Film: Roar (1981)

June 18, 2015 | By


Roar_DrafthouseFilms_poster_ssFilm: Weak

Transfer:  n/a

Extras: n/a

Label: n/a

Region: n/a

Released:  n/a

Genre:  Adventure / Drama / Comedy / Eco-Thriller

Synopsis: Unbeknownst to a big cat researcher, his estranged family has already arrived at their new African homestead, and are swarmed by 30+ big cats, elephants, and poachers.

Special Features:  n/a




What is… Roar.

The backstory of what some critic dubbed ‘the most expensive home movie ever made’ is truly fascinating, and a striking example of obsession, perseverance, and insanity. Ultimately costing $17 million, this extremely earnest effort to bring the issue of the rapid decimation of big cat populations in Africa to the masses took 11 years to finally gain both completion and release, after which it more or less disappeared from view, becoming an orphan film, and a footnote among its kin in the Medved Brothers’ Hollywood Hall of Shame where the brotherly authors which dissected bloated epics with qualitative issues for connoisseurs of bad cinema.

Time has been somewhat kinder to the film, and its message has become tragically more relevant, especially since the northern white rhino species will be imminently extinct. The poaching and mutilation of beautiful animals, especially for horns with zero curative benefits and aphrodisiac effects makes it not so easy to fully dismiss some of the film’s sermonizing moments and songs, but then that’s one aspect that makes this oddity so weirdly compelling.

When actress Tippi Hedren (The Birds, Marnie) and husband Noel Marshall (executive producer of The Exorcist) stumbled upon an abandoned Portuguese house filled with lions during a trip to Africa (possibly during the film of 1970’s Satan’s Harvest), the couple thought there might be a film story that could work as both family entertainment and a not-so stealth container for animal conservation. It took years before the concept was worked into a screenplay, and the couple and their family, which included a young Melanie Griffith, could finally produce and star in such a venture.

Roar became a family project on an insanely ambitious scale, with location shooting among the Massai in Africa, and the slow erection of a big cat sanctuary in California where abandoned cubs were reared to be more comfortable among humans (i.e., not eat people). In the short but entertaining 2002 making-of doc that accompanies the 2005 German DVD release of Roar, Hedren describes how experts felt the couple were crazy to combine lions, tigers, panthers, and jaguars in one location, but their careful rearing and direct interaction with the cats paid off in the sense that they had both one of the most impressive big cat sanctuaries in the U.S., and an incredible cast.

The disclaimer within the Main Titles sounds amusing – writing and directorial credit is shared with the cats ‘because it’s only proper’ – but it also reflects the painful truth that you can really train a big cat to act on cue; you have to wait, roll several cameras, and hope you capture what’s needed for a sequence.

Marshall and Ted Cassidy’s script is very wonky, and perhaps one of the reasons the film relies on lengthy in-house chase montages is due to the absolutely terrible dialogue that fails to establish any deep characters.


What is… a Family Film… Kinda.

In a nutshell, Madeleine (Hedren), daughter Melanie (Melanie Griffith), and sons John and Jerry (actual sons using actual names) are heading to the compound of husband / father Hank (Marshall) after a long separation in the hope that whatever caused the family’s fracturing has since healed.

Hank is so overwhelmed by his big cat population – feeding, playing, wrangling, keeping a rogue cat named Togar at bay – and cleaning up the house that he misses their arrival; in fact, he knows they’re coming to the house, but has no idea when or by what mode of transportation. His delay in meeting them at the airport has the quartet head out early to the house, while Hank and his assistant Mativo (Kyalo Mativo) head to the airport, ensuring neither party will see the other until the very end.

When the family reaches the compound, they initially find a neat abode, but the big cats soon appear and force each family member to hide in any corner, barrel, closet, or pocket to avoid being eaten.

When Hank realizes they’ve probably arrived at the compound, he heads back, unaware that a pair of recently mauled community members have taken their frustration with Hank’s unconventional study plan – living with what seems like 20-30 big cats under one roof – and decided to shoot the cats, and claim the nicest pelts for profit.

