The history of Hollywood is filled with tales of catastrophic films, from those too awful to comprehend (Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space) to box-office disasters of epic proportions (Keanu Reeves samurai fantasy 47 Ronin lost an estimated $149 million). The best bad movies live on as objects of wonder and admiration among connoisseurs and often acquire a mythic status all their own. A true cinematic debacle rarely goes undetected for long. But few have heard the amazing story of director Noel Marshall’s 1981 Roar, arguably the most wrong-headed movie of all time and now rescued from needless obscurity by Austin, Texas-based distributor Drafthouse Films.
Marshall, who would soon hit it big as executive producer of The Exorcist, and his wife, actress Tippi Hedren (Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds), decided while on a trip to Africa that they wanted to make a narrative film about lions and other large cats. The film would spotlight overhunting and the inhumane treatment of these animals in captivity, and feature authentic human-big-cat interaction despite the obvious dangers. After learning that raising their own lion cubs was the safest way to pull this off, the couple’s family — which included Marshall’s sons John and Jerry Marshall and Hedren’s daughter, actress Melanie Griffith — started keeping not only lions but tigers, leopards, jaguars, and cheetahs in their Sherman Oaks, California home. Eventually they took their brood (which already numbered more than 100 wild animals) 40 miles north to their newly acquired ranch and a legal habitat for the big cats.
It was there that the Marshall-Hedren clan spent five years in the 1970s shooting Roar with themselves in the lead roles. It would take a total of 11 years to complete the film, which never got U.S. distribution despite its $17 million production cost. It’s not hard to see why: the film’s whisper-thin story involves research scientist Hank (Noel Marshall) studying big cats in Africa. His American family shows up on his doorstep but Hank has already departed for a distant town in hopes of finding them. What follows is more than 90 minutes of authentically life-threatening hijinks. The cats injured more than 70 cast and crewmembers during the shoot — often seriously — including each member of the Marshall-Hedren family. Hedren and Griffith have both declined to participate in promoting Roar’s re-release.
As crazy as it was, Roar makes good on the promise of a true visual spectacle. Cinematographer Jan de Bont (who would go on to shoot movies like Die Hard and Basic Instinct) gets up close and personal with the big cats and was scalped by a lion for his efforts, which required 220 stitches to repair. (Amazingly, de Bont returned to the set after leaving the hospital.) Roar gets woefully repetitive by its mid-point, and its comically stiff screenplay and line delivery (only Hedren and Griffith can act) should cement its reputation as an authentically bad film. Familiarity with the backstory is essential to appreciating Roar. It’s important to know that Griffith’s on-camera mauling — she reportedly came close to losing an eye — didn’t stop her stepfather from including that scene in the film.
It’s anyone’s guess how Marshall and Hedren concluded that making Roar would help big cats survive the modern world. The film now seems a paean to a more innocent time where people sometimes got away with actualizing whatever insanity popped into their heads. If only Marshall had made a behind-the-scenes documentary — now that might have been a bad film for the ages.
Roar begins an exclusive run tonight, May 8, at Zeitgeist Films. More info here.