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Cult Classics Revisited: ROAR (1981)


(US - 1981)

Directed by Noel Marshall. Written by Noel Marshall and Ted Cassidy. Cast: Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffith, Noel Marshall, John Marshall, Jerry Marshall, Kyalo Mativo, Frank Tom, Steve Miller, Rick Glassey, Will Hutchins, Zakes Mokae. (Unrated, 94 mins)

Films with the most noble of intentions sometimes turn out to be misbegotten train wrecks, but even by the standards of misbegotten train wrecks, few movies went as far off the rails as 1981's ROAR. Several years in the making, ROAR was a $17 million home movie/vanity project from one-time Hitchcock muse Tippi Hedren (THE BIRDS, MARNIE) and her second husband, agent and producer Noel Marshall. After working on two films back-to-back in South Africa--1970's SATAN'S HARVEST and 1971's MISTER KINGSTREET'S WAR--Hedren become a passionate advocate for wildlife preservation, founding the Acton, CA-based Shambala Preserve animal sanctuary with Marshall in 1972. As the couple's fascination with wildlife grew, they came up with an idea they were convinced was a game-changer: make a movie showing these wondrous creatures--lions, tigers, and other big cats, plus elephants and other animals--interacting with humans in a peaceful co-existence. Studios balked at the idea, telling Hedren and Marshall that pulling it off with convincing special effects and camera trickery would be impossible and the notion of professionally training real wild animals to work with actors would be insane. Undeterred, they opted to take the insane route.

Hedren and Marshall and their children from previous marriages--Hedren's teenage daughter Melanie Griffith and Marshall's teenage sons John and Jerry; another Marshall son, Joel, worked on the crew but isn't in the movie--decided to welcome wild animals into their Sherman Oaks home to domesticate them (their unusual living situation was the subject of a 1971 Life pictorial), eventually moving to a desert ranch when the pack of big cats got to be too much to handle and probably didn't win them any points with their neighbors. Marshall's logic was that if the cats got used to living with them, they'd be able to function on camera, working with humans in a narrative feature that also doubled as a heartfelt public service announcement for wildlife preservation. With first-time writer/director Marshall at the helm, with additional script contributions by THE ADDAMS FAMILY's Lurch and Marshall family friend Ted Cassidy, who died in 1979, ROAR began shooting on the Shambala Preserve in 1974 and wasn't completed until 1980. Funded independently, with a good chunk of the proceeds coming from Marshall's huge payday as the executive producer of THE EXORCIST, ROAR would eventually require Marshall and Hedren pouring almost all of their personal finances and selling off a good chunk of their possessions (including a house in Beverly Hills) to see it through to completion. The end result was such a doomed disaster that no Hollywood studio would touch it and it only got a sporadic release in Europe and the rest of the world in 1981 and into 1982 before disappearing, becoming one of those lost films that you heard things about but concluded "That has to be bullshit." No, it's not bullshit. ROAR, resurrected in spring 2015 by Drafthouse Films, is real. And it has to be seen to be believed.

