It's not a good sign when your film opens with a title card proudly informing the audience that it is "with great pride that we display the seal of The American Humane Association. Although some scenes appear to show animals being injured, they were never actually hurt." Over the course of the film's agonizing 102 minutes, "Roar" subjects the viewer to scene after scene of animal attacks that seem so shockingly realistic because most of them really did happen.
Hollywood agent-turned-director and would-be leading man Noel Marshall's cinematic tire fire spent 11 years in production hell before it was unleashed outside of the United States for a few weeks in 1981. Marshall plays the lead in his own film, with the cast consisting of his sons, then-wife Tippi Hedren, and stepdaughter Melanie Griffith. "Roar" is infamous for resulting in over 70 cast and crew injuries, including a lion attack that left future "Speed" director Jan de Bont with a massive scalp laceration and a mauling that nearly cost a teenage Griffith an eyeball. This turkey cost $17 million, made $2 million, and left people literally disfigured. In 2015, schlock curators Drafthouse Films—most famous for distributing the never-released sub-Cannon Films disasterpiece "The Miami Connection"— rescued the movie from the annals of obscurity. And now, John Waters (who rated "Roar" among his top five films of 2016 and directed Griffith in "Cecil B. Demented") will be on hand to introduce one of the most baffling, violent movies ever made.
The appeal of "Roar" lies in the fact that it's a grossly inept film that stumbles ass-backwards into greatness. The bare bones plot—a father living in the Tanzanian bush (read: the Marshall family's ranch outside L.A.) and his visiting family are suddenly and inexplicably besieged by jungle animals—is total nonsense, starting and stopping subplots at random like the smoking sputtering engine of an old Ford Pinto. When we first meet Griffith and Hedren, the duo inexplicably bickers about whether Hedren is fulfilling her wifely duties in the bedroom. This weird and gross flicker of a plotline is never followed up in any way, shape, or form.
There are few movies that seem so utterly and profoundly bored with their own existence as "Roar." It feels completely aimless, probably because the for-real, on-set animal attacks appear to have determined the direction the film takes. Most of the movie is Marshall playfully cuddling with a lion, or another member of the Marshall clan screaming in sometimes-real terror as they're laid into by a different member of the animal kingdom. Fans of Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" will enjoy an eerily prescient version of the kitchen raptor attack as one of Marshall's sons hides from two furry predators in an icebox. While "Jurassic Park" had, y'know, tension and pacing, "Roar" says "fuck that" and limply delivers a bloodied teen swiping at confused live animals for a minute. The one possible advantage "Roar" has over actual good animal carnage movies is much of the cast's bloody foreheads or slashed hands are the real deal.
Besides the live animals, Marshall's safari dad is "Roar's" singularly memorable performance. As the film's director, lead, and IRL pater familis, he's Tommy Wiseau decades before "The Room" was even a glimmer in Wiseau's quasi-lazy eye. Resembling a kind of demented Bob Ross, Marshall's quavering line deliveries and manic energy give the proceedings a psychotic home movie vibe. As he screechingly begs for his pets to behave, you have to wonder just how much of Marshall's real life desperation as ringleader of this mess is showing on screen.
Early on, Marshall is swarmed by a group of lions and falls to the ground as the film comes to a grinding halt. There are few moments in "Roar" that don't feel like they were filmed under duress and there's something crudely fascinating about the fact that we're watching a movie where actors are about five seconds from being some big cat's lunch. The film's death march score gives an air of dread to these scenes, bookended by folk-rock and faux reggae original songs from Robert Hawk that sound like they play exclusively in dentist offices in Hell. There's even a kind of proto-"Tim & Eric Awesome Show" surreality at times, like when the camera chooses to linger on the lapping tongues of a group of lions as they drink water or when music cues just stop completely in the middle of scenes.
Like so many terrible pictures, "Roar" was a passion project—in this case, for animal conservationists Marshall and Hedren. But what separates it from the bad movie herd is that the excruciating, obviously painful experience of making the film is evident in every single frame. Ultimately, the movie we get from "Roar" isn't the crappy safari adventure it promises—it's the inadvertent documentary about a guy who tortures his family as they try to make a high budget home movie.
There is perhaps no greater moving picture monument to American ineptitude and misery.
"Roar," directed by Noel Marshall, screens on May 5 at 7:15 p.m. at Parkway 1 and will be presented by John Waters.