Year: 1981
Production Co: American Filmworks
Director: Noel Marshall
Producer: Tippi Hedren
Writer: Noel Marshall/Ted Cassidy
Cast: Noel Marshall, Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffith

After shooting a movie called Satan's Harvest in Mozambique, Hollywood royalty Tippi Hedren fell in love with the conservation issues facing iconic African big cats. A particular image that stuck with her was of an abandoned ranch house where lions had taken up residence, lazing on the verandahs and jumping in and out of windows.

Hedren spawned a unique idea, used her money and influence to somehow get permission to house dozens of lions on a ranch north of Los Angeles and came across or thought up a story in which she could use her lions to raise awareness of their plight.

That's what I think led to this absolutely bizarre cultural artefact, and however much of the story, the script or even the idea was more Hedren's or her then-husband Noel Marshall (who divorced her soon after this film came out with a deafening thud), it's the very model of a movie where the production was far more interesting than anything on screen.

The story – such as it exists when director (Marshall) and editor (Jan de Bont) seemed more interesting in showcasing footage of big cats interacting with humans – is about a family of what appear to be scientists or conservationists in Africa. The husband/father Hank (Marshall) lives in a riverside mansion where his dozens of pets/study subject (lions, tigers, jaguars and more) roam free throughout the house and grounds.

His wife Madelaine (Hedren) and their kids (the real life Marshall/Hedren children, including Melanie Griffith as a whiny Valley girl teenager) are flying in to meet him. There's a land grant committee meeting at his house that want an end to his free-roaming animals and which he has to stand up to, and it delays him getting to the remote airstrip to meet his family.

Meanwhile they've already landed, and rather than wait for him they board a bus to the ranch instead. Though the movie doesn't show them crossing each other in opposite directions on the road, we're left with the comic hijinks of Hank riding through the night to meet them even though they're already on the way to the compound.

When they arrive they're besieged by flocks of barely-tame big cats who proceed to follow, stalk and trap them at various points throughout the house while Hank now tries to get back home because he knows his pets won't take to strangers much.

That entire story might have been an effective tale for a half hour sitcom, but Hedren, Marshall and everyone involved were so in love with the idea of using half-wild lions in a movie it's an editorial mess. Campy sequences of animals tormenting the family or Hank trying to break up dangerous-looking fisticuffs between members of the pride go on for way too long, no matter how arresting the images of lions trying to get a guy out of a sports locker or water barrel or swiping at each other with fangs bared are.

Even when it's over you're still not sure what you've watched. Plenty of descriptions call Roar a thriller or even a horror movie, and you can imagine everyone who worked on it feeling so (crew members filmed and worked from inside strategically placed cages), but the original poster calls it a comedy.

But whatever Roar is, it's ultimately quite boring, driven not by any narrative rigour but what a bunch of wild animals wanted to do while the crew followed them with cameras, resulting in long stretches of the same slapstick happening for way too long.

As the opening credits claim, everyone considered the animals to be directors as much as Marshall was because they went where they pleased and did what they wanted. While you're watching it you'll realise that's why lions make careers out of chasing down zebras instead of directing movies.

And if the editing and construction wasn't bad enough, the performances (especially by the beyond-amateur Marshall, who tips over into near-hysterics a few times) come across as barely more than play acting, nobody able to do much more while keeping one eye on costars who might decide to rip them limb from limb at any moment.

Speaking of which, the on-set injuries were so notorious even back when the film was coming out it was already billed as the most dangerous movie ever made. Almost every big name involved sustained some horrific injury, whether it was de Bont having his scalp literally lifted off his head by a bite, or the borderline-distressing scene that makes it into the final cut of a lion gripping a mouthful of Griffith's hair and pulling it towards her while she closes her eyes tight in pain and repeats 'no... no...'.

Other than that it was the very model of a troubled production. After filming commenced in 1976 it took 11 years to complete, various crews sitting around waiting for their well-fed stars to stop lazing around and actually do something worth watching. When they did you can see how dangerous the set would have been, Marshall right in amongst several angry rivals going at it with claws swishing and dust flying.

Sadly, the humans weren't the only victims. At one point a dam upstream broke and destroyed the equipment, the set and the park surrounding them. Many of the animals got loose in the melee and had to be hunted down and shot by the local sheriff's department.

And after all the work, delays and carnage, it didn't even get a theatrical release in the US until 2015, returning about a hundred grand from a $19m budget. The only place it did come out in 1981, in fact, was my home nation of Australia, and I remember the huge poster the size of an entire wall at Sydney's George Street Hoyts cinema complex while lining up to get into Mel Brooks' History of the World Part One very well.

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