Moviedrome Redux: ‘Roar’ (1981)

❉ Nick Clement presents his assessments of cinematic gems and cult oddities. This week, Noel Marshall’s berserk wildlife “film” Roar.

For me, the primary job of any movie is to show me something I’ve never seen and to take me to a place that I’ve never been. Well, I’ve never been to Africa, and I’ve never been surrounded by 150 lions, tigers, cheetahs, jaguars, panthers, and elephants. So you’ll have to excuse me when I say that Noel Marshall’s berserk, perverse, masochistic, fascinating, totally nuts wildlife “film” Roar is unbelievable. And I should also mention that I’m a life-long cat lover; big, small, wild, domesticated – it’s a species of animal that I’ve been intrigued with ever since childhood, and there isn’t a day that goes by where I’m not thankful to have my own little buddy, Gus, who is now looked upon differently after my obsession with this film started earlier this year. You literally feel like an outlaw while watching Roar, which has got to be the single most irresponsible piece of filmmaking that I’ve ever seen.

Upon first viewing, you essentially hold your breath for 90 minutes, waiting the other paw to drop. Outside of Grizzly Man, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen mental lunacy of this nature before captured on film. It’s a miracle that nobody was killed, but cinematographer Jan De Bont was scalped, and numerous members of the cast and crew suffered injuries, so there’s that I guess. And let me just say something about the camerawork in this movie – it’s wholly ASTOUNDING. I don’t understand how this movie was achieved. One bit. It makes no realistic sense. How De Bont was able to gather the shots he did I’ll never understand. Why anyone showed up on day #2 I’ll never understand. All I know is that you feel like a criminal while viewing this wild piece of work.

The entire thing is truly staggering in retrospect. If you’re not familiar with the premise of this movie, it seems that actress Tippi Hedren and her late husband Noel Marshall became big-cat enthusiasts after an African safari vacation back in the late 70’s. Upon returning to their Sherman Oaks estate, they started introducing lions and tigers and other exotic cats into their home life, allowing daughter Melanie Griffith to sleep with the animals, while their sons, John and Jerry, also became “friendly” with the beasts. It was customary to see a maid stepping over a fully grown male lion in the kitchen. PURE MADNESS. Marshall then had a genius if potentially deadly idea – why not make a movie that aims to highlight the plight of the wild cat, but also make a “monster” movie at the same time.

So, he gathered an unhinged crew of daredevils, stuck Hedren, Griffith, his sons, and a few others into the scenery, and concocted an asinine narrative that centers on a wildlife preservationist (Marshall) bringing his wife and children (Hedren and the gang) into the jungle to visit him, only to have them terrorized by a gang of lions and tigers who proceed to trash and destroy the wooden house that they all “live” in. If what I’m describing sounds fairly psychotic, well, it is. And I don’t want to ruin any of the numerous surprises that this film has, but I will say that the sight of Hedren’s face covered in honey as a young jaguar licks it clean is something I’ll not soon forget. You can smell the fear on all of the “actors” in this film – the honest look of terror in their eyes is palpable, and despite everyone going on the record as saying that they “knew” these animals and that they were “comfortable” with them in the grand scheme of things, suggests an insane amount of hubris or a genuine, bonded relationship between human and animal that is simply extraordinary to ponder.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter though. This movie got made (over the course of 11 years!), people went on to have prosperous careers (look at De Bont’s credits as both cinematographer and director!), and now the film is finding a second life as an oddball cult curiosity, with a Special Edition Blu-ray having been recently released by Olive Films. I can guarantee you this – you’ve never seen anything like this movie, unless of course you were there to witness it being created in real time, or if you’ve tracked down a bootleg or the non-anamorphic DVD that’s floating around. It’s sensationally scary and almost too impractical to make sense of. Roar makes you feel like you’ve dropped acid when you absolutely know you haven’t been dosed. It’s a strangely personal piece of filmmaking that while shoddily directed (at times), is still somehow oddly coherent, a $17 million home movie that became a clear point of obsession for its makers. The unintended comedy of the mostly looped spoken dialogue only adds to the bizarre hilarity of the entire piece. Also of note: included on the straight-from-the-source-DVD that can be purchased on line is a vintage “making-of” featurette which includes some talking-head footage from “friend of the family” Richard Rush, sitting in this absurdly ostentatious living room, looking like Jack Horner’s older brother. It’s gold.


❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott.

❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.

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