No matter what you may have read or heard about Melanie Griffith’s childhood, during which she was raised with full grown lions (see: plural) living in her Sherman Oaks home, nothing can really prepare you for a viewing of “Roar,” the passion project of her parents, Tippi Hedren and Noel Marshall, which will make you reel in horror of what Melanie Griffith’s adolescence must have really been like. The film’s storied production is one of jaw-dropping terror: An eleven-year ordeal that left Griffith nearly disfigured, her two brothers brutally mauled, Hedren nearly paralyzed, Marshall diagnosed with gangrene, an assistant director with a slashed throat, and director of photography Jan de Bont, almost fatally scalped, a humorless injury that he later quipped as a side effect of, “the only production I almost lost my head over.” Over 70 cast and crew injuries were recorded from the set, in which countless untrained lions, tigers, cheetahs, and elephants were used, and while this stat has solidified the film in a dignified place of Hollywood lore, the reality of the on-set danger – clearly expressed by Hedren’s quote atop this article – comes through on screen in a way that is truly unexpected.
In just about every way that this film could be labeled a trainwreck, the derring-do of each player in this production transforms “Roar” into a totally incomparable experience. It is at one time completely ludicrous and yet remarkably taut; tremendously suspenseful and well out of it’s fucking mind. While watching, you become highly aware that the livelihood of at least one person is extremely at risk in every single frame. Through this, coupled with the surprisingly tight editing and unbelievable camerawork, “Roar” pounces to life in a way that few traditional Hollywood films ever do. Seeing this film is a must-have theatrical experience, and one that I will not soon (if ever) forget.
For all intents and purposes, there is a loose, loose plot about a father (Marshall, a longtime Hollywood producer in his only acting role) who, while on a break with his wife, has been working in Africa as some kind of doctor/wildlife preserver/crazy lion lover multi-hyphenate. One day, his whole family decides to venture out to see him. However, when they arrive, Marshall’s involved in an ordeal with some aggressive poachers, which ends up occupying his afternoon and causing his family to decide to take a bus out his way. With no means of communication, the family doesn’t realize that while they are traveling one way, their father is eventually traveling in the opposite direction, unaware that they’ve found an alternative means of transportation. Therefore, when the family arrives at his house, they don’t find dad, instead they find all of dad’s lions and tigers and elephants (oh my!) that inadvertently terrorize the family for the film’s entirety.
Generally characterized as an “adventure thriller,” “Roar” leans closer to real-life horror. A far cry from Indiana Jones, “The Grey,” “The Edge” or any other kind of man vs. beast/man vs. nature ordeal, this isn’t a film that has a deeply involving moral (though you could argue it’s intention was to shine a light on the unspeakable crime of poaching) or even looks to just entertain on a surface level. This also isn’t a “Life of Pi,” – type where a computer-generated tiger is one of the film’s main characters. This is a movie where you watch real movie stars get chased, attacked, and viciously hurt by very real, and very dangerous animals that are acting on their own accord. This last point is emphasized at the start when a title card reveals that the animals share writing and directing credits. I kid you not. Safety precautions be damned! This is also a movie that in 100 minutes manages to exemplify what had to be the scariest Hollywood production of all time. Though I have no doubt that what we’re left to see is a minor fraction of what actually filming this thing must have been like, the reality of what this fearless cast and crew went through is still crystal clear, which thusly transcends conventional movie going. I was expecting to be laughing at the preposterousness of this movie, but I actually was in great awe of it. That inherent “this is only a movie” feeling is replaced by “this is fucking real!” and for a short while it’s hard to rationalize why a movie like this might be OK to have fun during, or even to laugh at. But that authenticity makes “Roar” utterly magnetizing. Have no mistake, this isn’t some broken shard of a movie, it’s a completed picture with a beginning, middle, and end; completely built from what was undoubtedly miles of film. That is an indisputable technical achievement, and when you bear witness to the tremendous set piece that is, more or less, the entire back two-thirds of the film, you’ll probably be as thankful for the film’s existence as you are that nobody died because of it.
