. It was an honour to meet her and I wish them both luck with this exciting project. Diane and Jason's researches have a Facebook page here.

There were a row of actors from George Romero's original zombie trilogy. I chatted again to John Amplas (Martin, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Creepshow) who I'd previously met at Horrorhound, Pittsburgh in 2008. Along from him was Howard Sherman, who played my favourite zombie character, Bub, from Day of the Dead. Sherman is still busy, mainly in voicework (like Invader Zim and Batman Beyond). Both cult TV series, but his spread of photos was all about the zombie. He even recited some Shakespeare in Bub's voice. I could listen to him do that all day. Stupidly, I didn't get my photo with him, but of course got an autograph.

Next was Captain Rhodes also from Day of the Dead, Joe Pilato, who was just as chatty.

Lisa Marie had been in Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow and best of all Mars Attacks! as the gliding Martian lady of the night. Just after getting her autograph, out of the blue, Dick Van Dyke appeared and wanted a photo with her. Seems Dick was there as a horror fan too! An exciting bonus to see him, at 87, still full of enthusiasm and energy. He starred in some of the earliest children's films I ever saw in the cinema.

Another unexpected guest then made my entire holiday. The legendary Dick Smith was in attendance and causing a stir. Everyone wanted to meet him! Unsurprising as he's the forerunner of modern make-up effects, perfecting old age make-ups for The Exorcist, The Godfather and Amadeus, as well as providing spectacularly realistic, gory effects for Taxi Driver, The Sentinel and Scanners. This year he'd also received an Honorary Academy Award in recognition of his long career. His was the first name I ever associated with make-up effects nearly forty years ago. I didn't ask for his autograph, but I did get this photo with him. What a warm, friendly guy!

Missing the rest of the weekend meant we didn't get to meet Veronica Cartwright or Lance Henriksen. But it was definitely a superb few hours!

The next Monsterpalooza convention is in April, 2013 - website here.

(All photographs by David Tarrington - thank goodness he was there to take my photograph!)

December 05, 2012

"THE SCARIEST FILM IMAGINABLE" - radio ads from the 1970s

My YouTube playlist of how the movies were sold with sound...

This year's long term project has turned out to be listening through all my old audio cassette recordings. Besides reviving huge dollops of nostalgia, reminding me of music I'd forgotten, I've found that I used to keep rather a lot of radio adverts for movies, marking their initial release in the UK.

TV ads were often too expensive for the distributors to pay for every week, so many films would have radio ads instead. Against considerable odds, like having no images to work with, these can still be very effective at conveying action, excitement and horror. Though for some reason, trying to make funny ads for funny movies rarely succeeds.

Jaws 2 is a good example of these as short bursts of excitement - a great combination of dramatic narration, dialogue, sound effects and music. 

There's completely ridiculous hyperbole in the voiceovers, often reading out the classic taglines off the posters, "The lucky ones died first". Plus dialogue, music and sound effects (not always taken from the movie). These radio 'spots', together with just a poster, could be all that was needed to send me scurrying to the cinema that week. I've usually used the UK release poster to illustrate each clip.

In the 1970s, the UK often debuted films around six months after the US. The wide release was further delayed by being shown exclusively in London for a few weeks before opening around suburban London cinemas. The ads sometimes pinpoint the year they were first seen in the UK (I've included the month and year if I noted it back then). Interestingly Zombies: Dawn of the Dead only hit the UK in June 1980 (two years after its widely-quoted official release date on IMDB). 

The fun ad for Friday The 13th is an example of the publicity gained from opening the film on an actual Friday the 13th. I love the way they drop in the "X" rating at the end - certainly carries more punch than "18" would do a couple of years later.

Nostalgically, many adverts even mention the London cinemas that they first played in (many of which are no longer there), and give an idea of how wide the initial release was.

Double-bills were still very common with shorter movies, at the end of the 1970s, but were often made up differently for each cinema. Sometimes they were presented as a 'package' and the same two films played across the country. But note the disastrous change in tone as the music changes between Tentacles and Mr Billion, or from Damnation Alley to Thunder and Lightning.

The later ads, starting in 1980, sound like a lack of care is going into them - or maybe it's the movies! This one for North Sea Hijack uses a poor choice of dialogue clips, slackly leaving in some unexciting pauses, Roger Moore apparently stumbling over his lines. 

The one for J. Lee Thompson's WWII adventure The Passage still makes me laugh. Christopher Timothy trying to stir up excitement with a ghastly little script, the overacting in the movie leaping out of the radio "Where is the Bergson family?". Admittedly, listening to this through the years, I succumbed to its hard-sell charms and eventually saw it.

