Touted as “the most dangerous movie ever made,” taking 11 years of filming at the way-over-budget cost of $17 million (with the box-office return a mere fraction of that), 1981’s Roar seems like a film conceived and executed by well-intentioned animal loving people who were in way, way over their heads. It saw a tiny commercial release at the time of its completion, and it is returning to the cult film circuit through a re-release from Austin’s Drafthouse Films. It’s in Edmonton thanks to Dedfest (which is pairing Roar with the much more recent, lauded canine-revolt film White God), meaning it’s a rare chance to see a fascinating little trainwreck of a film, a connect-with-nature narrative burdened by a sense that what you’re seeing displayed is nature’s danger being teased out by human stupidity.
Writer/director Noel Marshall—who also stars alongside then-wife Tippi Hedren, known for her roles in Hitchcock’s The Birds and Marnie—dreamt up this tale of an African wild-cat preserve and its human stalwart Hank (Marshall), who contentedly lives among a pride of wild cats in a giant lodge. “What do you think you’re running? A country club for lions?” he’s asked at one point, and he pretty much is, given we never really see any signs of the research he’s apparently conducting, and the animals have free run of the place.
Hank’s human family comes to visit from Chicago, but he messes up their arrival time, and they show up at the house while he’s en route to get them, leaving them alone in with all of these wild cats, who, despite us knowing their relative clemency, the family treats as a horror story unfolding around them. Meanwhile, after an ominous granting committee’s check in on Hank’s experiment goes awry, two of its members decide to go back and kill the lions. Why murder the pride, when they presumably approved his project in the first place? Your guess is as good as any. Plotting doesn’t appear to have been Marshall’s strongest point.
No, his strength was foolhardy audacity in the face of nature’s sheer power. The movie’s massive cast of animals were untrained, and it shows: they do whatever they want on screen, including leaping all over their human counterparts, both play biting and maybe just regular-biting the terrified cast. The movie did receive the American Humane Association’s seal of approval in terms of animal treatment, but the same can’t be said for its human elements: go check Roar’s Wikipedia entry for a massive injury list—Marshall himself apparently suffered enough damage warrant a gangrene diagnosis. So when the human cast is acting afraid on screen, it isn’t much of an actorly stretch.
To its own intentions—a vague “save the animals” push—Roar is hackneyed and weak. As a film though, it’s oddly watchable, even if you factor out the very real human injuries and sorely lacking plot. There is something majestic to seeing so many massive cats prowling the screen, tearing through houses, fighting with each other, and showcasing their natural primal beauty. It’s Roar’s human side that’s lacking here, in underestimating, and then trying to shoehorn these animals into a fantasy narrative, something they did at their own peril.
Fri, Jun 12 (Midnight)
Directed by Noel Marshall
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
Originally Released: 1981