by Tom Kapr
Wherein I attempt to watch one new-to-me horror film every day of October till Halloween and write a quick review. I will end my review with a letter grade like we do on our podcast (A, B, C, D, or F–pluses and minuses are for the non-committal!) and with the movie’s rank on my Flickchart.
Written & directed by Noel Marshall. Produced by Marshall & Tippi Hedren. (Pretty much made by the entire Marshall clan.)
Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren were married animal rights activists, and man, are their home movies weird. Seriously though, there is something Tommy Wiseau-level crazy about Noel Marshall in the making of Roar. He spends nearly every second of his screen time ranting like a mad scientist about how misunderstood and harmless big cats are, while the hundred or so–I just said “hundred” and I’m not being hyperbolic–of big cats (lions, tigers, panthers, cougars, jaguars, cheetahs) spend every second of their screen time (and they get the most, by far) pretty much sealing the opposition argument.
And now it’s time for me to regurgitate some stuff I read, because for a film like this, you just have to. It took eleven years to make and cost something like $17 million to produce, but was released only in Europe and pulled in around $2 million. It only saw its U.S. release finally in 2015 because the wonderful Drafthouse Films financed a restoration and re-release (much like they did with other bonkers obscurities like 1979’s The Visitor and 1987’s Miami Connection). The new tagline reads, “No animals were harmed in the making of this film. 70 cast and crew members were.”
First of all, the assertion that no animals were harmed is total hogwash. Even if it weren’t for the fact that several lions (including the “hero” king) died in a flood (admittedly not the fault of the production), there is no way you’ll get me to believe that not a single cat was injured on this set. This production was one of unconscionable recklessness, especially considering Marshall and Hedren’s own children were among the 70 injured humans. And 70 seems, from some accounts, including Hedren’s, a conservative estimate. Hedren’s own daughter Melanie Griffith almost lost an eye and had to get 50 stitches and plastic surgery to her face. Noel’s son John Marshall got 56 stitches. The assistant director had his throat bitten open. Marshall himself got attacked so often he developed gangrene and took years to recover. Cinematographer Jan de Bont got freaking scalped by a lion and needed over 200 stitches. (And, oh yeah, Marshall and Hedren divorced soon after the film was released, so you can probably chalk that marriage up to one of the film’s casualties.)
Yet, for a film that is, objectively, one of of the most batshit insane movies ever made, it’s really pretty boring. The plot is, Marshall plays a guy (basically himself, I imagine) who keeps a sanctuary somewhere in Africa for big cats and some elephants. There’s a bunch of locals who think the cats are a danger. Their one expedition to the compound proves them right, but hey, they walked into it with hostility. Marshall waxes crazy about how not-dangerous the cats are while simultaneously trying to keep all the blood from pouring out of the bite wound to his hand. His wife and children are on their way to visit this, to put it mildly, unpredictable situation, so of course he doesn’t communicate with them about when he’s picking them up, they arrive at his place while he’s out looking for them, and the hundred or so cats swarm them. But even then, when things should be suspenseful, most of the time is spent watching massive predators acting like big versions of house cats and Marshall’s family acting like total idiots.
It’s actually not really a horror film. There is one rogue lion who wants to attack everything and everyone and there are a pair of disgusting trophy hunters who massacre a bunch of cats. But most of this is played like light comedy, right down to the slapsticky soundtrack. Tonally speaking, it’s all over the map. Between the amateurish filmmaking and the cuckoo bananas premise, this film is a feature-length exercise in idiocy, that is far more fascinating behind the scenes than on the screen, and that has one of the most asinine plot resolutions I’ve ever witnessed.
Roar, in terms of what we actually get to see in the movie, has two distinct saving graces: the cats themselves, who display much more charisma than the human characters; and the cinematography. Jan de Bont (who returned to the production after almost literally losing his head) would go on to shoot such films as Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October and then himself take the director’s chair on Speed and Twister. (He also directed the ludicrous Speed 2: Cruise Control, the terrible 1999 remake of The Haunting, and the somehow-worse-than-the-first sequel to Lara Croft Tomb Raider–but let’s focus on the good the man has done.) The scenery and the animals look beautiful in this film, with some really interesting camera work. But that good is only just good enough to keep it from being a total miserable failure.
Final grade: D
My Flickchart ranking: #2634 (out of 3269, a relative 19/100)