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The Moviegoer: Noel Marshall's 'Roar': Lions, and Tigers, and... Panthers! Oh My!

Every once in a while, a filmmaker comes along who succeeds at creating cinematic alchemy: he or she makes a film that is essentially dross, but for whatever reason, it turns into gold. It becomes a magical viewing experience. Or more simply, it’s a film that is so bad, it is actually good. Now, there are a lot of bad films out there. The highway to movie heaven is littered with the wreckage of bad ideas made even worse once they were actually captured on film. Examples include Howard the Duck, Glitter, and Highlander 2: The Quickening. These films—and others of their ilk—are unwatchable. There is no saving grace, no performance, no strange plot twist that makes them worthwhile to at least hang on until the bitter end.

But occasionally, a film is released that defies expectations. Yes, it’s terrible. But for some reason, your eyes are glued to the screen. You can’t stop watching it! Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls are examples of this rare breed. Just recently, a 1981 film was released on DVD that I would include in the pantheon of “Great Bad Movies.” The film is called Roar, and it was directed by Noel Marshall. Marshall was the executive producer of The Exorcist, and in 1972 he bought Africa USA, a Hollywood animal compound with his wife Tippi Hedren (The Birds, Marnie, etc.) He wrote a screenplay for Roar and over the next several years, they filmed the movie at their Hollywood animal sanctuary.

In the film, Marshall plays Hank, a scientist living in Africa, who wants to see if different types of big cats can live in the same environment, so he stocks his compound with over 100 lions, tigers, cheetahs, jaguars, leopards and cougars. His wife, played by real wife Tippi Hedren, arrives with their three children (played by Marshall’s two sons and Tippi’s teen-aged daughter Melanie Griffith) to visit him. Unfortunately, Hank forgets what time they are supposed to arrive, and they take a bus to his compound while he heads off to the airport to meet them. Needless to say, they arrive at an empty house—empty except for the hundred or so big cats who are prowling around. They panic and try to fend off the cats until Hank can return and show them that the cats aren’t really dangerous. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the rickety, bare-bones story upon which this remarkable film hangs.

But that is of no importance. For you are not watching the film because of the plot. You are watching it to see cats raising up and putting their paws in people’s faces, or “playfully” putting people’s heads in their mouths, or periodically rear up and start fighting each other, and then watch Hank—remarkably—insert himself into the middle of the scuffle trying to break them up. At one point, Hank breaks up a fight and he walks away with his hands streaming blood. That injury was probably one of the least serious mishaps that occurred on set. All told, 70 cast and crew members were injured during the filming, including Tippi Hedren (a fractured leg caused by being thrown from the back of an elephant), Melanie Griffith (bites that caused her to have facial reconstructive surgery), Noel Marshall (so many puncture wounds that he developed gangrene), assistant director Doron Kauper (throat bitten open and an ear almost ripped off), and cinematographer Jan de Bont (scalped by a lion, requiring 220 stitches to reattach it).

Needless to say, this film would never be able to be made today (and that’s probably a good thing). But luckily for us (if not for the cast and crew), it was made; and just like watching a train wreck or a roadside accident, you can’t keep your eyes off of it.

Watch the trailer and then check it out from the library.

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