There are also ads that you could only get away with at the time. The superdeep voice for Death Wish paraphrases the story as, "He got himself a gun and went hunting for muggers". The atrocious 'kung fu' noises overused for the Bruce Lee double-bill. And I doubt the script for the softcore Bilitis would get daytime play nowadays.

Patrick Allen (Alien), Ed Bishop (Twilight's Last Gleaming), Michael Jayston (Apocalypse Now) are among the recognisable voices pimping the adverts that were made in the UK. But often big-budget American films provided their own trailers, leaving a British announcer to tack on local details at the end. 

You'll hear Mel Brooks (High Anxiety) and Michael Winner (The Sentinel) as rare examples of directors who personally recorded their own adverts. I'd also love to know who the very, very deep voice was in this classic one for Rabid...

It was unusual that London's Capital Radio ran adverts, but they were also the first to broadcast in stereo. Many films weren't even screened in cinemas with stereo audio at the time! To catch these off the radio, I'd leap at a tape deck and 'pause punch', usually missing the first couple of seconds. As you'll hear. Sorry, I was as fast as I could.

Also included are a couple of mono trailers, like The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. These have been culled from old complete radio shows that surfaced online as examples of how jingles, ads and DJs used to sound.

I've not finished sweeping out my archives and still have much 70s radio to listen to. So I hope to add more to this playlist - it contains all my movie-related adverts in one continuous playback. Enjoy...

December 01, 2012

ROAR (1981) - lion and tiger mayhem... for real

Animals attack - the making of ROAR...

I was half-interested in The Life of Pi, once again drawn in by the promise of 'a true story' of a man trapped with a wild animal in a rowboat at sea, with Ang Lee directing. But the trailer put me completely off it, because of the overuse of a CGI tiger, completely sapping the elements of danger and wonder.

Obviously there are many sharp and pointy reasons why actors and even stunt performers won't interact with tigers. But a large part of the spectacle, for me, is seeing wild animals. Real ones.

The illusions of actors and wild animals in the same scene has been achieved with every special effect in the book. Split screen (Bringing Up Baby), full body animal suits (Gorillas In The Mist) animatronic replicas (Jaws), the animal's trainer doubling for an actor (Live and Let Die)... all usually in quick cuts. The lure of long and complex camera moves achievable with CGI leaves us staring at a fake shot for far too long. I'm not interested in how amazing the CGI replica is, I want to see how amazing a tiger is.

Real lions investigate real actors - that's entertainment!
My apathy towards fakey CGI has been coincidentally countered by my enthusiasm for a 1981 film that took far too many risks. No faking in these scenes, only that these animals aren't wild, so much as mildly tolerant of humans, sometimes. I'm not saying that we should throw actors to the lions, (tempting though) but it's far more entertaining.

It's risky for an actor to be confined with huge predators in small spaces. But Roar is precisely that from start to finish. With the entire cast not doubled by stuntpeople, and not just one wild animal, but over a hundred...

(USA, 1981)

Tigers, in Africa?

A lion conservationist in Africa, fighting for funding, has to leave his lodge to capture two escaped animals before the local poachers kill them. But while he's away, he misses the arrival of his family, visiting for the first time. His wife, two sons and teenage daughter are unaware that he shares his home with a hundred lions and tigers...

The story is slack, with several long set-ups and few payoffs. But I started enjoying it as a series of spectacular set-pieces with a family of mad people who actually lived with lions. Roar barely works as a narrative and many of the performers aren't very experienced actors, but it's no more staged than the True Life Adventures that Disney used to sell as 'documentaries'.

Director/producer/actor Noel Marshall (left) about to get bitten
The action is literally jaw-dropping. Only slightly less foolish than shooting Jaws with real sharks. An early scene has a delegation of potential investors arriving at the lodge. The lions and tigers get riled up and one jumps in a small boat with two guys in it and the whole thing sinks in seconds. Shot for real.

The scenes of people surrounded by big cats makes the lion tamer of the circus shows look really, er, tame. We get more lions, more people and no cages.

My favourite scene is when the family arrive and don't notice the lions sleeping around the grounds. Inside, they spot a leopard in the house and panic, their screams attracting dozens of lions who immediately charge inside as well. The following chaos as everyone tries to avoid a houseful of lions is brilliantly and dynamically shot, tightly edited into a unique and extended nightmare chase. Rooms full of lions, a whole pride charging upstairs together, tigers jumping in through windows... quite astonishing.

Exciting, amazing, cute... but the amount of accidents and injuries sustained by the cast and crew makes this an extended 2.35 widescreen YouTube 'look at that!' clip, or a lost episode of Jackass.

