Why Haven’t You Watched This Yet? Roar (1981)

Written by Matt Bowes

When I’m writing about films here at the pulp, I try not to talk too much about how they’re made. I’m much more interested in the film as it is, and less into the people who put it together. Sure, I’ll try and set the scene for what other films were in theatres at the time, or what the social climate looked like, but I’m generally not interested in discussing how the sausage was made.

That being said, the film I want to look at this month, 1981’s Roar, is almost impossible to understand in a vacuum. It is quite possibly one of the weirdest, most exhilarating things I’ve ever seen committed to celluloid, a movie that feels like it’s from another, much more dangerous dimension than our own.

Roar follows Hank (Noel Marshall, who also directed the film), some sort of animal researcher, who lives in Kenya on a huge compound in the back country. We get the sense that Hank’s a bit of a loner, but he’s liked well enough by the local Maasai people, who he helps with medical matters, and by his buddy Mativo (Kyalo Mativo) who I believe works for the government. (It’s unclear, but it kind of looks like he’s got a military uniform on). The real stars of the show are Hank’s family of big cats, a group of lions, tigers, panthers, and cougars, whom he lives with, amazingly, in the same house. When Hank is briefly away from the compound following a bad meeting with some local granting agency (again, this is very unclear), his wife, sons and daughter, who are in from Chicago, have the unfortunate experience of meeting his animal friends without his supervision.

The film that results from this offbeat premise is potentially the most nerve-wracking experience I’ve ever had in a theatre, apart from maybe the time I snuck into a screening of Deep Blue Sea while underage at my hometown movie house. Hank and his wife Madeleine, played by his real-life partner Tippi Hedren, are perhaps the screen’s best argument against any attempt to “go back to nature” and treat wild animals essentially as people. The intentions behind the film are very sweet, and there are even a few resources at the end for audience members who’d like to help keep big cats alive and free. Unfortunately, any message the movie has in mind is negated by the crazy, incredibly dangerous scenes of animal action. Here’s a small taste of the insane things that happen once Madeleine and the kids, played by Marshall’s real-life sons and Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith, by the way, make it to Hank’s house:

  • Numerous attempts by the sons to escape the compound, resulting in motorcycle jumps over the heads of lions and off the top of a three-story building.
  • One of the sons attempting to hide from some lions in a barrel full of water, and then underwater photography showing what it’s like to be in a big cat’s water dish (followed by at least three people in barrels rolling off of the three-story house into a river).
  • Mativo being told to distract a couple of tigers by flinging his shirt around while he hangs from a tree, like the world’s most insane cat toy.
  • Lions destroying the entire house for about twenty minutes, with the family only finding refuge inside lockers, a fridge and a closet.
  • Tippi Hedren tossed around like a rag doll by an irate elephant, which also destroys a small boat for no apparent reason (if there’s anything this movie likes showing more than people almost being mauled by lions, it’s boats being messed up).

So how did this crazy-ass movie even come to be? Well, it started when Hedren and Marshall met on the set of another film set in Africa featuring big cats. Hedren was at this point (and probably still is) best known for her star-making role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, while Marshall was a producer newly-flush off an investment in William Friedkin’s blockbuster hit The Exorcist. The two married, bringing along with them children from prior relationships, but they also decided to adopt a few lions, whom they raised in their house. After six years, they eventually found that they couldn’t really raise large animals properly, even in their well-appointed Beverly Hills home, so they moved the entire family unit out to a ranch outside of Los Angeles. This is where they filmed the majority of Roar, a project that would take five years to come to fruition.

The filming of Roar was such a protracted one for a variety of reasons, the biggest being that people kept getting attacked by, again, gigantic lions, tigers, panthers, and other wild animals. Seventy members of the cast and crew were injured during the shoot, including cinematographer (and future Speed director) Jan de Bont, who was almost scalped by a lion. That injury took 220 stitches to heal, by the way. Marshall, who is visibly bleeding for—I’m going to say—80% of his scenes in the movie, was bitten and gouged often enough over time that he developed gangrene. Tippi Hedren’s leg was broken during a stunt where she fell from a great height, and she also endured some wounds to her head. Melanie Griffith required facial reconstruction surgery after a lion attack, a fact that makes her performance in the film really tough to watch at times.

There is a weird disconnect in Roar, as the audience knows almost for a fact that what it’s seeing is much more dangerous than the almost Disney-esque story we’re led to believe is going on. Despite all of the chaos I’ve described above, and Marshall’s slightly bloody face, the movie is presented to us as a family adventure tale, when it has more in common with a slasher film than anything else. There’s a frankly gobstopping sequence when Togar, a rogue lion who’s attempting to take over the pride at the home, follows Hedren and the kids through a series of walls and doors, tearing through these obstacles like a four-legged Jason Voorhees.

It is a miracle that no human was killed on set, and none of the animals either. There’s a big disclaimer for this fact at the beginning of the movie, alongside a very charming note that the main trio of lions, Robbie, Gary and Togar, must also be counted as screenwriters and co-directors on the film, as they drove a lot of the action simply by being wild animals that did as they pleased.

So why haven’t you watched Roar? Well, as you might expect, this movie was a gigantic bomb when it finally reached screens in 1981. Almost all the buzz going into the film’s release was, understandably, about the disastrous injuries suffered by the cast and crew. In addition to this, the film is wildly incoherent and weirdly edited, a fact that I’m probably going to chalk up to the high difficulty level involved in its creation.

Still, I think that Roar is definitely worth seeking out, if you’ve got the stomach for it. It is entirely unlike almost any other film I’ve ever seen, at least, and it’s the most thrilling and pulse-quickening movie I’ve seen since Mad Max: Fury Road. The photography of the African savannah is beautiful, and there’s a real pleasure to be had in the scenes of lions and tigers just hanging out. The music selections are enjoyable if you keep in mind the overly-earnest mindset of the filmmakers, and the late-Seventies time period of its creation. Roar is currently playing in select theatres across North America, and will undoubtedly have a stellar Blu-ray release from Drafthouse Pictures.

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