Imagine “Swiss Family Robinson” or “Doctor Doolittle,” only with untrained, restless animals and actors who are in very real danger. Try picturing a movie, made by a husband and wife team, in which they star alongside their kids and share scenes with dozens of real, unpredictable lions, cougars and a massive, angry elephant. It sounds like a contrived set up for a comedy but, astonishingly, “Roar” actually happened. The history behind this sole work by Noel Marshall, director/star/husband of Tippi Hendren, is that it was ten years in the making, was personally financed by the couple, shot by cinematographer (and future “Speed” director) Jan de Bont under odd conditions and resulted in 70 actors getting harmed. That last part was on the film’s re-release poster: “No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of This Movie. Over 70 Humans Were.” Among those severely mauled, scalped, sliced, bitten or attacked were Hendren, Griffith, Marhsall and de Bont.
This is pure insanity, a movie every bit as riveting and bizarre as its behind the scenes history. If Marshall was aiming to make something bigger and much more memorable and amazing than “Born Free,” then he most definitely succeeded.
Hendren and Griffith (who is referred to on screen as “Melanie”) travel to a remote home in Africa, a multi-storied building that appears to have previously been home to either Doctor Moreau or Colonel Kurtz. Marshall is trying to meet up with them but keeps getting attacked by lions. Meanwhile, as soon as Hendren and Griffith (joined by two brothers) enter the home, they are also attacked and pursued by lions. That’s it for the plot. An obvious visual reference to Hendren’s past as the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” is made but really, The Master of Suspense would never have made something so clearly out of control.
Every scene feels like an outtake, due to both the caffeinated editing and the anything-goes nature of what’s captured on camera. The actors improvise like their lives are depending on it (which is true) and their attempts to spit out exposition can’t mask their very real fear.
A consistent tone is never established, as this wobbles back and forth from being a family adventure movie, to an all-out horror film, with attempts at being a social commentary on hunters and, most successfully, an all-out exploitation film of animals attacking people. The result is often hilarious (the actors visibly jump out of frame when the lions attack them or each other) and horrifying. Late in the film, things get so bloody, it seems all attempts to make a Disney wildlife-type movie have gone off the rails. Yet, in keeping with the film’s inability to be consistent with anything, it ends with a John Denver-wannabe song and a loving montage of sleeping lions.
“Roar” exudes a crazy energy, the result of the real danger in plain view as much as the choppy editing. It’s never dull, though the constant nuttiness gets tiresome near the end. Its saying a great deal that a motorcycle riding off a roof into a pond is one of the least insane things that occurs. There’s also Zakes Mokae (the future villain of Wes Craven’s “The Serpent and the Rainbow”) in a poorly defined subplot on animal hunters that never fully develops.
Tippi Hendren’s performance has no focus. Her husband, Noel Marshall, rambles on with such intensity, he’s like Steve Irwin fused with Charles Manson. In one of her earliest film roles, Melanie Griffith looks terrified of being attacked by lions, which is both the overall backbone of her role and the reality of being in this movie.
The lions are pretty amazing to behold, as they casually look up at the lights and stare at the actors, pondering whether to lick or just eat them entirely. As filmmaking goes, both in terms of how the film was made and put together, this is pretty sloppy. Yet, “Roar” offers an experience so unique, and is so awesomely bad and riveting at the same time, it’s like “The Room” with real suspense.
Following years of production, “Roar” was briefly/ barely released in 1981 and, due to a re-release in theaters and DVD/blu-ray by Drafthouse Films, has only recently has found a new audience. The finished result is every bit as crazy as it sounds. Seeing is believing.