Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s Pets Week here at The A.V. Club, so we’re recommending movies about the sometimes sweet, sometimes weird, always meaningful relationship between people and animals.
Besides an argument against the private ownership of wild animals, Roar is an object lesson in what happens when you give one person entirely too much money. Inspired by the lions he and his wife, actress Tippi Hedren, encountered while shooting in Africa, producer Noel Marshall began collecting big cats (it was the early ’70s, things were different then), eventually acquiring so many that his family was forced to move from Beverly Hills to a ranch 40 miles north of Los Angeles. There, they raised their children—including Hedren’s daughter, Melanie Griffith—among lions and tigers, which they treated like oversized house cats. The whole thing was documented in a 1971 Life magazine spread, but that was before things got really bizarre. That was before The Exorcist.
Marshall’s dream was to produce a movie starring his big happy family of deadly predators, a film that would raise awareness on the overhunting of big cats in the wild. As an established Hollywood producer, Marshall was initially able to secure funding for his passion project. But after the first few rounds of bloody maulings (more on that later), Marshall’s financiers pulled out of the production. That would have been the end of Roar, were Marshall not flush with cash from another of his recent projects, executive producing The Exorcist. Left without any other options, the couple began funneling all that pea-soup money into what had become Marshall’s singular obsession, a production that ballooned from a six-month, $3 million shoot to an 11-year, $17 million ordeal.
The main reason production took so long is that virtually every member of the cast and crew suffered animal-related injuries during the production—more than 70 attacks total—necessitating frequent stops. Cinematographer Jan De Bont (who would go on to direct Speed and Twister) was scalped by a lion, and needed over 120 stitches on his head; Griffith was mauled, an attack that required facial reconstructive surgery and, shockingly, can be seen in the final cut of the movie; Marshall was bitten so many times he was hospitalized for gangrene. A flood washed away the set, temporarily loosing 28 wild cats into the California countryside. Crew members began whispering that Roar had absorbed “the curse of The Exorcist” by association.
Watching the film, which was finally finished in 1981, the most unbelievable part of all this is that no one was killed. Actors deliver nervous, halting dialogue, unable to hide their growing panic as the 300-pound cats approach. Scenes are derailed completely when—to give one example—a group of lions decide to board a boat piloted by co-star (and Noel’s son) John Marshall, flipping the vessel and scaring the shit out of several extras in the process. (Roar follows an extremely loose narrative, which seems to have been dictated by the whims of the animals. As the original 1981 press notes put it, “Marshall realized that the lions were in effect writing and directing the film in their own way.”) The house is overrun with the animals, who swarm like rats over every surface imaginable. There is real blood, both human and animal. The smell must have been incredible.
Amid all this chaos, Marshall bounds and bellows across the screen, a crazed glint in his eye as he’s pursued by lions “playfully” batting at his face and legs with their giant paws. He’s clearly having a great time, seemingly oblivious to the mortal danger into which he’s put himself (and his family) as he’s tackled to the ground by his wild “pets.” The other family members still seem to have a healthy sense of fear of the cats—much of the plot revolves around them trying to escape the animals’ clutches by hiding in cabinets and refrigerators—but play along gamely, laughing off their injuries with a self-effacing, “I should have known better.” “Lions are a really tough act to play with,” Griffith is quoted as saying. “Not because they are dangerous, but because they are so funny. They upstage you every time.”
The 1981 press notes for Roar hail it as a “triumph,” a family adventure, and “a kind of Airplane! of the jungle.” It is none of those things. What it is is an accidental suspense thriller, an aborted snuff film driven by primal terror for the majority of its running time until taking a jaw-dropping turn towards Swiss Family Robinson-style eco-harmony toward the end. It could never be made today, and there will probably never be another film like it again. That alone makes it a must-see.
Availability: Roar will debut on VOD at 7 PM ET on April 15, 2020 as part of the Virtual Cinema program, benefitting arthouse theaters shuttered during the COVID-19 crisis.