Watching 1981’s notorious nature thriller, Roar, is like subjecting yourself to a psychological experiment. Unbelievable images evoke reactions ranging from horror to hilarity, sometimes within the same scene. Director Noel Marshall infuses his disastrous passion project with so much sincerity, however, that this weird little morsel must be savored like the cinematic singularity that it is. There will never be another film like Roar. Really, it’s much safer that way… for everyone.
The real-life family of writer-director Noel Marshall (who plays ‘Hank’) lived amongst 100 ‘big cats’ (including lions, tigers, cougars, leopards and jaguars) for over 11 years and exhausted millions of dollars to make Roar. He and then wife, Tippi Hedren (as ‘Madelaine’), transformed their California estate into a makeshift sanctuary, allowing the massive predators to roam freely in the same house as their three children, Melanie (Griffith), Jerry and John. For the film’s threadbare plot, Hank plays a doctor (??) stationed in deepest Africa who performs research on predatory cats. There, he awaits the arrival of his unsuspecting family from the States, while fighting evil hunters who are determined to pare down his cat population.
Marshall and Hedren’s sincere efforts to raise awareness about conservation are admirable, but one gets a definite Tim Treadwell vibe while watching Roar. Marshall gives his lions human names, like Robbie (the lion “hero”), Togar (the lion “villain”), and Gary, and insists that their violent wrestling and predatory activity is “playing.” Dangerous anthropomorphizing contributed to the deaths of Treadwell and his girlfriend (as documented in the Herzog masterpiece, Grizzly Man), and we fear a similar fate awaits Marshall’s family. This adds a tension and mystique to Roar that compensates for its otherwise incompetent production.
And what a production it was! Famous for its trials and tribulations, the history behind Roar makes Gilliam’s doomed production of Don Quixote looked blessed in comparison. Hedren suffered a broken leg, while a young Melanie Griffith needed facial reconstruction after a mauling incident. Over 70 attacks on crewmembers were documented, including cinematographer Jan de Bont, who had his scalp re-attached! There were also floods, fires, and financial hardships. Roar is one of those fictional films that would easily be bested by its ‘making of’ documentary.
The tone of Roar zigzags faster than a lion chasing a gazelle. Things start on a lighthearted note, as we’re introduced to Hank’s big cat cavalcade. His friend Mativo (Kyalo Mativo), used largely for comic relief, echoes our sentiments about the living conditions in the house. “This is a madhouse!” Mativo exclaims as he battles a massive lion for possession of his prized jacket. Not surprisingly, Mativo loses this game of tug-of-war. There is no denying the beauty and power of these magnificent creatures. A guttural roar is ever-present on the soundtrack, and spontaneous skirmishes literally spill onto the actors as they deliver their stilted dialogue. It’s the perfect setup for a nature film about Hank’s daily travails with his unconventional house cats.
Then, the movie takes a dramatic tonal shift. After Hedren and her children arrive at the empty house, they are terrorized by jungle critters. Children lock themselves in ice boxes or hide in barrels, while Hedren takes refuge in a wardrobe that gets tossed about like a cardboard box. The terror from the actors is real, and there is a genuine sense that anything can happen. Even after they escape the house via a nearby river, they’re confronted by an African elephant that turns their boat into metal shrapnel. Hedren is absolutely fearless, even as the elephant grabs her leg and swings her like a ragdoll. This uncomfortable portion of Roar feels like a ‘slasher’ film, where each character must endure their own turn with the relentless stalker.
Roar repeats these curious tonal shifts several times, where scenes of physical peril are interspersed with goofy interludes that could be scored to “Yakety Sax” (of Benny Hill Show fame). Of course, no score could compare to the one provided by Robert Hawk, who haphazardly mixes musical genres to arrive at something akin to hippie jungle boogie. It underscores just what a bizarre little film this is, with its wildly oscillating tones and moods.
There are cult films, and then there is Roar. Released to a collective yawn in 1981, the mythology surrounding it has continued to grow. There’s no denying how truly terrible it is, but that only adds to its mystique. Like The Star Wars Holiday Special or Cannibal Holocaust, watching Roar is like a rite of passage; an experience that makes you part of a shared cinematic culture. Ultimately, all the goofiness, bad acting, and questionable decisions are outweighed by the filmmaker’s dedication to these endangered animals. Cinephiles often lament that, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” In the case of Roar, that is a massive understatement.