Even if Hedren and Marshall are the demented masterminds behind this movie, it’s director of photography Jan de Bont and his five-person camera team that are the MVP’s. Supposedly filmed primarily from the “safety” of cages, the proximity between lens and beast is consistently staggering, and the fact that de Bont was able to execute a lot of phenomenal camerawork with so many unpredictable animals is a feat that will leave you speechless. In truth, there are some triumphantly showy and eye-widening tricks and flourishes that would even make James Wan foam at the mouth. There’s a sequence involving barrels, in particular, that is a real showstopper, immediately followed a scene where the evil lion, Togar (think Scar from “Lion King” with some red face paint), barrages through the house like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” And even generally speaking, the shots of the African landscapes are nothing short of exceptional; an opening panning shot that shows Marshall keeping pace with a gallivanting giraffe is at first very funny and then suddenly very impressive. De Bont would go on to shoot “Die Hard” and direct “Speed,” but “Roar,” of all films, was his first Hollywood feature, and given what a demanding job it had to have been, I have no problem saying it’s definitely his finest work.
Still, credit must be given to Hedren, Marshall, Griffith, and every other performer who agreed to be a part of “Roar.” Noted injuries aside, just in the context of the film, these actors are put through a physical ringer. This is a movie where every cast member at some point is hiding in a confined space that topples over – a bookcase, a locker, a refrigerator – and then all find themselves tossed off the roof of the house. Hedren and Griffith both find themselves actually thrown into the air by an elephant! Never really a fan of Hedren myself – who close to a decade before this was terrorized by more wildlife in Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” – and even less a fan of Griffith’s, this simply must be their finest hours only because they lived to tell the tale.
But was it all worth it? Was nearly dying, coming direly close to bankruptcy, putting tons of other lives in formidable danger, and putting everybody’s career on hold worth getting this film made? No, absolutely not. First and foremost, this movie is one of the most unspeakably awful demonstrations of parental irresponsibly ever put to celluloid. Hedren and Marshall practically sacrificed themselves to make this thing and when you take a step back and look at the result it’s impossible to condone that behavior. But it’s that complete absence of logic and full-throttled reckless abandon that make this wildlife curio such an amazing piece of work; the Marshalls and the Hedren’s have inadvertently, contrary to all original intentions, delivered the pinnacle of all existing real-life thrillers.
There have been audacious, groundbreaking, and endlessly fascinating Hollywood passion projects in the past that never got made – Kubrick’s “Napoleon,” Gilliam’s “Don Quixote,” hell, Wright’s “Ant-Man” – and others that did and have production histories equally as, if not more, absorbing as the films themselves. “Roar” is one that should be a part of the former, but beyond comprehensible belief is a part of the latter, to which I am so, so, so glad. There’s no complimentary dissection of the process like “A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” did for “Apocalypse Now,” or an extensive back-to-concept breakdown like last year’s “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” there’s just the finished product itself which history has luckily allowed to still exist in its full and finalized capacity. And over 30 years later, history has magically transformed something old and almost totally forgotten into something fresh and utterly one-of-a-kind.
I can’t recommend the “Roar” theatrical experience enough. It might appear in multiplexes fleetingly, but it might also become a midnight movie staple. Whatever the case, be on the lookout for it. This is no mindless action romp or some overlooked masterpiece, it’s a journey inside the creative agency of a prominent Hollywood family who did the most unconventional thing imaginable with their celebrity powers, and it’s just one hell of a ride, one that needs to be experienced with a ton of people who are just as curious about whatever the fuck this movie is as you are.
As part of a major re-release, Drafthouse Films has acquired “Roar,” which at the time of its completion in 1981 had escalated to a head-spinning $17 million budget (!!!) and was virtually already a cult classic before it even hit rock bottom at the box office. The film is currently touring the country – I got to check it out as part of Coolidge Corner’s ‘After Midnight’ selections in Boston – and will be getting a VOD, DVD, and even Blu-ray release within the next few months. Drafthouse Films founder, Tim League, is the kind of distribution head-honcho we adore, for he has perpetuated the reincarnation of so many DOA cinematic novelties allowing a whole new generation to experience films that just weren’t ready to be accepted in their times. I can totally see why an early 80’s audience would have no idea what to do with a film like “Roar,” but in an age where distribution strategies have become events of sorts, between streaming platforms and revival houses and 35mm/70mm projections and IMAX, etc, it’s finally time for this terrifying jungle adventure to get the kind of appreciation it deserves.
Come for the lions, stay for: a) Hollywood royalty getting brutishly mauled, b) incredible camerawork, c) absolute big-screen lunacy. D) All of the above…and more.
Review by Mike Murphy
Amazingly, due to popular demand, “Roar” will be playing as part of Coolidge Corner’s ‘After Midnight’ selections again THIS WEEKEND. Friday and Saturday night ONLY.