Everything sort of comes to a head when the hunters are intercepted, Hank is reunited with the family, and the family realizes the big cats are really just friendly and want hugs.

The entire film wraps up with a Message song and a long montage where major screen time is devoted to showing how swell the family has integrated themselves with the cats, and everyone is living, playing, and sleeping under one roof in perfect harmony.


Different Versions: Credits, Scenes, and Running Time

Roar1981_R2_sIn the original English language version (presented on the German DVD in a non-anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer sourced from an old static-laden U-matic tape), the End Credits crawl slowly, urging audiences to avoid supporting any products or ventures made from or at the expense of African big cats and elephants, and shaming the ignorant while a syrupy song plays.

In the restored 2015 version, the montage and music play clean – an absolutely interminable moment – and the End Credits come afterwards, appearing over black while a reggae-styled song plays. The German dub version, presented as cropped to 1.66:1 non-anamorphic with sides chopped off on the DVD, lacks the End Credits

Roar_DrafthouseFilms_poster_ssThe running times also vary, due in part to the end credits missing on the German version and the NTSC to PAL speed-up. However, the German version runs 89 mins., whereas the English version runs 84 mins., which may be due to some scene extensions present in the former. There’s a longer exchange in the German version in which Madeleine admits to the kids after landing that she’s unsure whether she told Hank their arrival time in South African or Chicago time – a scene some buyers on also raise in their comments about missing material.

(I don’t remember whether the scene was present in the 2015 version, which is timed at 102 mins. That running time, however, is due to the end credits following after the song / happy ending montage, which likely makes the 2015 version closer to 98 mins.)

Additionally, there are two German Blu-ray editions of the film where the running time is stated as 95 mins. and the set includes a CD soundtrack album. Buyer reviews at claim the set is pretty much a dupe of the same non-anamorphic 1.66:1 master used by MIB for the 2006 DVD.

Whereas the German DVD is mono, the 2015 theatrical release has a relatively minimal stereo mix, making one presume the original Dolby mix was fairly tame.


What is not… a ferocious comedy.

The big question is whether Roar actually works as a film, a message picture, or even a cult film, living up to its reputation as the ultimate big cat movie, and the answer lies somewhere in between.

If the earnest material – the message songs and screen text – is set aside, what Marshall and Hedren produced is a wildly uneven work that is part family film with cute animal moments and tender interaction; part big cat thriller for adults; and something amateurish in the narrative department, if not clumsy, because the tonal differences, especially in the editing, often have the film snapping from one type of film to another.

A case in point is a rare outstanding sequence where Madeleine and the kids regroup and hurry through the enormous house as the cats literally tear their way into rooms, barrels, and closets. It’s the closest thing to an eco-thriller with grinding drum music and synths that ratchet higher and thicker as the cats leave little safety for the family.

Subsequent cutaways involve the jokey relationship between Hank and his assistant Mativo as they try to reach the family by bicycle, by boat, and then by borrowed car with two huge tigers in tow. The humour’s passable, but these lighthearted moments also smash against scenes where the two hunters kill an increasingly greater degree of cats as they approach Hank’s compound and vulnerable family. The scenes may have worked on paper, but the way they’re cut, there are 2-3 different films clashing with each other before the movie’s resolution literally has the family realizing the cats have always been big friendly pussycats, and as Hank tells them, really just want hugs.

The other peculiar discord lies in the volume of cats: seeing so many doesn’t actually make the drama more intense; it actually comes off as overkill, whereas the tighter, leaner scenes with less cats are more effective. The need for so many probably stemmed from overcompensating or just rearing more than required for the film, and there’s a feeling many of the house scenes where the family runs, is separated, regroups, splinters, hides, escapes the house, returns, hide, separate and regroup are so prolonged because the production shot so much and realized by reducing the montages, what remained were almost perfunctory dialogue scenes with Hank and separate scenes with the hunters, neither of which would push the film close to the 100 min. mark.

