Roar | Noel Marshall | USA | 1981 | 102 min
Editor’s Note: This is the first contribution to Madison Film Forum from Emily Caulfield, a friend and colleague who currently lives in Durham, North Carolina. Welcome aboard, Emily! —James Kreul
Q: What’s scarier than Grizzly Man, more bizarre than Holy Mountain, and black and orange and red all over?
A: 1981’s Roar, directed by Noel Marshall and starring himself with his wife Tippi Hedren and their grown children, including Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith.
One part buddy road trip comedy (just add one tiger, shake to mix, and release), one part Funny Games-style “there’s someone in the house we didn’t expect to come home to” (hint: it’s a bunch of lions), and two parts totally bonkers, Marshall’s misguided attempt to spread the word about conservationism is Swiss Family Robinson meets Born Free, but it comes closer to Born Effing Crazy.
If you’re looking for a nuanced character study, pass—although Marshall’s cult leader-like crazy eyes, tattered clothing, 70s beard, and zero personal boundaries are their own kind of mesmerizing. But if you’re in the mood for a rip-roaring, throat-clutching, seemingly senseless jaunt through how not to make a movie, Roar is for you. This is not to say that the film is pointless; in fact, if you’re not dying to see it, you’ve got to rework your filmic priorities.
Ostensibly, the film is about the treatment of big cats, but a closer look reveals all kinds of Easter eggs, like how wonderfully, maniacally out of hand things can get when an actress and a producer fund an entire production on their own over eleven years, or what a shot looks like when a mauling victim is operating the camera, or the fact that the only actor we recognize is Zakes Mokae, the wild card who played the soul-stealing Peytraud in Wes Craven’s similarly nightmarish romp, The Serpent and The Rainbow.
From the opening shot of Noel Marshall riding dirty on his motorbike through grasslands and spooking confused giraffes and panicked wildebeests, you know you’re in for some kind of wild time. And then, the lions. The lions! It’s called ROAR. In 1971, Hedren told Life magazine how fun the lions were to play with in the pool of their Los Angeles home. But you still won’t be prepared for them. The movie, in this way, is revolutionary. It moved me in a totally unexpected way, and what is art if not moving?
One amazing aspect of the film is how casual the dialogue is, despite the fact that what looks like fifty lions are hungrily pacing inches away from Marshall’s family, including his grown sons John and Jerry. (The movie family is fictional, but John, Jerry, and Melanie retain their first names.) In one instance, after a particularly close call, John and Tippi look for Jerry, who’s hidden himself away from the cats as they tear up the house. Jerry is in an ice box, which I remember from grade school safety seminars is nowhere to play hide and seek. Old fridges can seal themselves up with you inside, and you can suffocate, we were always warned. But that’s what we heard when we were goofing off, with plenty of other safe places to play, not when there’s a billion lions sniffing you out. Anyway, they find poor Jerry and brother John asks, “What kind of a jerk would hide himself in an icebox?” Like no BFD, just another day, just another chance to razz his little bro. But perhaps someone should have asked his father, “What kind of jerk invites his wife and kids to stay the weekend in a house full of loose cannon lions?”
The lions really do seem…off. These aren’t the majestic prides of Attenborough, or even the feisty felines we know from Disney’s True-Life Adventures. In her book The Cats of Shambala (1985), Hedren explains that the big cats were a ragbag team of teeth and nails sourced from all over: unwanted cubs from circuses and animal control; mistreated and captive cats from pet shops and zoos. At Shambala, a nature preserve north of Los Angeles that Hedren and Marshall founded for the film, they collected all kinds of cats whom they saw fit to give a better life. But in Roar, it seems these cats still have an axe to grind.
Obviously unfettered by issues like story and structure, Marshall is free to explore what kind of camera movement best expresses real terror, or editing effects that are so discombobulating and unexpected that one walks away as if from a dream—a dream fueled by what I can only guess is spicy jalapeno burritos and, I don’t know, cheetah meat.
There are sequences as scary as anything you felt this first time you saw Romero’s Night of The Living Dead and then had to bike home in the dark. The beasts’ relentless, expressionless attempts to get into the house as Tippi and Co. run around shutting doors and windows are not unlike the zombies’ bum-rushing Ben and Barbara as they seek refuge from the undead, and they are one hundred percent as frightening. And yet, on some level, bone-tickling funny too. The scenarios are just insane, provoking something between a yelp and guffaw. It’s utterly unbelievable but here they are, lions in the window.
The film is peppered with gloriously bizarre moments, an effect of Marshall’s somewhat loose “script” (the cats share the writing credits, unsurprisingly—just when will lions understand story structure?!) and the actors’ total inability to act in the face of forty terrifying and untrained big cats. Marshall repeatedly breaks up fights between the lions and tigers by running into the melees and shouting like he’s come completely unhinged. And then there’s the elephant who goes totally ham on Tippi’s johnboat for no reason, the most aggro pachyderm I’ve seen since Mrs. Jumbo flips out on that kid who tweaked Dumbo’s ears.
I loved this film. It’s late 70s deluded Hollywood lunacy at its finest. It’s unintentionally funny, and unintentionally terrifying, capable of shocking even the most experienced, most hardened cinephiles. You think you know exactly what this movie is all about, but then you watch, rapt, with your mouth hanging open wider than a lion’s, a distant roaring growing louder in your ears.