Today’s feature is a bit of a curiosity, in that it is possibly the most dangerous movie ever filmed: 1981’s “Roar,” starring Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffith, and a shit-ton of lions. Many thanks to the Gateway Film Center for screening the film, and the Alamo Drafthouse for helming the re-release.
“Roar” was written, directed, and produced by Noel Marshall, who is best known for acting as a producer on “The Exorcist” and a handful of other pictures, as well as being the husband of the famed actress Tippi Hedren (who also starred in and produced “Roar”).
The cinematographer and supervising editor on “Roar” was Jan De Bont, who went on to become a successful director and director of photography on some significant Hollywood movies (“Leonard Part 6,” “Speed,” “Speed 2,” “Twister,” “Die Hard,” “The Hunt For Red October”).
The distinctive music for “Roar” was composed by Terrence Minogue, who has no other credited film work. It was performed, however, by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, a recording orchestra out of London that can be heard on soundtracks for movies such as “Supergirl,” “Alien,” “Total Recall,” and “The Exorcist.”
One of the other producers on “Roar” was Banjiro Uemura, who also later produced the Hayao Miyazaki classic animated film, “Spirited Away.”
“Roar” was filmed at a southern California ranch owned by Tippi Hedren and Noel Marshall, where the family for years acquired and raised countless big cats, and lived alongside them not unlike as depicted in the film.
The cast of “Roar” was a true family affair, headlined by Tippi Hedren and director Noel Marshall, who also acted as the primary financiers for the film. Most of the rest of the cast is filled out by their children: John Marshall, Jerry Marshall, and the later Hollywood star and two-time Golden Raspberry winner Melanie Griffith (“Working Girl,” “Body Double,” “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “Crazy in Alabama”).
The story of “Roar” centers around a family traveling to visit their radical big cat researcher father, who is embedded with a pride of lions while simultaneously introducing an assortment of foreign wild cats into the pride. Just before the family arrives, a new, aggressive lion arrives to challenge the balance and leadership of the pride, putting the family in significant danger.
“Roar” is likely best remembered due to the multiple attacks and maulings that occurred on set during filming. Noel Marshall at one point had to be hospitalized for his wounds, which reportedly required years to recover from. He was also bitten through his hand in a sequence that remained in the finished film. Likewise, Melanie Griffith required plastic surgery after the film, and reportedly fifty stitches to her face. The assistant director, Doron Kauper, was nearly killed after one of the lions tore open his neck and attacked his face. John Marshall reportedly needed over fifty stitches to repair a wound from a lion bite. Tippi Hedren not only broke a leg after falling off of an elephant, but also needed more than thirty stitches after being bitten on the back of her head by a lioness. Reportedly, Tippi Hedren has said of the experience of being bitten by a lion:
“Let me tell you, it hurts when you’re bitten by a lion. It’s not only that you may have an open, gaping wound, plus shock, but the pressure of those enormous jaws is so strong that it hurts”
“Roar” ultimately took over a decade to actually complete from writing to release, partially due to the death of a number of the lions in the wake of a tragic flood of the property resulting from a local dam break.
The idea for the story of “Roar” was apparently conceived of by Hedren and Marshall while making a movie in Africa, during which they discovered an abandoned house on a wild game reserve that had become overrun by a pride of lions. The financial success of the 1966 lion-centric movie “Born Free” also seemed to signal that the idea could be financially viable.
Tippi Hedren later founded the Roar Foundation, which supports the Shambala Reserve for wild and endangered cats in Acton, California (many of which have descended from the cats used in “Roar”). Hedren is now a staunch animal rights activist who opposes the private ownership of big cats, and regrets letting her family live in proximity to the dangerous animals. She wrote a book about the making of the movie in 1985, called “Cats of Shambala.”
In 2015, the Alamo Drafthouse produced a re-release of “Roar” that marked the first time that the movie has hit American theaters. The initial release of the film only played in international markets, grossing only $2 million of the reported $17 million budget.
The reception for “Roar” was understandably mixed. The film is more of an astounding spectacle and experience than it is a sensible motion picture, which has led to it receiving Rotten Tomatoes scores of 70% (critics) and 58% (audience), along with an IMDb rating of 6.4.
It is really hard to view and analyze “Roar” like one would a typical motion picture, because it is truly impossible to separate the film from its astounding back story and the shock of seeing the experience on screen.
From the point of view of looking at “Roar” like a standard film, it is just terrible. Plot lines are dropped (what happened to the disgruntled poachers?), the story is nonsense, and the acting (can you really call it acting?) is pretty atrocious on the part of the Marshalls. The pacing and shots are generally jarring as well, because the film was very much dictated by the cats’s behavior, which was naturally erratic and unpredictable, something that is explicitly acknowledged in the credits. The entire film feels like a sequence of shots that were aimlessly strung together in the editing stage, which is a film-making practice that typically only Terrence Malick can get away with.
“Roar” is very obviously a message movie, which is a bit confusing and wrong-headed given how violent the large cats are over the course of the story. There is also a lot of genre confusion, in that the film was not portrayed or marketed as a horror movie, despite how terrifying the product is to watch. The story tries to play off the conclusion as peaceful, with the humans adapting to living around the lions in peace, which frankly makes no sense after all of the chaos and violence that they have inflicted on the family.
Speaking of which, the only character who reacts to the various dangerous animals like a human actually would is Mativo, a supporting character who spends most of his time trying to get his coat back from an assortment of deadly animals. However, even his terror at the cats is overcome by the end of the film, when he joins the family in cuddling and playing with the pride of lions. At the very least, he should be upset at the fact that the cats absolutely destroyed his jacket, and also managed to sink his boat.
Overall, despite the fact that “Roar” is a pretty awful movie by film standards, I consider it a must-see for movie fans. It isn’t a film so much as it is a shocking and baffling visual experience, which is one of the most honestly terrifying things that I have ever watched. I don’t consider it “so bad it is good” like most of the films I cover, but more as a truly unique experience that belongs more in a category with films like “Cannibal Holocaust” that are defined by their back story, rather than the product on screen.