All of this was to serve the higher purpose of a film that can best be described as a cross between a nature special, a home movie, a snuff film, and a key exhibit at a sanity hearing. Hedrin became infatuated with the lions and tigers she encountered while shooting on location in Africa, so she convinced her husband Marshall — an agent and occasional producer (he is credited as executive producer on The Exorcist) with no previous writing, directing, or acting experience — that he should perform all three of those duties for a cinematic valentine to wild felines. He plays Hank, a researcher doing a comparative study of African cats in their natural habitat, “almost becoming a member of the pride.” Hedrin plays his wife; they cast her daughter Melanie and his two sons as their children. The very meager plot finds the family coming over to Africa to visit Dad after a year-long separation, but due to miscommunication, he’s not home when they arrive and can’t get back to them, leaving them to be taunted and terrified by his “friends.”
There’s also a side plot in which the committee supplying Hank with his seed money is considering cutting his funding, and the film’s most noteworthy logical flaw is that you can’t blame them, since he is CLEARLY AN INSANE PERSON, running headlong into cat battles and living among a comical abundance of wild animals who seem to get into vicious, bloody fights with each other, and him, every few seconds. Much of the film is spent simply on cutaways of lions and tigers just plain going at each other, and at Marshall or any other human who has the misfortune to be nearby.
This was all, hilariously enough, by design. Hedrin later explained that they made the film without the help of the professional animals and trainers you might expect on such a production; those folks saw the script and deemed it impossible. So instead, Marshall and Hedrin bought a property in Soledad Canyon, CA, filling it with groups of eight to ten animals at a time over the next several years, until they had something like 140 available and (in theory) acclimated to each other. And then they tried to make their movie, running up to five cameras at a time and adjusting the already thin screenplay to fit whatever happened, resulting in this rather alarming opening credit:
As a result of this, um, looseness, much of the film is consumed with odd, semi-improvised dialogue like, “They like playing the ol’ cat-and-mouse game,” semi-shouted by non-actor Marshall, who seems like he’s just hanging out, waiting for his next mauling. Once the family arrives at his shared-with-the-cats abode (“You really changed this place,” notes his friend, “new curtains, new drapes, new everything”; YEAH GEE I WONDER WHY), we while away the running time with long sequences of cats roaming around the house and roaring, chasing the family and trapping them, which, yes, is scary — but kinda for the wrong reasons. When Hedrin pulls the lion’s tail (yes, really) to get it off Griffith, it roars and snaps; it pulls at the teenage girl’s hair, and when she cries, “No, no,” you believe her.
“It’s amazing no one was killed,” Hedrin later said, and for once, that’s not Hollywood hyperbole; even if the “70 injuries” number is inflated, even if it was, say, half that, don’t you think that at some point on the way to those 30 injuries (maybe around number 25?) somebody should’ve sat Marshall and Hedrin down and asked, “Um, hey, we sure about this thing?” (Or, as one of the characters more succinctly puts it, “You coulda died, dummy!”) But it must be noted that their total disregard for the safety of themselves or the people working for them does lend the film its most noteworthy quality: it’s so deranged and ill-advised that it achieves a kind of sublime wrong-headedness.
Of course, after one and a quarter hour of horrifying bloodshed and all-too-convincing terror, we arrive at a conclusion where they’re all suddenly cuddly kittens, accompanied by a sappy string score. It’s a transparent attempt to graft a happy ending to this waking nightmare and make it into something audience-friendly, to no avail; when it finally made it to theaters in 1981, Roar only grossed $2 million worldwide, a pretty healthy loss considering its staggering $17 million budget. Marshall and Hedrin took a bath on it (probably not coincidentally, their marriage ended the next year), and it might’ve vanished altogether had the good-humored archivists at Drafthouse Films — who previously resurrected Miami Connection, and God bless them for that — not pegged it for re-release. But their audience of seen-it-all movie geeks is the right one, because when you see it, you will tell others to see it, and assure them that you really do have to see it to believe it. Or, as the soft-pop closing song assures us, “Hey/ Isn’t it time/ That we open our eyes/ and believe?”
Roar is out Friday in limited release.