I missed Roar in the cinema, only recently seeking it out after seeing Tippi Hedren, the star of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and Marnie (and subject of this year's The Girl), in conversation. She talked about her charity project, a preserve for unwanted big cats. From the name, Shambala, and even after watching Roar, I assumed that the preserve was somewhere in Africa. Not at all, it is in fact just outside the city limits, just north of Los Angeles. If I'd read the book before our recent holiday, we'd have dropped in for a tour.

Impressed by the film and curious about the IMDB comments about injuries, I bought Tippi's 1985 book The Cats of Shambala, which is all about the fascinating eleven-year project to make Roar. A story which would make a far greater 'film about the making of a film' than Hitchcock.

In the late 60s, while on location in Africa, Tippi and her then husband Noel Marshall, a movie producer, saw an abandoned game warden's lodge that had been taken over by a pride of lions. The image inspired the two of them to make a film. Noel, who was working as an executive producer on The Exorcist tried to put a deal together while Tippi started collecting lions!

Through the early 1970s, she welcomed unwanted lions and tigers into their Beverley Hills home, mostly unwanted pets and cubs from zoos that couldn't afford to expand. Living with the animals, the family were aiming to become so familiar with them that they wouldn't be attacked when it came to filming.

Ex-circus elephant Timba destroying a boat
After a few accidents, like when lions escape and roam the local residential streets, the family and their 'pets', moved to a large enclosure in Soledad Canyon, not far from where 60s TV series Daktari was filmed (now available from Warner Archives). The idea was to landscape the barren land, planting it with trees to look more like Africa, and building a purpose-built lodge for all the lion action scenes. With the extra acres of land, Tippi and Noel could also take in dozens more rescue animals, including a giant circus elephant. The new animals were written into the script, as were any unusual habits of the lions.

Having accumulated 132 lions, tigers, leopards, cougars and jaguars, filming began in 1976. By this time, Tippi's daughter Melanie Griffith was also getting high-profile credits, helping the publicity of this multi-million dollar production, made outside of the studio system.

Melanie Griffith getting bitten
But the shoot was plagued by disasters: including the compound being damaged by a brush fire, and a flood that washed away cages, hundreds of trees and part of their set. A few escaping animals (we're talking huge male lions) were tragically shot down by panicking police officers.

Several entire camera crews walked out when members of the cast were injured on set, including Tippi breaking a leg, Noel and Melanie receiving nasty bites. Several closer calls and the near scalping of their cameraman made them think the production was cursed. Or maybe they'd bitten off more than they could chew (sorry). The weeks Tippi spent filming the gruelling attack scenes in The Birds were a walk in the park compared to her injuries and heartbreaks making Roar.

Jan De Bont, with 200 stitches
The cameraman whose scalp had to be stitched back on was Jan De Bont, shooting his first American picture. He survives to go on to work on Cujo (1983), Die Hard (1988) and Basic Instinct (1992), before his brief run as a director that started with Speed (1994) and Twister (1996). Even after that mauling, he completed shooting the picture over the next few years. Respect! It's his coverage that makes the footage so exciting. Tight camera moves shot from close to the action. Too close!

Disasters, injuries and problems with financial backers delayed the film's completion until 1981, by which time 'animal attack' movies were old hat and studios weren't interested in what they saw as an animal-oriented family film. (Times have certainly changed to where we're lucky to get anything but). As a result Roar didn't get released in US cinemas, only in a few countries including the UK, Japan, Germany, Italy and Australia... It was then lost in the huge glut of variable quality VHS and home video releases. I have to say, the poster art I've seen didn't do them any favours either.

Roar wasn't a box office success, and Tippi and Noel's marriage broke up after a decade of stress. Impressively, Tippi stuck with the Shambala reserve and continues to round up and take care of unwanted big cats as a registered charity. The main 'set' and shooting location of Roar is still out there and running tours, thirty years later.

The book, 'The Cats of Shambala' could easily be retitled 'The Making of Roar -the Movie' as it details the project from start to finish, with many photographs of the key players, human and animal. It's an easy but engrossing read, Tippi's love for the animals is clear, as are her keen observations of their behaviour. Lots of hot tips about how not to get attacked by lions. Out of print, secondhand copies are easily available through online stores and eBay.

The movie is still independently owned and proceeds from Roar DVDs continue to help fund the Shambala preserve. The website is here.

More behind-the-scenes photos are in this Flickr account, including shots of the fire, the flood and some of the scars!

If you're near Los Angeles, here are details about visits and tours around Shambala.