Marshall’s acting is broard and raspy, delivering lines and chunks of the cats’ behavioral traits at the film’s beginning in weird spastic chunks, and it’s completely illogical that the family would sway from being utterly terrified to feeling all sleepy, and soon acclimatizing to the cats just as Hank arrives. All the horror and near-death experiences aren’t forgiven – they’re erased, as though the whole family flipped the amnesia switch. Any distemper has been reduced to an ‘Oh YOU!’ from Madeleine, which works in a G-rated family film, but Roar has some seriously intense moments.

When the poachers are killed by the big cats, Hank tells Mativo not to tell the family just yet, “because it’ll spoil our reunion,” which means two dead guys (“Oh… you poor stupid jerks!” laments Hank) will likely lie there for a while and provide further carrion for big bad Togar. The bloody demise of poachers is immediately followed by the quirky sequence where the family wakes up in a guest house with the big cats, and Terence P. Minogue’s orchestral music once again reflects a much lighter, cheekier tone – an indication that Marshall didn’t fully grasp the wonky impact of switching from animal cruelty and human tragedy to something overtly quirky.

Then there’s real blood spilled by the actors during filming. There’s a reason anyone involved with this production should wear the experience like a badge of honor. Never mind the near-death, skull-crunch close-calls: Roar is filled with some truly extraordinary footage shot by Jan de Bont. Paul Verhoeven’s former ace cinematographer (Turkish Delight, Katie Tippel) probably grew from an experienced DOP to great cinematographer during the entire time he stuck with the production, and the action scenes undoubtedly helped him tackle action films in his triumphs like Die Hard (1988).

Equal credit is due to the team of editors (over which de Bont and Jerry Marshall supervised). How the heck everyone managed to take hours of footage and craft coherent scenes is a wonder. After 11 years, there clearly were enough money shots, but to choreograph them so well in certain scenes is almost a miracle. Roar doesn’t work as a smooth filmic experience, but there are scenes that no one could ever replicate again with humans and big cats. The only way any actors – especially teens – could’ve performed so close to the cats was if they had reared them from birth.

The orchestral score by Minogue matches the film’s lighter scenes, but additional drum cues by percussionist Alexander Lepak were written to enhance the virtually dialogue-free eco-thriller sequence. That music is a perfect marriage with the edited rampage footage, but it also contributes to that sequence being tonally at odds with the G-rated scenes.

(On a separate page, I’ve posted scans from what’s apparently the film’s Australian promotion campaign. Positive pull-quotes are combined with stills, and the film was re-branded as “Roar… a ferocious comedy,” proving the publicist, or perhaps Marshall and Hedren, ultimately settled on what kind of genre their film should be branded.)

Veteran composer Dominic Frontiere (The Invaders) composed a separate theme for the ‘outsider’ lion Togar, and his involvement may stem from director Richard Rush, whose son Tony Rush served as camera assistant. Richard Rush had struggled to complete his own epic, The Stunt Man (1980), which Frontiere scored, and the elder Rush appears in the German DVD’s making-of featurette as a kind of production witness / friend of the family.

Roar is slated for a fall 2015 release on Blu-ray, but those curious in experiencing this deeply flawed oddity on the big screen should check out limited theatrical screenings, as Olive Films and Drafthouse Films are giving Hedren and Marshall’s epic something it apparently never enjoyed on home soil: a careful theatrical release.


Career Postscripts

Marshall and Hedren divorced about a year after the film’s completion, and the pair’s prior collaborations as producer / star include Mister Kingstreet’s War (1971) and The Harrad Experiment (1973) which also co-starred Melanie Griffith.

Actor Ted Cassidy (Lurch in TV’s The Addams Family) also co-wrote Harrad Experiment, as is credited for ‘additional script material’ in Roar.

Hedren ultimately penned her 1986 autobiography The Cats of Shambala which chronicled the incredible making of Roar and the successful running of Shambala, her big cat sanctuary. Both the DVD, a separate making-of DVD, the soundtrack CD, and Hedren’s book were available online around 2005.

It’ll be interesting to see exactly what kind of extras Olive Films and Drafthouse Films will produce, but I’m hoping for a solid mix of archival and new extras, and an isolated stereo score track, given the album is lacking the drum / synth tracks used in the final film mix.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogRare Publicity PapIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album  — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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