Here is a sentence every movie critic yearns to write one day: You have never, ever seen a movie like Roar. Made over a period of eight years (eleven if you throw in writing and development) at a cost of $17 million and released in 1981 to an uncaring public, the movie has remained an elusive cult item, with out-of-print DVD copies fetching high prices on Amazon and eBay. Despite its notoriety among film buffs, few had been able to see Roar in its full, gaudy glory until now, thanks to a re-release by the Texas-based specialty distributor Drafthouse Films.
And unlike many movies most people have read about but have never seen, Roar lives up to its nutty reputation. The idea for the film was born after Tippi Hedren (who had previously been mauled by mother nature in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds) and her husband, film producer Noel Marshall (The Exorcist), adopted a lion, because that’s the sort of thing crazy-rich people who don’t know how else to spend their money often do. Eventually, their personal managerie would grow to include more than 100 lions,tigers, cougars, panthers and jaguars (they never managed to wrangle up a liger, but they were able to score a tigon).
If that sounds insane, wait until you see the movie. The opening credits for Roar include a huge seal of approval by the American Humane Society, to put you at ease about the possibility of any animal having been mistreated (the same cannot be said for the human members of the cast). After listing the film’s main stars, which included Melanie Griffith, Hedren’s daughter from another marriage, the credits also feature “Robbie as Robbie” and “Togar as Togar,” a tip of the hat to two of the main lions in the movie, even though since they were untrained and feral, their performances could hardly be called acting.
Instead, the filmmakers shot around the animals’ unpredictable actions and pasted the footage together into a threadbare story about an attack by wild beasts on a home (Jan de Bont, who would go on to direct Speed and Twister, was the cinematographer). The result is a hysterically bad, awful movie replete with gasp-inducing attacks by enormous cats on people. During the filming, de Bont was scalped and required 120 stitches. Griffith was mauled and required plastic surgery. Hedren broke a leg when she fell off an elephant, then was later bitten on the head by a lioness (that shot made it into the final cut).
Other disasters ensued, including a calamitous flood that washed away the set, many reels of finished film and several lions. The biggest catastrophe, however, awaited at the box office. Yes, Roar was a momentous flop, a disaster so big most people have never even heard of it. But today, you can see it for yourself and bask in all its epic lunacy.
Cast: Tippi Hedren, Noel Marshall, Melanie Griffith, John Marshall.
Writer-director: Noel Marshall.
A Drafthouse Films release. Running time: 102 minutes. Realistic animal attacks (because they are 100 percent real!) and cheap-looking gore. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.