Noel Marshall: Filmmaker. Dreamer. Dumbass.
Marshall and Hedren thought they'd be able to take somewhere in the vicinity of 150 lions, tigers, cheetahs, cougars, jaguars and a few elephants and turn them into trained actors. Needless to say, the animals didn't really care what was in the script and more or less improvised in the most ferocious manner imaginable and establishing themselves as cinema's most violent and terrifying scene-stealers. ROAR's ostensible plot deals wildlife researcher Hank (Marshall, an unbearably bad actor who looks like Sammy Hagar, sounds like a screechy Mitch Hedberg and is prone to breaking out into pop standards in his more reflective moments) living with nearly 150 big cats on a Kenyan reservation to prove they can exist peacefully with man. Hank is waiting for his family--wife Madalaine (Hedren), daughter Melanie (Griffith) and sons John and Jerry (John and Jerry Marshall)--to arrive from the States when he's pulled into a neighboring region to argue with some local council members (among them '60s TV actor Will Hutchins--presumably another family friend--and future veteran character actor Zakes Mokae) about the danger of his decision to live with wild animals. This is all a ploy to keep Marshall offscreen for large chunks of time so he can devote his energies to "directing" the actors, where he must focus less on the story and more on trying to contain a massacre. When the family arrives to find Hank nowhere in sight, they're immediately beset by an onslaught of wild animals for pretty much the rest of the film, which Marshall is forced to make the main plot because he has no trainers on the set and no way to control his animal cast. The cats force their way through doors and walls and chase them through the house as Hedren, Griffith, and the Marshall sons run around screaming, obviously in fear for their lives and in complete denial that their experiment is backfiring. What's supposed to be a pleasant, family-friendly movie about humans and wildlife living in harmony almost instantly devolves into something that resembles a Disney home invasion horror film with animals run amok. Hedren and the kids start looking less like actors and more like prisoners being held against their will, with Griffith being mauled by a lion on camera at one point, crying real tears and screaming "Mom! Help!" as Hedren yanks on the lion's tail (!) in an attempt to get it off of her daughter. And yes, Marshall left it in the movie. One suspects Griffith and the Marshall sons used their real first names for their characters to make it easier for Hedren (who's just "Mom") during the many times she's freaking out and screaming for their assistance.

Tippi Hedren trying to intervene in
the mauling of her daughter Melanie Griffith
The mauling required 50 stitches and reconstructive surgery on young Griffith's face, and that was only one of 70 (!) cast and crew injuries over the six-year production. Marshall, who enthusiastically jumps into the middle of a multi-lion fight and seems blithely unaware that his and a film crew's presence in confined quarters might be what's agitating them, is bitten on his left hand and bleeds profusely after thinking he can reason with an enraged lion. He also had wounds so extensive near the end of shooting that he developed gangrene in his leg. Hedren was trampled by lions and broke her leg after being thrown by an elephant. The worst injury was reserved for cinematographer Jan De Bont, later the director of SPEED (1994) and TWISTER (1996), who was attacked by a lion and had the back of his scalp ripped off, requiring over 200 stitches. Although a snuff remake of BORN FREE seems ready to break out at any given moment, there were no fatalities on the set, unless you count Hedren and Marshall's marriage, which ended in divorce in 1984.

Future SPEED director Jan De Bont
after having his scalp
stitched back on.
Like any movie shot over a period of several years, the stitches--no pun intended--are bound to show. Griffith looks noticeably older at times, often in the same scene (such as the ending shots of her mauling once the lion is off of her, which were obviously shot much later than the rest of the sequence). Marshall's beard changes length and his hair is grayer from scene to scene. When someone is injured, the scene ends with a clumsy insert shot of them that's obviously months, if not years later. There's tone-deaf attempts at humor, clearly assembled in post, as when the terrified cast huddles in a corner of the house away from the lions, who bring in a carcass to tear apart and devour as an off-camera Hedren's voice quips "Look what the cat dragged in!" And it all culminates in a ridiculous happy ending, with the horrific, incessant animal attack brought to an abrupt end as everyone who spent the last 90 minutes (or six years) fearing for their lives now laughs and frolics with the cats in a feel-good montage, completely oblivious to the fact that 95% of the movie proves their thesis completely wrong. The American Humane Society may have been keeping an eye on the safety of the animals, but was anyone concerned about the actors? Made with the kind of myopic, self-delusional, and misguided tunnelvision that defies any sense of storytelling logic or basic regard for human safety, ROAR is one of the most irresponsible films this side of an Italian cannibal epic, with Marshall (who died of brain cancer in 2010) looking like a hapless buffoon early on and an unethical sadist by the end. Hedren and Griffith have distanced themselves from ROAR, whose dubious legacy is now being shepherded by John Marshall, perhaps more out of love for his late father than any fond remembrances of the years spent making it. The 85-year-old Hedren remains a passionate figure in the world of wildlife preservation and still runs the Shambala Preserve, her work there far more noble than the woefully ill-advised--albeit incredibly fascinating--grease fire that is ROAR.

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